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The perfect finish December 31, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I saw that Breitbart was proposing a cap on women admitted to STEM programs.  My first thought was a very sarcastic, “Well, that shouldn’t be hard.”  I read part of the article aloud to Mike, the part about how women don’t leave STEM because of external pressure.

Mike jumped in, “What ever happened to that one student you had?  The one that the other professor said should switch majors…”

I knew which student he meant.  I had a freshman who, when she went in for advising for spring semester, was told by her advisor that she should switch majors.  The reason he did this was because she was one point too low on the math placement exam to get into calculus, putting her a semester “behind.”  She came to me, almost in tears, because she didn’t know what to do.  She felt like she needed to listen to him but really didn’t want to switch.

I wasn’t very proud of what I did next because I know it was completely unprofessional, but it had to be done: I told her to ignore him and that he was being a jerk.  I don’t like ripping on my colleagues, but this individual had just told my BEST student that she didn’t belong in engineering.

It had been a while since I had talked to her, though the last time we spoke, she told me she had a summer internship at a local engineering firm.  I performed some google-fu and found an article that mentioned her.  It turns out that she graduated earlier this year with a degree in electrical engineering.  Even better, she graduated with honors.

I’ve always felt rather conflicted about how I handled that situation, but at least I can leave this year and begin the next with the thought that I did the right thing.

Have a happy new year!

A professor by any other name October 26, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, societal commentary, teaching.
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I decided that after my previous teaching experiences, creating a sense of distance between myself and my students was prudent.  I never understood this from the student perspective (likely because most of my teachers tended to the formal side so it was seldom an issue), but as a professor, I definitely see an advantage.  I want to help the students and be approachable, but being approachable doesn’t mean I want to be their friend and I also expect them to treat me professionally.  In the past, not all students have been courteous, to say the least.  Even when I started out more formally and then loosened up, it seemed like the loosening up was a bad idea because it was taken as a sign that I’d stopped having boundaries.

When I was in undergrad and later doing my master’s degree, I took several classes from a particular professor.  This professor had this quirky habit of calling all students either Mr. or Ms. LastName.  It was strange, particularly since, as a Quaker, I really shy away from using titles as much as I can.  It grew on me, though, and created this sense that you were being treated like the professional colleague he intended you to become once you graduated.  (I felt bad for him, though, when my last name kept changing because of a divorce and later a remarriage.  At some point, he said, “What am I supposed to call you?!”)

I decided to experiment and, with my former math prof as inspiration, I have been addressing all of my students as Mr. LastName, despite it being somewhat uncomfortable. (I have no female students, but I intend to call any I may have Ms. LastName.)  I also said specifically that I expected to be referred to as Professor LastName or just Professor.

While it has taken a bit of getting used to, I’m starting to get the hang of it.  When discussing students with faculty or administration, though, I have to use both first and last name since others will often refer to them by their first names.  This leaves me confused as I will have no idea about whom they are talking.

On the flip side, I don’t know for sure how the students refer to me when talking amongst themselves.  I have an idea, though, because I received an email from a student addressed to me by my first name.

*deep sigh*

I wasn’t sure what to do about this lapse and I needed to respond to the email promptly, so ignored the address, although I suspect I shouldn’t have and won’t in the future.  I figured I would check with my colleague, who goes by Dr. LastName.

I popped into his office the next day and asked, “How do you deal with students who refer to you by your first name?”

He cocked his head to the side, thought for a moment, and responded, “They never have.”

It truly is amazing to me that in several years of teaching, no one has ever referred to him by his first time, yet I can’t make it three months without it happening.

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.

 

Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.

Scientific Status Quo July 12, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, research, societal commentary, work.
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A couple days ago, @katiesci posted this opinion piece from Science by Eleftherios Diamandis on getting noticed.  I was rather frustrated with the article because the way to get noticed was apparently to put in a lot of face time (which is probably decent advice) and to publish like crazy (also not bad advice), even if it means you have to work unrealistic schedules and foist all of your childcare duties onto your spouse.

It was this last part that got under my skin because it’s so much a recapitulation of the status quo: you can’t do anything else and be a scientist, forget balance if you want an academic career.

I have to admit I jumped to a pretty lousy conclusion when I read the following:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

I can’t presume to know the dynamic between the author and his wife, and it may be that she was perfectly happy with this arrangement.  Academic couples tend to understand better than others how frustrating this career path can be, and I know there were several occasions where either my husband or myself was bringing the other dinner/microwaving in the lobby or lunch room to help ease the stress of deadlines along with an empty stomach.

But what about the people for whom this is not an option?  Most of the people I know get very upset if their spouse is putting in more than 60 hours per week.  Are they just supposed to give up?  What about people who are physically unable to work those types of hours?  Even if you are physically capable, it’s bad for you in the long run and turns out to be rather useless.

If anything, this just reinforced that to make it in science, you don’t have to do good science, you just have to be willing to give up any semblance of a family life and turn into a squeaky wheel.  I’m not sure what the author intended to convey, but reading this piece was rather disheartening.

Instead, I’d rather have heard about how the author’s wife did it: how is it she was able to work less hours than him, raise their kids, and still manage to have an apparently successful career?  At least, that’s the implication at the end of the piece.  To me, it sounds like she was able to handle a very unbalanced load successfully, and unless it’s, “don’t sleep,” I would think she may have some advice worth sharing with the rest of us mere mortals.  If you happen to be from Science magazine, could you please let her know?

 

Wheel of (PI) Fortune January 13, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science.
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I came across an article in Science from last summer discussing chances of being a PI.  It included a calculator so that you could look at your various inputs (number of publications, first-author publications, etc.) and see what probability you have of becoming a PI.  (I’m going to state the caveat that this probably is most accurate for biological sciences given that’s where the algorithm is presented, but I didn’t see that stated specifically.)  Apparently, the dependency is most heavily weighted on two factors: number of first-author publications you have as well as highest number of citations on a first-author paper.

One interesting thing to note is that the chances of becoming a PI are better for men than women.  When I was going through the various examples, it seemed like men generally had about a 12% better chance than women but it seemed to range from about 12% at the greatest and decreased with additional qualifications.  The lowest difference I saw for people with the same qualifications was about 8%, but that was with the very highest qualifications.

Being of a somewhat practical bent, I decided to take this for a test run using both myself and my husband’s publication records.  The thing that was a bit shocking for both of us is that the heavy weighting on first authors and citations on first author papers meant that, despite the fact that he has more publications than I do, my publication record actually is better in terms of chances at a PI than his.  I have more first-author publications, and I also have more citations on one of my first-author papers.  For most people who know us both professionally, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they would expect.

Despite my ‘better’ publication record, his chances at being a PI were still better than mine…by 8%.  Given that delta seems to be close to the delta in general between men and women, it indicates to me that bias could be pretty significant factor in getting funding, especially early on in someone’s career when they’re low on some of those first-author publications.

Fortunately, I can happily write this off as a thought exercise given both of us have been PIs on our own projects.  I’m glad I didn’t know the odds going in, however.

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.

 

Biased for science December 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, geophysics, math, physics, science, societal commentary.
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I’ve taken a couple tests at Project Implicit.  The premise is that we have unconscious biases that may unknowingly affect decisions we make about other people.  I remembered this after coming across an article on race from the Washington Post.  I’d taken a test before that said I had a bias against blacks.  I’m owning up to it, but now that I’m aware of it, I try to recognize it’s there when making decisions.

I revisited the site to see if I could retake the test and if my results had changed, but I was distracted by the shiny things.  In particular, I saw there was a test on the subconscious preference to associate science with male and liberal arts with female.  Given the studies about how labs hire women less often and there is a subtle bias in salary, as well, I thought, “this could be interesting.”

And it was.  I was expecting to show a rather strong relationship between men and science.  Not only is that the most common association, but it seems like working in a male-dominated field would make that a no-brainer.

Iat-gender-science

Your data suggest a moderate association of Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts…

I’m one of the 3% who took the test who has that association.  If what I read in the Washington Post article applies to this study, most of the people taking this test are younger, more liberal, and more female than the average population, so the test may actually mean that the 10% who associate females with science is actually an overestimate.

Why do I have that association, particularly working in the field I do?  (I feel a bullet list coming on.)

