jump to navigation

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

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.

Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

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.

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
8 comments

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.

 

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

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, science, societal commentary, teaching.
Tags: , , , , ,
2 comments

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

The #ShirtStorm and Its Double Standard November 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, research, science.
Tags: , , , , ,
5 comments

I was a bit distracted and didn’t notice Matt Taylor’s shirt until today.  Now that I have seen it and thought about it, I’d like to say that I think the people who are upset are wrong.  Here’s why:

  • How many women get picked on because of the clothes they wear or how they do their hair?  If you missed it, this happens all the time while men get a free pass.  We usually say that making commentary on women’s attire is a crappy thing to do…so how come we’re doing it to a guy?  Treating a guy the way a woman normally is treated doesn’t make it okay…it means we shouldn’t be doing it to anyone!  I seriously would love to wear a similarly styled shirt with Wonder Woman on it…but I know I shouldn’t because I would be judged very harshly.  Why can’t we make it okay for everyone?
  • Most people I know believe that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without being sexualized.  How many of those same people don’t like the shirt because the drawings are revealing?  Is a woman’s body supposed to be sexualized or not?  (That being said, anyone who thinks it was okay for him to wear that shirt, particularly if they’re defending it as “nerd culture” but expect women to dress or not dress certain ways is just as bad as the other side.)
  • If a woman should be allowed to wear what she wants without having conclusions drawn about her, why is it okay to draw conclusions that the guy wearing that shirt is inherently misogynist?
  • Why should scientists be held to a different standard of dress?  I keep seeing this business about how scientists ought to dress more professionally.  Says who?  Scientists don’t need dress codes any more than high school students do.  Scientists already have an image problem: people think of us as stuffy people who always wear lab coats.  I’m glad someone was excited and NOT being boring.  Science is cool stuff!

I do realize that much of the upset may be the power dynamic in STEM fields: there are far more men than women, and women are so very often not taken seriously.  There is also the potential that something like this could be used to make women feel uncomfortable.  (I don’t get the sense that this was the case, however, but I see the potential for it going wrong.)  Ideally, one of his colleagues might have been kind enough to point out that some people may take the shirt the wrong way.  As that didn’t happen, however, I don’t think the answer is to apply a set of standards to men when we are already complaining that they are unfair to women.  Likewise, I hope that all the folks defending him aren’t ever going to turn around and accuse a woman of dressing inappropriately.

Personally Matt, I wasn’t crazy about the shirt.  Like I said, I prefer Wonder Woman.

 

Someone was stupid on the internet November 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, math, science, societal commentary.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far


See more on Know Your Meme

Even though I am a woman who is working as an engineer at an academic institution, I have no ability or authority to discuss anything having to do with women in hard sciences.

Totally reasonable, right?

The person who told me this is a man who works in sports medicine.  During the course of the conversation on what causes low rates of women in hard science/engineering fields, I brought up “male privilege.”  I even went so far as to say that it benefits men to ignore this privilege because it keeps it in place.  The response to even mentioning such a thing meant I was a conspiracy theorist.  I obviously am incapable of discussing the issues women face in science because I believe in male privilege.  Despite the fact that I was the one posting links to actual studies to validate my claims (using studies discussed in Nature and Scientific American), I obviously am incapable of understanding the issues.

I was attempting to explain that while I don’t think most of this behavior is explicit (although I have definitely seen that, too), there is a lot implicit bias.  As I said in my interview on the Engineering Commons, there is quite a bit of sexism that is a result of people simply not thinking about the advantages they have or the assumptions they make.  That is the very definition of privilege.  I don’t think most people wield it mean-spiritedly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all.

We were discussing a publication claiming that academic science isn’t sexist, a paper also discussed here.  Let’s be honest: claiming hard sciences aren’t sexist is like saying that relativity (or any other major theory) is wrong.  Not only that, it’s willful ignorance because there are so many studies out there to refute this notion.

The most irritating part of this discussion is that it should never have been about this issue at all.  The discussion was in a forum designed to talk about science communication, and yet he initiated the conversation by claiming that the paper proved there is no sexism in academic science.  There was no discussion about how to bring into account all the other data, how to most effectively communicate or discuss the result, or even about public response to news about this paper.  Instead, this person used the forum as a bully pulpit for his own viewpoint, ignoring contradicting data and viewpoints.  If this is how science communicators approach studies to begin with, it’s no wonder the public has a hard time understanding and interpreting these same studies.  If the communicators don’t understand the science within the larger context, they certainly aren’t going to do a good job explaining it to the world at large.

Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
8 comments

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.

Huh?

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?

Responsive regardless April 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, research, work.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

NPR did an overview of a study showing that there is a bias in academia against minorities and women.  The study looked at response rates by professors to solicitations by potential students to meet.  The letters were identical except for the names attached.  They found that women and minorities received a different response rate than names that appeared to belong to white males.  They also found that the bias was greater when the faculty were at prestigious private schools or in fields that are more financially lucrative.

