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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?

Telling women to smile on the internet October 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
Tags: facebook, ,

There’s an interesting phenomenon that many women have experienced:  a random stranger off the street will suddenly come up to you and tell you to smile.  If you’ve never heard of it before, just google “men telling women to smile” and you can read more about it than I have room to give you here.  The general consensus is that it’s a control issue.  Men can demand things from women (or feel entitled to) because of their privileged position.

The funny thing is that you can get this on the internet, too.  Only there, I’ve run into it several times in the form of “you shouldn’t post that on your facebook page”.  It’s happened several times to me:

I don’t want to see pictures of your kids.  I want to know what’s going on with you.

I don’t want to see pictures of your dogs.  They aren’t part of your family.

I don’t want to see your political rants.  I want to know what’s going on with you.

Interestingly, that last comment came immediately after I’d posted something about how the president of our university mentioned my research in his state of the university speech.  This same person never bothered to comment on that point.

And this leads me to believe that this is exactly the same phenomenon, as it always seems to be men who say these things to me.  They somehow feel that they can exert control over what I choose to post and they feel I am not sufficiently entertaining.

I wonder how they would feel if someone said to them, in a conversation, “I don’t want to talk about what you’re interested in.  Let’s talk about what I want to discuss.”  Most of us think people like that are assholes.

After telling my husband about this latest comment, he responded incredulously, “It’s your Facebook page.  You can post whatever you want!”  And a few hours later, another friend posted exactly that on the conversation on Facebook.  I was more polite than that in my response, but given this has happened multiple times, I think I’m going to use this as my response from now on: “Don’t like it? Don’t read it.  I’m not here for your entertainment.  Also, learn to use the ‘hide’ or ‘unfriend’ options.”

Of course, that would be rude.  And women can’t be rude.

Distracting the mansplainer August 1, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, grad school, research, societal commentary.
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I used to really think that if I presented people with enough compelling facts, I could totally convince them to change their minds about things.  I try to operate that way myself, but it took me a good, long time to realize that’s not how most people think.  Not only did it take me a long time, but it took a lot of arguments and hurt feelings.  (I’ll admit that I still don’t get the way people view things a lot of times, and it really troubles me when I don’t understand how someone could have come to a particular view.  I’ll hammer at it for days trying to understand…which is usually futile because they’re basing their judgement, often times, on experiences I wouldn’t know about.)

I also discovered that arguing with a lot of men really doesn’t work.  I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure what does, but I have run into a fair bit of the “mansplaining” phenomenon.  Technical guys, in particular, love to tell women how to do things because women just obviously cannot wrap their little brains around those complex things that men do.

Even if she’s got degrees in physics and engineering.

Today I got mansplained again…and it nearly turned into a knock-down drag-out type ordeal.  Fortunately, I’ve learned that, at some point, you need to turn an argument into something constructive or it will get you nowhere.

I had to try to explain to someone that my widget didn’t seem to be compatible with their docking station.  They were convinced that my widget had a bunch of design problems and they couldn’t see how it would work in any docking station.  I tried to explain that I had already used it in several docking stations, and even in their own docking station!  But when it was in their docking station, I could only communicate with modem and not with ethernet.  It didn’t matter.  This person kept insisting the problem was that my widget was the wrong size and shape, and if I happened to get it working, it was working in only one place and as a result of luck.  And every time, I would get a lecture on how to design widgets properly.

It almost got to the point of shouting, and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I grabbed my widget and his docking station and made it fit.  He was shocked.  You see, me saying that it fit really didn’t matter.  I am obviously not smart enough to know when the widget fits properly or not, and in his estimation, it shouldn’t have fit.  But it did.

It also turned out to be the right thing to do because suddenly he could see what sorts of communications problems the widget had and was distracted from his theoretical notions of appropriate widget dimensions to that actual problem at hand.  In about a half hour, we had the kinks worked out so that the widget could use both modem and ethernet.

At this point, the person asked me why I hadn’t talked to him about the problem before.  Apparently he didn’t realize that I had and that, each time, he insisted my widget must be the wrong size.  I would assume that he knew better and would go off, searching out the problem, only to find that the problem still seemed to be with the communications protocols.  Each time it happened, I would try to provide some proof, which would be dismissed with a wave of the hand and, “That can’t be the problem,” regardless of the evidence I’d generated.  So why hadn’t I talked to him?  Because he’d diagnosed the problem before I even spoke to him and wouldn’t even look at any evidence to the contrary, citing how his own background put him in a much better position to figure out the problem.

Men are clueless July 13, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, engineering, societal commentary.
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I wrote up a post over at EngineerBlogs yesterday called Dating Advice for Women Engineers.  (Yeah, I forgot to post a link here…)  After I wrote it up and posted it, I reread it and realized that maybe a better title should’ve been something like “A Woman’s Guide to Dating Male Engineers”.  And then I worried that I was going to get ragged on for making male engineers sound stupid or clueless.  Fortunately, there have been no such responses, which is good because while some may assume that was the implication, that would be a false assumption.

Here’s the thing I’ve come to understand: many males, but particularly male engineers, aren’t clueless.  I know that may come as a surprise to some.  The reality is that I think engineers expect people to just be direct.  And frankly, I really appreciate that.  I like being able to just say what I think to my husband and not try to couch everything in terms that won’t injure his ego.  And I know that if he says something critical, it’s not that he’s saying he doesn’t like me or anything, he just is making a point about something.  It’s a lot easier for us to separate our personal feelings and feelings about outside issues.  We can argue passionately about stuff we do at work, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I like him as a person.

