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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.

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It’s a mistery October 30, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering.
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I get asked to do a decent number of conference paper reviews, and surprisingly, some of those conferences have asked me to review in subsequent years.  One such conference didn’t just ask me to review again, but bestowed the honor of making me part of their advisory board.  I accepted, and they sent me a nice letter as an official statement.  Except they sent it to the wrong person.  They addressed it to Mr. Cherish.

So…what to do?

I at first considered responding and pointing out their error.  (Hey, they had a 90% chance of getting it correct, right?)  However, I’ve decided instead that I will keep it as is and frame it.  I think it’s funnier that way.

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.

Your son plays with…girls. February 20, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, gifted, older son, societal commentary, younger son.
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We had parent teacher conferences recently.  While they overall went fairly well, there was one part of the discussion that bothered me.  The teacher seemed concerned that the younger son spent more time playing with girls than boys.

I think that what gets me about this is that I’ve heard it almost every year that either one of my kids has been in school.  Every time I hear it, I have the same reaction: “So?”

I can’t remember where I came across this bit of info, because I first found it when the older boy was in elementary school.  It turns out that kids that are gifted are more likely to be androgynous and make an effort to actively choose their interests rather than following prescribed “gender-appropriate” behaviors.

This was a huge relief for me for many reasons.  First, my sons have had interests in things like barrettes and finger nail polish, Dora, My Little Pony, etc.  I assumed it was normal curiosity that most kids had, but maybe not.  However, I’ve made an effort not to impose gender stereotypes on them unnecessarily.  I’ve also noticed that there’s a lot more rough and tumble and even some bullying that goes on with boys.  My boys aren’t into that, so it seems obvious that they would be more interested in playing with girls.

Second, it was a personal relief.  I work in a couple of fields that are mostly male, and when I feel comfortable with it, I can be rather confrontational and direct.  I was more interested in Legos than Barbies, and in school, I liked math and physics.  It’s nice to know that I’m not “weird” for a woman…even though I am apparently different.

If I ever needed proof that there are some aspects of gender that are socially prescribed, I’ve gotten it over and over in this one question.  I’m sure my parents got the opposite – your daughters are tomboys.  What surprises me about this is that people really get so worked up about it.  Why aren’t they surprised when girls and boys don’t want to play together?

Scientist, with kids February 19, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, family, feminism, grad school, homeschooling, older son, personal, physics, research, science, societal commentary.
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FSP has a post asking about the Local Mom Effect.  That is, she wonders if being in a department with more women professors who have kids affects the outlook of younger women in the field.  I find this post interesting…but also, I hate to say it, irrelevant.

Let’s put it this way: what women?!

When I started school at Caltech, I knew of two women professors out of all of math, physics, and astronomy.  I only ever met one of them, knew she had no kids. I knew nothing about the other professor.  When I decided to go back to school a few years later, I ended up in a physics dept. where the professors were all men.  Later, I ended up in an electrical engineering department where the professors were all men.

I guess that, in my mind, the notion of being one of the few women in the department was no different than being one of the few women with kids in the department.  When I went back to school, I had a kid already, so it wasn’t like I really had a choice about whether or not to be a childless woman in physics or engineering.

I will say that when I originally got pregnant as an undergrad at Caltech, I was told by my advisor that women couldn’t do calculus while pregnant and that I should drop out.  Of course, he was a guy, so I seriously doubted he understood how women’s brains work while pregnant.  (And it turns out that I can do calculus great while pregnant…I just can’t speak a full sentence coherently.)  However, I guess I never took it as a message that women with kids don’t belong in science…I inferred that he meant it more personally, and that I myself was not a good fit for science.  (Fortunately, major hopping got boring after a while, I ended up back in physics.)

