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Double your fun, double your standards June 26, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism.
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1 comment so far

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

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, work.
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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.


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.

Deja Vu with a different ending October 28, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, engineering, feminism, societal commentary.
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About 15 years ago, I snapped.

One of my most vivid memories of Caltech was sitting in the dining room at my house with a woman and three men.  The men were looking at the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and making commentary.  The woman asked them men to please stop and leave that stuff in their rooms.  They just ignored her and kept on.  After a few minutes, she asked them again.  Their response was that, if she didn’t like it, she should just leave.

Unfortunately, interactions of that type were a very frequent occurrence.  There were a number of men (undoubtedly a vocal minority) who would constantly make comments about the women around them.  They gave the impression that they were surrounded by hags, and several would talk about going to pick up the ‘hot’ women at other universities.

It really did make you feel like a piece of rotted meat.

At some point, I decided I was sick of it.  I wrote an editorial in the student newspaper where I discussed and condemned this behavior, something which I’m fairly sure everyone knew about.  I also said that the administration and faculty ought to do something about this behavior.  Apparently what set off my writing spree was a column by the dean which I interpreted as condoning the behavior.  (It didn’t explicitly, but I found the notion of ‘they will grow out of it’ frustrating, especially since I’d run into professors who still hadn’t grown out of it.)  Finally, I said that women shouldn’t always have to defend themselves against this behavior – the men ought to be helping, too.  In fact, I still believe that: this type of behavior doesn’t stop unless men make a point of explicitly rebuking the offenders.

After the editorial was published, I got a couple positive comments from people I knew, but most of the feedback was negative…especially the offline stuff.  In one case, I had a professor show up to my office and start telling me that all this was the women’s fault because they chose to live in co-ed dorms.  Needless to say, the whole episode didn’t end well.


A couple days ago, I came across the reddit comment that sparked my huge rant on engineerblogs.  And really, my first thought was that we can’t STILL be having this same conversation.  Why do guys have to look first, think later?  I’ve been listening to stupid-ass comments like this for almost 20 years now.  I’m very sick of it.

I wasn’t sure I should post my commentary on EngineerBlogs.  I really want it to be an enjoyable blog to read that can somehow stay above the fray.  After Fluxor’s post on women in engineering (and the ensuing reddit discussion) a while ago, I was fairly certain my post would just end in a lot of negativity.

On the other hand, EB is a pretty big soapbox.  If I wanted to make my point in a big way, that’s the place to do it.

Let’s face it, though – the situation seemed rather similar to that of 15 years ago, down to the way I decided to handle it.

I have to say that I was extremely surprised at the positive response I got.  Not only did people say it was perfectly acceptable to be upset over the comment, but the comments in support came from men.  Very direct comments basically letting the original poster know that this was unacceptable behavior.

Beyond that, the commenter owned up to his mistake.  He posted a very nice apology on the comment, and while it can be hard to tell over the intertubes…I’m pretty sure he meant it.

I’m taken aback by the situation.  From my perspective, the problem that exists is pretty much identical to the problem as it stood 15 years ago.  I also, without thinking about it, chose to deal with it in approximately the same way; instead of using a newspaper, however, I used a blog.  I do think that my response was more tempered…but not much.

Yet the response was completely different: the response I got from the readers at EB and even the original poster was what I would have liked to have seen 15 years ago.  It would have been fantastic if the powers that be took the stance that what was happening was unacceptable and started condemning the inappropriate behaviors.  I can’t imagine any of the people who were being offensive would have apologized for it.

I’m glad things have changed, although it’s hard to say whether the change is due to location, time (and possibly age), or the people with whom I associate.  Maybe it’s all three.  Regardless, this is definitely a better place to be.

Frances Allen August 4, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineerblogs.org, feminism.
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1 comment so far

I wrote a post over an EngineerBlogs today. If you don’t know who she is, go check out the post: Real women write compilers.

If women in engineering isn’t your thing, you can go take the Famous Women in Science quiz. (Incidentally, I got a 17/20.)

Mistaken identity April 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, work.
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I had a meeting with some people I’d never met this morning.  I was going to be presenting some results of a study I’d done.  There weren’t too many seats available in the room, so I sat down at one end of the table that has a laptop.  One of the people was walking around and meeting everyone, and when she came up to me, she asked if I was there to operate the computer.  I looked at her very confused, and then realized she thought I was going to be the ‘designated clicker’ for the powerpoint presentation.  Before I had a chance to say anything, my supervisor jumped in with introductions.

Honestly, I think it gets harder every time I run into this misconception that I’m a secretary or something similar.  And it didn’t help later that most of the people involved in this meeting assumed that a project that I was running was actually something my husband was doing.  (Ever had someone talk to another person about your project as though it was theirs and you’re just standing there for the conversation?  Very strange.)

In the first case, the assumption was made by a woman, whereas in the second case, it was a man.  To be perfectly honest, I was more hurt by the woman’s assumption because I would think that someone who also has a background as a scientist would be more careful about making that assumption than a man.  Guess not.

I really do fantasize about these things not happening because they still seem to happen far more often than I like…that is, they still happen at all.


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