Sunday, May 03, 2009

Little throwaway.

Reminded by this post, I wanted to write about a talk I saw this week.

My department, as I've mentioned before, has very few women faculty. However, of late we have one seminar series that includes, in little bursts, several women speakers in a row from other places. This was one of those weeks when we got to see an unusually successful FSP.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed her talk. Her science was cool, and she's gotten a lot of rewards and awards for it along the way (and is tenured faculty at VeryGoodU).

Having said that, she did a lot of things wrong in her talk. Things I've been told not to do.

Her opening slide was white with small black text, no images, nothing catchy. UGH.

She apologized a lot, and laughed nervously a couple of times in this very particular way that I've only ever seen women do (which I was particularly taught to stop doing for that reason).

Perhaps most distractingly for me, she was wearing a t-shirt, and kept standing in such a way that I felt like I had no choice but to get an eye-full of the outline of her not particularly attractive boob. I kept wondering if she was doing this on purpose or was not aware of it. And thinking, BOOB, BOOB, please put away your boob!

So to sum up, she was not professionally dressed or using her body language to convey expertise or confidence, and her slides sucked.

But I couldn't help thinking that while her stuff was cool, and she seemed smart, I think I'm those things too (plus I'd like to think I give better talks-?).

So I couldn't help feeling just sick with the unfairness of it. I found myself wondering why she gets to do her science at such a high level, and receive all these awards, and I don't get anything but discouragement.

Granted, she came up at a different time, in a different sub-field, and who knows what other factors are involved in who her mentors were, funding, etc.

So here's the thing. I'm glad she's doing good science, setting a great example and all. Yay, role models.


But coincidentally this week, the flip side. If it's timing, it was a small window of timing.

This week I also had a conversation with a retired professor who had just a miserable, sexist experience in her time coming up (before the woman speaker I mentioned above). Ultimately, she moved into more adminstrative and teaching work, a slightly different career than her research, just because it was the best way available to her to get away from all the harassment and discrimination.

Perhaps the saddest thing to me was that here I found someone who understands what I'm going through because she's been there too. And I was surprised because my story literally made her cry.

She said it just breaks her heart to hear that things are not really that much better (maybe these things happen less frequently, but they still happen).

And yet, most people don't believe me when I say in my experience, things have not improved much for women at all, as long as these things are still going on.


So I found myself watching during this talk, and trying to figure something out. One of the things I've been doing lately is trying to develop the equivalent of gaydar for women-who-get-it.

I had the impression that this woman was one of those Deniers, because I noticed something very subtle in her talk.

When she presented work done by a male postdoc, she used his name and said a little about him (in a couple of cases she actually told an anecdote that involved alcohol). She apparently didn't present any work done by women, because she didn't mention any women's names, and sort of implied it was all done by (a couple or three) guys.

So I thought, great, her lab is exclusively male (unlikely, but possible).

At the end of her talk, she mentioned on the acknowledgment slide "Oh yeah, and this one part I showed you was done by (girl's name)." Like a little throwaway, an aside.

That part was actually not a minor part, and generated probably the most questions out of anything in the talk. It was an interesting, unusual result that she plans to work on in her Future Directions, much more so than anything the guys had done.

I strongly suspect she's not aware that she's doing this. And probably neither was anyone else in the room. But I swear, if I could have recorded the talk, I could freeze-frame the parts of it and point them out to you.


So I do kind of wish we could have some kind of pin so we could identify each other as women-who-get-it. It could be something very small. But it would be helpful to know who is sympathetic and who is just completely oblivious to it all.

At one point we talked about making t-shirts that say "This is what a female scientist looks like", and I see now they are actually available online, good on the person who did that.

Maybe I'll buy one when I quit science and come out of the closet. Except it will have to say "Former Female Scientist".

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At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe a little pin with a symbol that's not too distracting? I found a couple of these women who get it lately, it's good.

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand how it is unfair that "she gets to do her science at such a high level, and receive all these awards". When I see someone doing good science, I assume it is because they are a good scientist.

What is your interpretation for her good work? I am asking the question earnestly.

