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Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
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I think I am going to change my name.  It’s very annoying.

My last name, anyway.

If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would’ve done when getting married is to keep my maiden name.  Hyphenation was not the best idea by a long shot.

This has been an issue (a lot) because I worked with my husband for so long.  I suspect it will die off as we are no longer coworkers.  However, one of the most bizarre things that has come up is that I recently received some reviews of a proposal that we wrote before he changed jobs.  One of the reviewers noted that as a co-PI, I had the same last name as the PI and so a conflict of interest was a possibility.


My university has a clear and very detailed conflict of interest policy, and I’m not clear how this applies.  As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with conflict of interest as these policies are almost exclusively focused on outside financial obligations.  I checked with the funding agency, and that was all they had listed for conflict of interest, as well.

If he were supervising me or vice-versa (that is, one of us was a subordinate), such a scenario would violate internal policies to the university.  However, even if he is PI and I’m a co-PI, we both reported to someone else.  Further, a PI isn’t necessarily a supervisory role.  Do faculty members who collaborate on research supervise each other or collaborate?  (My experience says there are very few faculty who view their role as co-PI is that of being supervised by the PI.)

In any case, it’s a completely ridiculous comment to make on a proposal review because we could have been two completely unrelated colleagues who happen to have the same last name.  I can think about some of the areas of research I do, and I know of several groups of researchers, particularly in Asia, where many members of the team do have the same last name.  I never once jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with this.

Of course, it’s obviously my fault for the name, so I should probably fix it.  Do you suppose it’s cheaper to go through the legal name-change process or to just divorce and quickly get remarried?

Good morning, Gentlemen. October 7, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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Almost as soon as I got to work this morning, I was pulled into a conference call.  I was rather amused because, after everyone on our end of the call was introduced, the person immediately responded with a, “Good morning, gentlemen.”  The other people in the room with me laughed a bit.  I smiled, and in one of my moments of goofiness, attempted to muster a bright, cheerful (and somewhat high-pitched), “Good morning!”

I suppose I could have been annoyed at the assumption that all of the people in the room were men, but that didn’t seem right.  After all, this person could not see who was on the other end of the line.  Aside from that, there was an apology afterward for not realizing there was a “young lady” in the room (although that was amusing as both of those terms are relative, too).

I just tried to imagine it was like the Star Trek universe…if everyone were called, “Sir,” I don’t suppose I would be bothered if I were addressed that way, as well.  And it sure beats being called, “Miss.”

A manly woman September 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, societal commentary.
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I recently read an article about a woman, Norah Vincent, who went undercover to become a man.  It was very interesting, particularly the difficulties she had dating and the preconceived notions that were shot down in the process.  It sounds like the process was horribly stressful for her, though, so it should give us thought about how difficult it can be to actually *be* a man.  I’m impressed by her willingness to go through with the experience and try to see things from another’s point of view.

This got me thinking, however, about the fact that I spend most of my time around men.  I work with mostly men, my kids are both boys, and even a lot of my closest friends are men.

I came across a gender analyzer that looks at the text you write and tries to assess your gender.  (If you’re curious, it’s here.)  It’s interesting to me that every piece of my own writing that I analyzed ended up giving a male result.  In the notes below the analyzer, it said:

For example, a woman who has spent 20 years working in a male-dominated field may write like her co-workers. Similarly, professional female writers (and experienced hobbyists) frequently use male writing styles.

That makes sense…but it made me think about how, as an engineer, I have to pretend to be male in order to be accepted.  However, accepted and respected are two different things.  I often wonder if I would have better luck accomplishing the latter if I took notes from Norah Vincent:  maybe I need to get a buzz cut and start wearing a fake 5 o’clock shadow.

I am a feminist because I have sons August 25, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, feminism, older son, societal commentary, younger son.
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One thing that should make any mother a feminist is having a son go through school.  Having two boys makes it doubly bad.

“What is ‘it’?”, you may ask.