I’ve never been good at the whole ‘dropping hints’ thing.  That’s probably a good thing because I have also observed that a lot of guys think that when you say something doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t.  Being subtle and dropping hints have never been terribly effective means of communicating what you want, despite the fact I see people doing it all the time.  When I do see someone trying it, I seem to pick it up sometimes, but I usually roll my eyes and think, “Just spit it out already!”

Anyway, the point of this was that I think people ought to just be more direct.  Tactful is also appreciated and ought to be used liberally…but not to the point where it obfuscates your message.  And if someone doesn’t get what you’re saying (especially if it’s a guy), it may be because he’s clueless, but it’s also worthwhile to see how clearly you’re communicating.


A letter to the editors May 9, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in Fargo, feminism, societal commentary.
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This weekend, I saw a letter to the editors that was basically a “women should be kept in their place” sort of deal with a twist.  Apparently when women don’t stay barefoot in the kitchen, they are becoming tools to evil men in the world who are attempting to overthrow the traditional family.

When I get irritated with these things, sometimes I will sit down and write out a letter to burn off steam.  Usually, I don’t send these letters out, but this time I did.  And here it is, if you care to read it.  I realize it will not do anything to sway the original letter writer, but it sure made me feel better.

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.

Why are the women so good? January 21, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I’d been thinking about writing this post last semester.  However, it slipped my mind until some trollish comments showed up on EngineerBlogs today.  I think that Chris, Gears and Katie gave the troll a good smackdown, but one comment bothers me:

few women are capable of handling these kind of demanding environment.

I’ve heard this before (pretty much since I started as an undergrad).  However, after teaching my class last semester, I have to wonder what the hell these people are talking about.

I had 90 students last semester, 5 of whom were women.  All five of those women were easily in the top 25% of the class and were more likely in the top 10% of the class.  They were the students who repeatedly handed in assignments on time and seldom (if ever) had to redo any of them.  I will say that none of them chose to do the programming – but that is likely because they had turned in all the optional assignments required for an A before the matlab assignments were given.

If anything, what I saw was puzzling to me.  The women seemed the most prepared to meet the demands of a college class, were able to communicate well both in written and verbal form (and one of them was a non-native English speaker), and contributed well and frequently to the class.  It was almost strange how they were on top of things when the majority of their male classmates were struggling.

I’ve heard it argued that the women most likely to be in engineering are generally those who are in the top of their classes.  Women who may be good at math but not outright brilliant will be swayed to go into other careers.  From what I could see, this was true.

If you listen to trolls on the internet, you get the impression that women are incompetent engineers, however.  The women in my class were some of the most competent and motivated students, but I admit that they were more passive than the male students, which I still think leads the male students (and probably later on, male professors) to believe that the female students don’t know anything.  But it’s interesting to hear this comments after witnessing the exact opposite of what everybody “knows to be true”.  I can only think that people who make these comments are really overestimating their own abilities or wrongly judging what it takes to be a good engineer.  Maybe both.

Diffusion in the presence of nerds January 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, humor, science, societal commentary.
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If only life were as simple as mathematics.  Unfortunately, people to act like molecules.  That is, they’re not easily quantifiable and logical.

Earlier this week, I had to do an experiment in diffusion of the human variety.

I went into a meeting where I was the only woman (as usual), and it began with someone telling me a somewhat sexist (as well as old and lame) joke.  At least I think it is.  Either way, it definitely had nothing to do with the topic at hand.

How many men does it take to change a roll of toilet paper?  They don’t know…it’s never happened.

My first inclination was to respond that obviously the investigators had never been to my house.  One of the things you probably don’t need to know about me is that I tend to be lazy and pull TP out of the closet and just put it on the back of the toilet.  My dear, patient husband gets horribly annoyed with this particular quirk of mine.  However, he’s never actually told me he’s annoyed, but he will make a show of picking it off the back of the toilet and putting it on the roller in front of me.  When he does so, I tend complain that he has put it on backwards and that I will have to fix it.  (We’ve both engaged in these practices for at least ten years, so I don’t see them changing any time soon.)

I also had the inclination to say that I’d heard it before…or even that I thought I was inappropriate.  The problem is that there were other people in there, and I got the feeling that most of them were both thinking also that the joke was inappropriate and not sure how I would react.  The overall sense I got (which may or may not have been incorrect) was that everyone was a bit uncomfortable and not sure how to respond.  Hence, I needed a way to diffuse the situation.

I did none of these things (pointing out the inappropriateness of the behavior seems rather useless with certain individuals).  I’d heard a joke the day before and had shared it online with several people.  I decided to not acknowledge the joke the colleague had just told other than to say, “And now I have a joke for you.”

A photon walks into a hotel. The concierge asks, “May I help you with your bags?” The photon says, “No, thanks. I’m traveling light.”

Given I was with a bunch of engineers and scientists, this was a great way out of it.  I didn’t have to look like a jerk for calling the person out nor did I make anyone uncomfortable, even though I don’t think anyone would have faulted me if I had.  And better yet, I think those present appreciated my sense of humor than my colleague.

What would you have done in that situation?


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