When I went back to school, however, I felt that being the only woman or one of a few was very advantageous for several reasons.  First, if I was the only woman or one of a very small number, I was already an oddity.  A woman with kids is probably not much more odd than a woman without, and there was really no one to compare myself to (or say that I was doing it wrong).  Second, I went back to school in North Dakota, and it really seems like people here more or less expect you to have kids no matter what you’re doing.  I know that grates on some people, but for me, it was a blessing: having kids is just another part of life, and most people here learn to do their jobs while having them.  (Also, I can’t recall anyone having a fit if I said I couldn’t make it to something because of kid-related issues.)  Third, I was older than the average undergraduate or even grad student, so I think people assumed that it was pretty normal for someone my age to have kids.  The fact that the younger students didn’t have kids was simply a function of age and never made me feel self-conscious that I did have kids.  Finally, when I started my MS, my advisor was fine with the fact that I was homeschooling the older boy and would only be doing my degree part-time.  He said this was really no different than other students in the department who were working full-time and pursing their degree part-time, as well.

I have been told, especially when doing my PhD classes, that it was “really cool to see a woman in science with kids”, especially by some fellow grad students.  Until I started my PhD, I really hadn’t expected it to be a big deal.  It had never occurred to me that I might be a “role model”…but I keep hearing it more than I ever expected to. I also suspect it’s because I often had kids with me or family issues that were more apparent to fellow grad students.  Many professors try to maintain a more professional relationship with their students, and it doesn’t surprise me that many grad students don’t see how having kids affects the lives of the professors or that they don’t realize some professors have kids at all.

Realistically, I only got here because I didn’t really know that what I was doing was unusual in any way.  If I had been surrounded by women who had kids but never let it on or didn’t have kids, I might have felt self-conscious about being a mom already.  With no one to compare to, however, I just assumed that it wasn’t any more abnormal than a woman without kids.

The pink plate January 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, gifted, older son, younger son.
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Yesterday, I reposted a link to the article about the teenage boy who stuck up for his younger brother.  The younger brother apparently wanted a video game with a girl character and a purple game controller.  When his dad saw what he had, he flipped out, and the teenager told his dad off.

While I don’t think his dad reacted at all appropriately, I also know that this is a very difficult thing to deal with as a parent.  I know that gifted kids tend to be more androgynous, and as luck would have it, I have two emotionally sensitive boys.  The older boy never really seemed to be into ‘girl things’ as a kid, but it was easy to tell that he operated a lot more on feeling than logic.  Society expects males to be stoic, even at a young age.  There’s been research on how this negatively impacts boys in school because of interactions with teachers who expect otherwise.

My younger son has always seemed somewhat interested in ‘girly’ things, starting at about 3 or 4 when he was in love with anything having to do with Dora the Explorer.  He wanted to paint his room pink and decorate it with Dora and Boots.  I never did it…but that was more because I didn’t have time.  But when he asked me to get a Dora the Explorer backpack, I declined.  However, I have painted his toenails.

I have had concerns in the past because at his previous school, there were some boys there that were obviously being bullies.  While this stuff doesn’t bother me, the younger son has always been extremely emotive, and I didn’t want to bring on any additional bullying when he wasn’t able to emotionally handle it.  Putting him in a bad situation is asking for a meltdown, which would make the bullying worse.  Painting toenails was okay because I didn’t think too many people at his gymnastics class would freak out.  Painting fingernails would have been visible at school, and I’m sure a lot of emotional trauma would have ensued, and, probably worse, I don’t know that the teachers would have done anything to prevent it given the problems we were already seeing.

At his new school, he has requested to wear a bracelet to school.  He happens to love animals, and this one had cats.  I was okay with it, but I was fairly sure the dress code at the school doesn’t allow jewelry, so I said to ask the teacher.  The teacher said he shouldn’t wear it, but I don’t honestly know if it’s because it’s a ‘girl’ thing or the dress code.  However, given I’d already said the dress code was likely to forbid it, at least he’ll feel like it’s a rule for everyone and not that he’s being singled out as a boy who wants to wear jewelry.  I don’t get the feeling that they would let other kids pick on him if he chose to wear nail polish or something at this school, as well, so I would probably let him do it there if he asked.  (Although this would require another good look at the dress code, first.)

He also, very shortly after the Dora obsession, started making the connection between girls and pink.  For a while, this turned into, “I don’t want to have anything to do with pink because I’m a boy and pink is a girl’s color.”  After all the stuff before, I somewhat feel like this was my fault.  He used to love pink, but now it’s a girl’s color, and I go back and forth wondering if I caused it because of all the Dora stuff.