My response: “Well, Duh!”

In the comments to the article, some people were complaining about how many letters they get, particularly from Indian and Chinese students.  How could they be expected to answer every. single. one?!

While I admit I’m not inundated with such letters, I have gotten several.  As one of the other commenters mentioned, form letters are great for dealing with these, and I pretty much do that.  I also use an additional filter: “I currently don’t have funding for an additional student, but if you want to discuss what you’re interested in, we could look into avenues to fund such a project.”

It’s amazing how I never hear anything back.

But you know, I always do respond.  And I am hoping one of these days that I get a response back.

 

A manly woman September 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, societal commentary.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

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.

Making fun of Fix the Family September 13, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, religion, societal commentary.
Tags: , , ,
4 comments

I came across a blog post on facebook.  It was one of those that’s so absolutely stupid that you simply can’t help but respond.  I realize I’m potentially feeding trolls here…but you have to see it to believe it.  The one redeeming value in this post was that, for once, it was actually worthwhile to read the comments.

What post is this? Six reasons not to send your daughter to college  Except it’s not six reasons: after posting, two more reasons were added.

Yeah, seriously.  Not only do people still believe this crap, they’re apparently stupid enough to post it in a public place for all to mock.  They begin the article by supposedly diffusing all claims that they’re misogynist and sexist (not to mention blatantly anti-feminist).  Here’s what they have to say:

  • You don’t believe in educating women.  Sure we do…as long as it’s to become a stay-at-home mother.
  • You believe in oppressing women. Bingo!  But we’re not going to call it that because we’re in denial about our position of privilege.
  • You believe in taking away opportunities for women and trapping them into a subservient role.  As long as she’s only subservient to her husband…cuz God says so.
  • God calls women to use their talents.  As long as those talents are raising children and keeping house.
  • A  woman needs to have something to provide income in case her husband dies, becomes disabled or leaves her.  But this never happens to people who are responsible.  If this is a problem, it’s because you stupidly didn’t take care of it when you could have, you idiotic woman.  Or you weren’t subservient enough to keep that dead-beat around.  Either way, you’re still stupid.

So now that we’ve established their real stance, let’s take a look at the actual reasons women shouldn’t go to college.  I tried to provide a translation to make the meaning more transparent:

  • She will attract the wrong types of men.  You see, college men are the wrong types.  They’re all lampreys, seeking the perfect woman to support them and take care of them while they sit at home and play video games all day.  Once they have the perfect woman trapped, they will inevitably give up their career goals and sit at home eating bon-bons all day while she wears the pants in the family.  None of them would consider actually being responsible, pursuing a career, or desiring to marry a woman who is actually an equal in the relationship.  Obviously, a man’s life goals are going to crumble in the face of that particular temptation.
  • She will be in a near occasion of sin.  You see, women are too inept to actually be able to handle sexual temptation.  They might find out they like having sex, and that’s not okay unless they’ve been duped into marrying someone.  Then it’s okay to like sex because it blinds women to mens’ faults (which is the only way to maintain a civil marriage), and more important, it makes teh babiez!
  • She will not learn to be a wife and mother.  College is useless, you see, because women are only there to raise kids and take care of their husbands (as long as they remain subservient to them).  So obviously it’s not teaching her the right skills.  If she wants to have the right skills, she must get hitched and start making babies immediately, obviously with a man who she meets at church because those college guys are just too lazy…otherwise she’s just wasting her life.  Baby bootcamp is the only way to go…and women should get there as soon as possible.
  • The cost of a degree is becoming more difficult to recoup.  You see, men are obviously worth more in the marketplace, so it makes economic sense for women to only take on menial labor tasks until they can find someone who has real economic value to take care of them.  Then they can do the job that they were meant to do: make babies!
  • You don’t have to prove anything to the world.  Women only go to college because of peer pressure.  In reality, fulfillment and independence really have no place in the decision.  The only fulfilling thing a woman can do in her life is raise kids.
  • It could be a near occasion of sin for the parents.  Parents are financially responsible for their children might not pop out as many babies as physically possible, so they’re just a bunch of sinners.  Parents should only be responsibly financial for their sons because girls don’t really need educations: they’re only going to be mothers, anyway.
  • She will regret it. Women may think they want to go to college after high school, but once they are a bit older, they’ll wish they’d made more babies instead.
  • It could interfere with a religious vocation.  If she doesn’t want to be a mother, she might want to be a nun, and college degrees are useless for nuns and may make them ineligible, as well.

I guess I’m lucky I don’t have any daughters and I’m not Catholic or I might be in a quandry right now.

%d bloggers like this: