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The perfect finish December 31, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I saw that Breitbart was proposing a cap on women admitted to STEM programs.  My first thought was a very sarcastic, “Well, that shouldn’t be hard.”  I read part of the article aloud to Mike, the part about how women don’t leave STEM because of external pressure.

Mike jumped in, “What ever happened to that one student you had?  The one that the other professor said should switch majors…”

I knew which student he meant.  I had a freshman who, when she went in for advising for spring semester, was told by her advisor that she should switch majors.  The reason he did this was because she was one point too low on the math placement exam to get into calculus, putting her a semester “behind.”  She came to me, almost in tears, because she didn’t know what to do.  She felt like she needed to listen to him but really didn’t want to switch.

I wasn’t very proud of what I did next because I know it was completely unprofessional, but it had to be done: I told her to ignore him and that he was being a jerk.  I don’t like ripping on my colleagues, but this individual had just told my BEST student that she didn’t belong in engineering.

It had been a while since I had talked to her, though the last time we spoke, she told me she had a summer internship at a local engineering firm.  I performed some google-fu and found an article that mentioned her.  It turns out that she graduated earlier this year with a degree in electrical engineering.  Even better, she graduated with honors.

I’ve always felt rather conflicted about how I handled that situation, but at least I can leave this year and begin the next with the thought that I did the right thing.

Have a happy new year!

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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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.

Wheel of (PI) Fortune January 13, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science.
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I came across an article in Science from last summer discussing chances of being a PI.  It included a calculator so that you could look at your various inputs (number of publications, first-author publications, etc.) and see what probability you have of becoming a PI.  (I’m going to state the caveat that this probably is most accurate for biological sciences given that’s where the algorithm is presented, but I didn’t see that stated specifically.)  Apparently, the dependency is most heavily weighted on two factors: number of first-author publications you have as well as highest number of citations on a first-author paper.

One interesting thing to note is that the chances of becoming a PI are better for men than women.  When I was going through the various examples, it seemed like men generally had about a 12% better chance than women but it seemed to range from about 12% at the greatest and decreased with additional qualifications.  The lowest difference I saw for people with the same qualifications was about 8%, but that was with the very highest qualifications.

Being of a somewhat practical bent, I decided to take this for a test run using both myself and my husband’s publication records.  The thing that was a bit shocking for both of us is that the heavy weighting on first authors and citations on first author papers meant that, despite the fact that he has more publications than I do, my publication record actually is better in terms of chances at a PI than his.  I have more first-author publications, and I also have more citations on one of my first-author papers.  For most people who know us both professionally, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they would expect.

Despite my ‘better’ publication record, his chances at being a PI were still better than mine…by 8%.  Given that delta seems to be close to the delta in general between men and women, it indicates to me that bias could be pretty significant factor in getting funding, especially early on in someone’s career when they’re low on some of those first-author publications.

Fortunately, I can happily write this off as a thought exercise given both of us have been PIs on our own projects.  I’m glad I didn’t know the odds going in, however.

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

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

 

Role with it December 12, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, work.
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I am always nervous when I have to deal with the middle and high school crowd.  I’ve had such mixed results in the past.  A couple years ago, I helped out with an astronomy workshop for middle school girls.  My job was fairly easy: I just had to help them find the sun in some solar telescopes.  It was pretty obvious, though, that the girls in the last group just weren’t interested and wanted to be done.  That may have been the time of day, but they weren’t particularly subtle.

I was therefore nervous when I was asked to give a tour of my workplace to a group of high school girls.  How in the world do I keep them interested?!

While we were waiting for the last couple people to turn up, I started out by asking where they were from.  This was a good move: I found out they all went to my old high school, and so we talked about some of the teachers there.  I think that having a way to connect was helpful for all of us.

It also turned out that they were already rather interested in the topic and had lots of good questions and comments.  After I thought we were done, one of them asked another question which led us into another part of the building and looking at even more stuff than I had anticipated.  They didn’t seem all that eager to leave at the end, and I’d wished I had more to share with them.

I know that doing tours is a formality, but it’s nice when the people are actually interested.  It makes it seem less like work and more about conveying how exciting it is to be an engineer.

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.

It’s a mistery October 30, 2014

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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.

Double your fun, double your standards June 26, 2014

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I had an extremely bizarre experience recently.  I’m sure others have had similar experiences, but I still can’t help but wonder what surreal world I’ve stepped into.

It’s basically dealing with an optimization problem.  All of engineering really is that, of course.  In fact, much of life is.

I’ve been trying to understand all the factors that deal with a particular widget, and one of my colleagues has spent a lot of time trying to basically tell me that I’m overblowing something I saw as a concern or potential problem.  They broke it down numerically for me (making sure to be rather condescending in the process).  After enough time, I became convinced that this thing I initially thought was important was not and most certainly not worth the brain power I might waste on it.

At least, it wasn’t important when I thought it was important.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more silly it seemed when someone else would bring it up as an issue.  Based on this information, I made a decision about how to deal with this issue with the underlying assumption that the factor we’d been discussing was not important.  Isn’t that what this colleague was trying to get me to do?

The result was that this colleague got very upset with me about this decision, implying (though not directly saying) that I’d made a big mistake.  How could I have been such an idiot?

It was bizarre for me to have to repeat this person’s arguments back to them to explain the basis for my decision.

This has left me wondering, though, what happened.  Why did something unimportant suddenly cause so much uproar?  One potential explanation is that this was because I made the decision and not this other person.  It’s quite possible that this person is a control freak.  However, if they are not, this leaves me feeling like the more probable cause is that there is a double standard.  This factor may or may not be important, but its importance depends on who is bringing it up.  The times I’ve brought it up, it’s been downplayed multiple times.  However, when it came up this last time, it was someone else who brought up the issue.  When this other person brought up the issue, suddenly it was of high importance and, because of that, I’d made a bad decision.

Unfortunately, the whole scenario reminds me too much of the experiences I’ve had where I’ve said things and people have ignored me, but as soon as a male says them, everyone will agree and jump on board to accomplish or deal with whatever it was.  (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can read about it here.)  It doesn’t matter what the topic is or how technical the issue is, it happens all. the. time.  The only thing I’ve noticed is that some individuals are much more prone to doing this than others…and the one who did it this time has done it to me frequently in the past.

This leaves me with a quandry: how does one work effectively with people who obviously don’t take you seriously and probably never will?

Playing dress-up July 11, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering.
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A while back, I wrote a post on EngineerBlogs about how I could never find the right mix of clothes to make me look like an engineer.  A lot of people had great advice, and a few months ago, I finally settled on what I call my ‘work uniform’.  I looked at most of my male engineering colleagues, and I wore what I viewed to be the equivalent female for an outfit: a button down shirt, jeans, and flats.  So far, I like it.  We’ll see how I feel once I start teaching this fall.

Okay, I have to admit that one of the shirts has a cheetah pattern.  I am amused when I wear this.  I’m not sure why, but I think it’s hilarious.

This is totally me...if I were Asian and skinny.

This is totally me…if I were Asian and skinny.

On the other hand, there are days when I still need to step it up.  I know a lot of women like to dress up, but it really makes me uncomfortable.  Rather than feeling like I’m making a great impression, I feel more like I’m a five-year-old who is rummaging around in mom’s closet for the pumps and lipstick so I can play dress up.  I suspect I’d be able to walk in heels better if they were twice the size of my feet but, sadly, I’m no longer able to find anything with same proportions to my adult feet that my five-year-old feet were used to.  I probably look just fine, but somehow I feel goofy and just want my jeans back.

Dress for success, i.e. dress like a man September 14, 2012

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This week, I had a speaker from the career center come and talk to my classes in preparation for a career fair.  He spent some time talking about appropriate dress, and showed examples of potential outfits for both sexes.  I found this quite interesting, especially given a previous discussion on the topic of women’s dress on EngineerBlogs.

The first thing that caught my attention was that he said that women should wear their hair up if they want to be perceived as more professional.  As a woman who has long hair, I can totally see this.  I’m also not terribly happy about it because when my hair gets to a certain length, I start getting headaches if I wear it up.  Beyond that, though, I think it’s interesting because of potential social implications.  The speaker said that a woman who is willing to expose her neck comes across as more confident and competent.  But that does make me wonder why…and the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that women who wear ponytails look a lot more like men.  Men who are considered ‘professional’ tend to wear their hair short.  A woman who puts her hair up and exposes her neck looks more like a man with a short haircut, and men, in general, are going to be perceived as more professional.  I may be wrong about that, but I couldn’t help but wonder.

Women’s clothing choices seemed more limited, IMO.  It seemed like men could wear a lot of different things and still look ‘professional’.  (I do have to note, however, that men don’t have extremely wide wardrobe choices to begin with.)  By contrast, women’s clothing varied so much more in style, and most of them were not professional.  Make sure you wear sleeves, be careful of color, watch the jewelry, etc.  Beyond that, one of the outfits was one that I think a lot of other women would find professional or stylish but apparently weren’t perceived that way by potential employers.  I’ve seen women criticize other women’s clothing, but apparently some of the choices that were being criticized as ‘unfashionable’ were being judged differently by employers.  This makes me wonder if it’s not a good idea to get ideas of professional dress from other women, particularly if the field is much more male-oriented.

Beyond that, I had to wonder if presentations like this are ultimately harmful.  On the one hand, I think it’s good to make sure the students understand the implications of their dress choices.  Still, I have to wonder if these presentations reinforce ideas about what is professional and not, leading students to eventually make evaluations of others based on what they were told.  I sort of feel like this is perpetuating a system where people are evaluated based on their clothing choices, especially on how feminine they look, rather than their technical ability.  This is particularly frustrating because my observation is that someone who is quick to catch on to what constitutes professionalism may not necessarily be the best engineer.

 

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