He took the ‘pink is a girl’s color’ to mean that all girls must like pink.  Just a couple weeks ago, he was asking me what color to make a character on a Lego website, apologizing that pink was not an option.  I told him that I didn’t like pink all that much.  He seemed surprised when I told him my favorite colors are actually purple and blue.  (Growing up, my favorite color was always blue, and I never really got any shrek for it.  It makes me very mad that society puts this double standard on boys and girls.)

We have a set of multicolored plastic plates that we sometimes use for lunch, and at some point, the younger boy started to refuse any food that was on the pink one.  The older boy tried to set a good example in these situations.

I’ll take the pink plate because it doesn’t threaten my masculinity.

I doubt the younger boy understood exactly what he meant, but he got the gist of it: it’s okay for boys to eat off pink plates.  Still, it’s taken a while for him to come to terms with this.  I have been intentionally giving him the pink plate, but it was only last week when he finally took it.  At first, I thought he didn’t notice, but as he finished up his lunch, he said that he’s okay with using the pink plate now.

This has actually been a very difficult thing to deal with.  My younger boy seems far more aware of what people think than the older one was, but at the same time, he’s obviously interested in things intended for a female audience.  He likes pretty things, and he really loves animals.  Trying to find stuff on cats and dogs for boys is tough: most of the age appropriate animal-related stuff that isn’t covered in garish pink is about sharks and dinosaurs.  This is the same kid who has talked about wanting to be a vet and will get very upset at me if I go to the pet store without him because he HAS to see the kitties up for adoption.  But liking cats and dogs doesn’t seem to be gender neutral in our society.  This is completely ridiculous.

As a parent, I find this hard to navigate.  I don’t think it should matter if he likes pink things, and I don’t want anyone making him feel bad for his interests.  I’ve had to deal with enough of that myself (A girl who likes physics and math and engineering?!) that I don’t want him to have to deal with it.  On the other hand, I don’t want him to walk into a situation where someone might make fun of him and not be prepared to deal with it.  I guess, because of that, I have been erring on the side of caution when making these decisions…but also fear that even those decisions may be giving him the message that there are girl things and boy things, and that it’s not okay for him to like girl things.  I’m not sure how to avoid both problems simultaneously, so for now, I try to look at which is the bigger problem for each individual situation.

Undergrad physics inaccessible to women November 23, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, physics, teaching.
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I was very intrigued when this month’s Physics Today showed up in the mail.  While scanning the table of contents, I noticed an article called, “Problems with problem sets.”  The summary went on to say that the problem with undergrad physics courses is that they often use problems which require specific background knowledge.  Men are more likely to be acquainted with this knowledge than women.

The gist of the is that many of the problems in physics texts assume knowledge of various areas like construction, meaning that more men than women will be acquainted with the problem set up.  Many times, these problems will make reference to various tools or constructions without giving an explanation or picture to describe what’s going on.  They assume the students will understand what is being asked without further explanation.

I guess I hadn’t run into this a whole lot as an undergrad, but I think I may be a special case.  As a kid, I worked with woodworking tools because my dad was a carpenter.  In fact, I regularly had to help out in the shop, so I got a lot of hands-on experience in building and working with tools.

On the other hand, I think that when I went back to school, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions.  I’ve observed that there are a large number of students who don’t like to ask questions, especially among the youngest students.

It’s a very interesting premise.  Obviously it didn’t deter me, but I can see how this would be very intimidating for young women.  It would definitely make many of them feel like they didn’t have a good enough background to do the work.  I’m glad that someone is paying attention to issues like these, and I hope professors will pay a lot more attention to the problem sets they give in the future.

Our society may now be dominated by WOMENZ!!! September 9, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism.
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News to me…

I read (the most awful) article telling me that our society is soon to be run by women. What numbers can we use to support this assertion? Well, blue collar men lost most of the jobs during the last recession, for one thing. (Let’s ignore that the sector mentioned is dominated by men.) And professional jobs are at parity. (Ignoring the fact that congress isn’t, let alone where I work.)

So what do you think? After you’ve read the article, I’m curious if you think that post-modern and soon-to-be matriarchal society will be the flip side of the patriarchal coin or more egalitarian?

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