In my experience, boys deal with an excess of stereotyping that is just as pervasive as what girls deal with and often times is more rigid in it’s ‘enforcement’.  I’ve had teachers complain because both of my sons played with girls.  I’ve lived in fear that my kids will get picked on because they like nail polish or My Little Pony or Dora or pink things (discussed here).  I’ve had to deal with parents who think it’s inappropriate that I let my little boys cry in public rather than getting them to suck it up.  And oh so much bullying.

I came across a graphic on Facebook this weekend that nicely sums up the situation:


This is not a realization that came easily to me.  When it finally hit me was when the older son was in kindergarten.  I was taking a sociology class on gender roles, and I was lucky enough to have a teacher who focused a significant portion of the class on male gender roles.  She described how men are raised to be unemotional and competitive.  She described how forcing them to be stoic could later cause problems when emotionally bonding with a partner or how they can be depressed if they can no longer be involved in competitive activities (primarily sports) when they get older, especially if their identity centered around their participation in these activities.

The class was an eye-opener for me.  Having spent so long defending myself against stereotypes about women in science, I had really not had the opportunity to observe how stereotypes were affecting the men around me.  I can certainly appreciate where some of them are coming from now, though I still need help now and again to understand why I perceive circumstances a lot differently from some of the men around me.

It wasn’t long after that I got the first comment about the older son playing with girls.  (At nearly the same age, the same thing happened with the younger son.)  It was fairly apparent that neither of the boys was as rough and tumble as some of the others, and they preferred interactive/imaginative play with girls to dog-piling with the boys.  I was more disturbed that the teachers thought this was a problem.

Having one child who has nearly reached adulthood, I feel that reacting to these teachers by saying, “So?!” was definitely the right thing to do.  The older son now has an amazing ability to pick out stereotypes of both genders and explain exactly why they’re ridiculous.  It’s impressive, and I hope it’s helped him to feel comfortable with himself and not like he has to adhere to some societal norm that’s simply not him.

Being comfortable yourself and not having to adhere to someone else’s expectations is exactly what feminism is about, and it’s just as important that boys are able to break out of stereotypes as girls.

Ambassador for the engineers May 22, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, humor, work.
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After writing about my experience manning a booth at a conference (geez…even how you work a booth at a conference can be phrased in male-centric terms), it has slowly dawned on me that there is another way to view the experience.  I was rather frustrated that people seemed surprised when they found out I was an engineer.  I have realized, however, that I need to look at it in a different light: such a reaction, when not accompanied by an obvious derogatory or sexist statement (as has happened), could potentially be viewed as a compliment.  Maybe in expressing surprise that I’m an engineer, what they were really saying was: “Oh my!  You can talk to me without using technobabble or looking at someone’s shoes!  Nor do you have male-pattern baldness!”  It’s a good thing to go out and destroy those stereotypes, right?

Booth Babe May 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, work.
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Last week, before leaving for a conference, I posted the following on Twitter:

Now that I’m back, I realize that comment should’ve been taken as a bad omen.  I actually didn’t expect there to be booth babes (and if you’re not sure what I’m referring to, please read this), but I was very wrong about that.  There were, in fact, booth babes at the show.

I went to this conference because I was invited to give a talk about my research.  However, my employer said they would provide my room and board for the trip if I helped work a booth at the trade show promoting our services and capabilities.  We frequently work with private industry, and it was assumed that having a handful of intelligent people showing what we could do is good for the bottom line.  I’m in favor of having an income and love talking about my work, so this seemed like a reasonable deal for me, as well.

But back to the booth babes, I’m sad to report that this was not the most disturbing part of working our booth.  The most disturbing part was interacting with some of the people who came to visit us, many of whom apparently have interacted with them.  I was chatting with a fellow, and toward the end of the conversation, I gave him my card.  He read it and said, “Oh!  You’re an engineer?”  I responded I was, and he then asked, “And you actually work at the center?”