Some potential ideas:

  • Being a female scientist is a very strong part of my identity, so I would naturally equate the two.  While at first guess, I would think this would be a no-brainer, the studies I cited above seem to indicate that’s not the case for most women scientists.
  • I have a lot of female friends that are also scientists.  As an undergrad, I was the only female physics major, but I made friends with a lot of female math, engineering, and physics and math education majors.  In my MS program, I spent a lot of time with other women engineering students, the handful I could find.  Going to a grad program (in earth sciences) means I was in a program with near gender-parity among the students.  Through the beauty of the internet, I’ve also made friends with other women scientists.  I think I’m likely to “see” more women in science than the average person…or even the average scientist.  “Women in science” isn’t a token female here or there but an actual sizable demographic in my world.  I think that this sort of exposure has probably had the most profound effect on my biases.
  • I know a lot of men who are interested in liberal arts.  Probably the most strongly influential one is older son, who is very much into drawing and writing.  I spend a lot of time with him, so that also probably affects my perceptions.

I’m curious how others fare on this test as well as their analysis of their own results.

Yo mama is SO stupid she can’t explain plate tectonics! December 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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When selling something or conveying information, particularly when it is technical, one wants to make it easy and understandable.  Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches I’ve seen is to say one needs to make it easy enough for an older woman to understand, particularly a mother or grandmother.  One example of this issue was the IEEE article posted about the making of the Arduino that was erroneously titled, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  They corrected it and apologized.

Last week, I came across another one about having a “grandmother talk.”  Once people got upset about the sexist trope, the author changed it.  However, it was more out of frustration because people weren’t paying attention to his main point about communication.  (Note: if you piss off half of your audience with your title, chances are your communication may weak in certain areas.)

I don’t understand why they don’t just come out and title these things as such:

Yo mama is so stupid she can’t program an Arduino

Yo nana is so stupid she can’t science

I don’t think anyone would intentionally pick on grandma, but they apparently do so without realizing it.

The problem with using this terminology is that it assumes older women have no interest or ability when it comes to technical or complex information.  Frankly, I’m pretty sure that, with the right instructions, both my mother and grandmother could handle a lot of technical topics.  Being older females, however, people often assume that they are too ignorant to really learn things in depth.  But despite myriad counter examples, the stereotype still exists.  Some women really have little interest and ability in science, but there are also many, many women who are exceptionally talented scientists and engineers.

I have not yet seen, however, what seems to me a much better analogy: the kid talk.  What if your kids ask you questions and you have to simplify it to be developmentally appropriate or to meet the constraints of a limited attention span?

DugtheDog

When I try to make things understandable to kids, I take the approach that there may be developmental challenges that they’re not ready to meet, such as a particular level of abstract reasoning.  Perhaps they don’t yet have enough math to follow the technical details of a topic.  There is also the reality that even the most mature five-year-old is not going to listen to me go on and on for hours about a particular topic, except perhaps Legos.  The point of meeting them where they’re at is not because they are ignorant but because they’re inexperienced and uninformed.  While I suppose a few would get offended at such a characterization, it also acknowledges that they’re capable of learning more once they’re a bit more mature or if they have a particular interest.  It gives you some wiggle room, and you don’t have to stereotype anyone or be condescending.

I decided to put this into practice and once asked my older son to sit in on my classes.  He would’ve been a year or two younger than most of the kids in the class, but being tall, he blended in very well.  (It also helped that we don’t have the same last name.)  I felt the information would be useful for him, but I also wanted to get his take on what parts were confusing or needed work.  Beyond actually having a kid give you live feedback (because, let’s face it, they aren’t always available), it’s useful to even contemplate explaining concepts to kids.

There are a lot of marketing slogans to the effect of “so easy, a kid could do it,” but science and engineering communicators don’t generally seem to think this way.  Part of the problem is that they don’t view children as a potential audience, even though I think they’re a rather important subset of most groups.  I’m not saying you have to communicate on the level of a four-year-old, but an educated and curious 14-year-old will get you a long way.  I wonder if science would be more interesting if we saw these kids as our intended audience in most communication ventures.  At the very least, I’m sure there’d be more jokes.

7fbe

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