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Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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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.

 

This is NOT what a scientist looks like August 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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1 comment so far

The younger son’s school is starting a new science curriculum this year. Mike and I were very excited to learn about it as it’s supposed to emphasize hands-on learning. But this came home today, and I could only roll my eyes. Can you see what’s wrong?

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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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2 comments

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:

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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.

I only wear goggles when swimming May 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, physics, research, science, societal commentary, Uncategorized.
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2 comments

I was recently chatting with an acquaintance when they mentioned they had seen me in the local paper a while back.

You were wearing goggles, right?

No.

Well, you did have a lab coat…

No, I was actually wearing a sweater.

I have had articles on my work run in the paper a couple times in the past few months. However, only one had a picture, and I cringe every time I think about it. I learned the hard way that it is important to wear solid colors on such occasions.

The picture involved me standing in front of several racks of computers wearing a rather ugly ombré sweater. I find it interesting that this acquaintance knows I’m a scientist and equates that with the goggles and lab coat schtick so heavily that they remember me wearing one even when I was not.

I remember reading about a project where kids drew pictures of scientists, visited some at Fermilab, and then drew pictures after their visit. The contrast was striking.

Having talked with this person on and off during the years, never once while wearing a lab coat (probably because I haven’t worn a lab coat since freshman chem and certainly wouldn’t out in public), I’m very surprised that they still imagine me that way. I guess it goes to show how powerful those stereotypes are.

I think I need to have a “Visit Cherish At Work” day where people can watch me sit at my computer, lab coat free.

Booth Babe May 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, work.
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13 comments

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.

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

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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1 comment so far

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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.

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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5 comments

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?

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