At 8:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think about these things too. I watched an older woman's talk recently and had the same inklings you did. Her slides were too much words, crappy images, bad transitions, just thrown together like on the plane ride there. But at the end, she said she's given the talk many times over and always gets the same questions (which makes me think that it's weird that she doesn't address those issues in the slides or update them with the new info?).

Each woman is a local pioneer. What works for FSP#1 at Uni#1 may not work for her at Uni#2. FSP#2 may be a completely different situation at the same uni. A FSP may be fierce and intimidating to a bunch of morons. She may be a wallflower and the morons may love her. Every woman has to carve out her own path to success, around landmines.

It's not a single pipeline. We are walking away from a multitude of pipelines of discrimination, based on local preferences and morons. Jobs I turned down went to people who 1) were willing to be the assholes' bitch because I wasn't willing to be their bitch (well beyond the hazing of the untenured) and 2) were willing to carry the morons on their coattails because I wasn't willing to carry assholes around (well beyond the hazing bullshit).

How about a shirt with: This is what an unemployed poor overeducated abused discriminated-against pissed-off female PhD scientist looks like. If the applicable women had money, they would buy them up like hotcakes.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

I don't think it's as simple as there are some women who get it and others who don't. Internalized sexism (and racism) is in each and every one of us. We all are party to its effects and we all partake in sexist actions. How can we not when it is systematically bred into our beings. It takes a conscious effort to constantly ensure that you are always thoughtful. If it were me, I would take this as an opportunity to reflecton my own behaviour because I am sure there are times when I have acted in a sexist or racist manner.

At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Mastermind said...

Of course, if you deny that women are discriminated against and do not help other females in science and engineering, men will forget that you are actually a woman or something.

About a month ago I had a discussion with three other female grad students about women and engineering. Previously, I knew that one is a denier, but I thought that the other two may be thoughtful and insightful, but, no, they are all deniers.

On a Patriarchy Denying note, we also talked about street harassment (including one particularly scary incident), but they failed to connect the two, or blame our patriarchal society. They accept it as part of life as a woman.

I waited until I was alone to cry about it.

The problem with the pin idea is that the deniers think that WE are the ones who have to get it :(

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I don't quite understand how it is unfair that "she gets to do her science at such a high level, and receive all these awards". When I see someone doing good science, I assume it is because they are a good scientist.Have you been reading this blog at all?

I guess the thing is, my male peers who have gotten jobs mostly fall into three categories:

1. Very Persuasive
2. Very Hardworking
3. Very Pedigreed

These things don't necessarily work for women the same way.

In her case I guess I have to assume (while being too lazy to google it right now) that she was more of a #2-3, given that I didn't find her particularly gifted in the communication/charisma department.

From what I can tell, the #1-2 or #2-3 combinations usually work very well for men. You don't find too many #1-3s in science at the postdoc level nowadays, but there seem to be plenty among the tenured faculty.

For women there are often additional hurdles. So I guess I'm wondering whether she didn't experience any of this shit, and why it's fair that I should have to if she didn't?

Fundamentally the problem always comes down to, how much farther could I have gotten running a straight race instead of hurdles and hills?

At 12:07 PM, Blogger said...

We are the ones that originally started selling the t-shirt you mention. I liked the idea of making people think twice about their perceptions of who a scientist is and what they should look like.

I think that improvement in equality brings with it a larger heterogeneity of the group experience, which can be frustrating when people start denying other people's realities.


At 3:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand how it is unfair that "she gets to do her science at such a high level, and receive all these awards". When I see someone doing good science, I assume it is because they are a good scientist. To me it's unfair if one person gets rewarded while another one doesn't, when both are equally meritorious. It's more unfair if one gets rewarded and the other not only doesn't get rewarded but gets 'punished' (in the form of no options left to even try, or has more and more crap thrown at them over time). So, if I saw a speaker who I sincerely felt was better than me I have no problem taking my hat of to them. But if I saw that he/she was not any 'better' than me yet they have the job while I have run out of options and am way far behind, I would be very pissed and bitter. And yes it has happened to me already.

Of course this is assuming that both people really were equally meritorious. The powers that be in science hiring/promotion have weird ways of judging merit, often having more to do with pedigree or connections or a good game face or any other number of subjective factors.


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