Happy Ada Lovelace Day: Telling Our Stories

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everybody! Yesterday, Historiann wrote about the new report issued by the American Association of University Women called “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” (STEM). (Here is a pdf of the entire report.) The post is great and you should read the whole thing. Historiann ends with an invitation to women in STEM fields who have likely experienced some level of gender bias: “Tell us your stories.” Seriously, don’t miss this thread! My entry is long, so I’m posting it here instead of clogging up her comments:

My 71-year-old mother wanted to be a petroleum geologist when she was a kid. But her fancy private prep school did not allow her to take math beyond algebra I. None of the girls could, because they would "distract the boys". Instead, she took two extra years of sewing. I think it was all of the spatial reasoning involved in dressmaking that made Mama's IQ score so high that the school re-tested her. At 16, my mother could look at a woman’s dress on the street, mentally reverse-engineer the pattern, draw it out, and construct the dress in time for the school dance. Meanwhile, my dad has to think twice to tell left from right, and was a very successful research physicist for 40 years. (Hint: you don't need brilliant mental-rotation scores to be a good scientist). In 2007, Feng et al. demonstrated that the famous gender gap in spatial skills disappears if female subjects play just 10 hours of Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (pdf; see also Spence et al. 2009). But my mother insists, “Boys are better at spatial relations.”

I took all of the math and science my high school offered and then some (I ran out of AP calculus and took a course at Berkeley my senior year). Still, when I got to college my assigned advisor said at our first meeting, "What are you going to do with a degree in neuroscience—teach high school biology?" At the end of the meeting he asked me if I was a ballet dancer, adding that I "looked like one". My next advisor was better. I questioned one of my male classmates who stayed with that first guy: "What did he ask at your first meeting?" "Oh, you know: 'where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?'" Ah. No, I don’t know.

Even for women without such stories, the subtler, unconscious expression of attitudes like my ex-advisor's provide a real drag on women in the lab. Both male and female supervisors expect and accept different behaviors from men and women. Hence the female supervisor who chided me for being "aggressive" when I took initiative and succeeded, while she praised my male colleague for "being a go-getter" when he took initiative and screwed up. Over time, who will the manager promote—the gung-ho, learn-on-the-job guy who everyone likes, or the competent woman who is "aggressive", and therefore makes people wary?

Women can't walk a fine line between "doormat" and “bitch” because one doesn't exist. People (male and female) feel more comfortable imposing on women's time to ask for favors or additional work. If a woman complies, she's swamped with extra work for which others take the credit, and can rightly be criticized for not drawing boundaries. If she does not comply, she becomes a poor team player, or worse.

I’ve tried to walk the non-existent line. During my first full-time job out of college, a scientist who was chatting with our post-doc told me that I was “naughty” and "needed a spanking" when I asked him to please stop interrupting my work with personal questions. I looked straight at the post-doc and said, “why don’t you take your friend out for a drink?” and they left. I had work to do, and I did not want to set a bad precedent. Guess who got told she was "no fun" and "had a bad attitude"? At this same job, I dealt with men from other labs—principal investigators (PIs), no less—dropping in to "chat" (and ask more personal questions), and one professor who found my number in the directory and kept calling the lab to ask me out. When I complained to my PI, he said that I “obviously was way too nice to the guy” the first time and that was it—I was on my own.

The campus pub was a crucial networking spot, but if I went there to shoot the breeze and some pool, there were always jokes—in front of men I respected—about “bending me over the pool table”, or exclamations of, “you play pool?!” (That pub was also the scene for this hilarious anecdote.) I still loved working there, but I am not surprised that it’s the same institution where Barbara Ehrenreich got her PhD in cell biology.

These extra burdens on women’s time and our marginalization in networking are no mere annoyance. Is the PI going to promote someone to lab manager, or recommend her strongly for a grad program or fellowship when there's a vague feeling floating around that she's "difficult" or spends too much time “socializing” (read: fending off advances)? If she takes the “jokes” in stride, is she really serious enough for the job? After all, she’s the girl everyone wants to bend over the pool table!

Disablism at work also hits women harder. Gender discrimination can slow down a career, but it is my chronic illness that derailed mine completely. Anyone who faces health issues with self or family is up against barriers at work. But these barriers are even higher for women. First, women are still expected to be the primary caregivers of children and elders. If a man does these things, he is going beyond the call and may be lauded for the effort these days (though it would have killed my father's career). Women must do the work and hide the effort. Second, women are thought to be weak and to lack passion for the work anyway, so any appearance of weakness or request for legal accommodation reinforces those low expectations, both for the woman who asks and for other women too.

Many of us go into the workplace thinking that it’s a meritocracy, that the quality of our work will carry us to success. Because we are different. Better. It’s “exceptional woman” syndrome, and I’ve been there too. About ten years ago I attended a dinner party in Chicago at the home of a friend who worked for cognitive neuropsychologist Jerre Levy. As Levy and I talked, she told me the story of how a certain famous scientist with power over her career threatened to blacklist her if she didn’t sleep with him. Ashamed as I am to admit it now, I expressed disbelief: surely he couldn’t do that! Her work would speak for itself! Well, she fixed me with a look worthy of the great Bea Arthur and said, “One disparaging letter is all it takes. Do you think a man like that couldn’t end my career—or yours—with a stroke of the pen if he decided to?" I haven’t doubted women’s experience since.

So, on this Ada Lovelace Day, I say: thank you, Dr. Levy. I’m glad you made it to the top anyway, and I recognize your struggle to get there. And thanks to all the women who are brave enough to tell their stories.

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