Then there was one person who was talking to a colleague about one of my demo projects at the booth.  When the guy asked this colleague for a card, he said he didn’t have any but said it was my project.  The visitor looked at me for a moment, open mouthed, and said, “This is YOUR project?”  I nodded and introduced myself, and gave him my business card.  He looked back and forth between myself and my colleague a few times, looking like he wanted to give me back my card.  Then he said thank you and walked away.  He apparently didn’t want to have a conversation with me.

Admittedly, these were some of the worst cases, but it was obvious that about half of the people who came to talk to us had no desire to talk to me, asking to talk to someone who was “in charge.”  Others, when I approached them while they were reading our posters, would say they were waiting to talk to an engineer or faculty.

One colleague, when I complained about the situation, said I need to just “prove them wrong.”  I agree that this is the right spirit to have, but it is overwhelmingly frustrating when you’re sitting there, and someone obviously comes to the conclusion that you’re an idiot by virtue of your sex while the people around you are obviously competent for the same reason.  It’s a horrible experience, and I seriously doubt most men really understand how hard it is to be motivated to ‘prove them wrong’ when you have to do it with every single person you meet.  Men, in similar circumstances, are accorded this respect simply by breathing.  It certainly doesn’t require the equivalent effort a female would have to put forth.

I will say that it is somewhat understandable that people would make the assumption that I’m a salesperson given that most of the women on the trade show floor were, in fact salespeople…or booth babes.  In many cases, it ended up that once people got over the surprise that they were talking to a living, breathing, female engineer, we were able to move on and have some extremely interesting conversations.  Unfortunately, the shocked look every time I was introduced as a researcher got old very quickly.

You know what they say about assumptions… March 29, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, societal commentary.
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This past week, Mike and I had a meeting with some people on a project that I had run.  One of the people was someone I’d met before as we’d interfaced on another project.  As we all sat down and finished up our introductions, this person faced Mike and started asking him questions about the current project.  After a couple questions, it was pretty clear that he thought Mike was in charge of things.  I sort of inwardly sighed and waited.  I’ve had this happen more times than I care to recall.

After about the third question, Mike said, “Well, Cherish is actually the one who came up with the idea, so I think she’d be better at addressing these issues.”  From that point on, things were a lot more balanced.

I spoke with Mike afterwards, and I asked if he noticed this person focusing on him initially.

“Oh yes, that’s why I turned it over to you as quickly as possible and then left the room for a few minutes.  If I wasn’t there, he’d have to talk to you.”

It was bothering the both of us, however, that we couldn’t tell if this person had focused on him because he knew me from this other project or if it was the stereotypical ‘the guy must be in charge’ assumption.  Either way, I would have preferred if he had asked first which of us was leading the project rather than making assumptions.

Public shaming of men March 22, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, societal commentary.
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I’ve been reading the stories about Adria Richards…and reading, with abject horror, the comments on those stories.

The primary thing that irritated me were the comments saying that she shouldn’t have posted the pictures to Twitter.  She should, in their opinion, have simply told them to knock it off.

Obviously these commenters have no idea what they’re asking.  One of my first experiences where this occurred was in a college cafeteria.  I was sitting with another woman and two men, both of whom were loudly ogling the women in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated (ETA: it was actually the swimsuit issue).  The other woman asked them to stop.  They ignored her and kept on.  She repeated her request, and they glared at her before telling her that if she didn’t like it, she could go somewhere else…and then returned to their activity.  When she got up angrily and left, there was loud muttering about what a bitch she was.

In the twenty years since this happened, I have never seen such requests, either from me or other women, have any positive outcome.  In fact, they’re almost entirely replicas of the above conversation.  Occasionally, there’s the, “Can’t you take a joke?” line thrown in, as well.  And in the twenty years since this happened, I have encountered many such opportunities to try this tactic.

It doesn’t work.

My observation is that men who are stupid enough to think it’s okay to behave this way in public, especially in a professional setting, are also too stupid to realize that it’s sexist and that they should quit, even when told directly.  Somehow it’s okay to make jokes at a tech conference that you’d never make in front of your mother.  (There’s a bit of scientific evidence to back this up.)  If you honestly think just telling them to stop actually worked, all of them would have stopped making comments like that a long time ago.  There’s a website devoted to dealing with the issue, which would be unnecessary if just telling people to stop actually worked.

The only time I’ve seen any different outcome is when I did something similar to Adria: I publicly shamed the offender on the biggest soapbox I could find.  You see, in the twenty years I’ve been dealing with behavior head on, I have learned that men won’t listen to me on the topic of sexist behavior as they ascertain that women aren’t good evaluators in this realm.  Instead, if you want them to stop sexist behavior, you need to get other men to tell them to stop.  In my situation, it actually worked.  While I would like to think that the man making offensive comments suddenly saw the error of his ways, I think the reason he really apologized (albeit with a defensive remark at the end) was because other men and some women piled on and said it was out of line.  I’m incredibly appreciative of all of those people, too.

It’s depressing, however, to find that there so many more out there who feel like Adria just needs to get a thicker skin or are clueless to the fact that making sexist remarks go away isn’t a simple feat.  To me, this is a very clear sign that sexism in tech is still as much a problem as it was two decades ago.

(If, after reading all this you’re still frustrated, then cheer yourself up by reading this wonderful parody about how women should remember their place in science.)

Stereotypes are good because they’re true February 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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A couple weeks ago, I was talking with someone who mentioned an email about stereotypes of women.  He apparently thought it was funny, and I made the quip that I hadn’t seen it because obviously no one would be stupid enough to send something like that to me.  There was some effort at defending the email, but I said that stereotypes aren’t defensible because they cause you to judge all people who fall into a particular category the same way rather than viewing them as unique individuals who may or may not resemble the stereotype.

In particular, I talked about my experience when I first started going to college.  A frequently overheard comment my first year or two of college is that, “Women are only accepted here because of affirmative action.”  Dummy me, I started to believe it.

It was a couple years later when I realized it was bunk.  I was working on a website for the women’s center, and I was asked to put up statistics that compared female and male admitted students.  It turned out that the stats came from my particular class, and one of the things that I was putting up was a comparison between SAT scores of the two groups.  I found it interesting that there was only about a 10-point difference between men and women. What really got me was when I found out that my SAT scores were actually higher than the average male SAT scores.  I was livid.  I’d been told for so long that I had only been admitted because of my uterus that I would’ve never believed it.  That meant that my SAT scores were better than more than half the men in my cohort.

Going back to the conversation, I became even more irritated when someone else jumped into the conversation, making the assertion that stereotypes are just fine.  Apparently, in this person’s world, the people they misjudge are apparently acceptable casualties because “most of the time,” it’s true.

Sadly, I doubt this person would understand how their judgments impact other people.  In fact, I think they’d be especially reluctant to agree with this article about how stereotypes are bad even when they’re good.

I admit to having caught myself assuming stereotypes of people.  It’s something that I have to work on constantly.  It’s disappointing, however, that there are still people who think stereotypes are a reasonable approach to human interaction.

Typical woman November 19, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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I was ribbing a coworker at a meeting, and his response could more or less be summed up with, “Typical woman.”  I was completely expecting him to say that, and I laughed when he did.  However, one of the other people in the meeting was obviously very uncomfortable with the exchange and quickly changed the topic, redirecting us back to our original focus.

After this exchange, I was somewhat troubled because I started wondering if I had some sort of double standard: in this scenario, my coworker was obviously kidding and I know that he doesn’t really believe that.  (At least, I’m fairly certain he doesn’t.  We have a very good professional relationship.)  On the other hand, I know that if certain people did it, it would probably offend me as it would just cement my view that they have issues with women.

This left me wondering when, if ever, sexist humor is appropriate.  Is it alright as long as the woman or women present aren’t offended, or ought there be a more universally applied standard?  I know some people who feel it is never okay to make jokes like that.  Or should it be situation dependent?


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