Sunday, February 05, 2006

Face Up and Sing

(I'm a crappy singer,
but I should have
joined in a long while ago,
so here's my song)

Science has always been magical to me. Launching rockets, watching Mr. Wizard, picking things out to dip into the liquid nitrogen my dad had left over from his lecture - how could these things not be fun? Science has also always been one of those things that I identified with. With a physics professor as a private tutor, I was always one step ahead of the game in school and (almost) always brought home the blue ribbon from the yearly science fair.

Even more, it was my childhood. Tagging along with Dad to work either meant getting to go to star-gazing parties or getting to play with all the toys in his lab. Plastic sit-and-spins were for kids not lucky enough to have a dad with a metal one for demos, lab carts were made for climbing on and racing down the aisles, and begging incessantly and jumping up and down was the surest way to get to play with the "bumper cars".

At some point I learned, though, that others did not see the scientist in me, and it made me doubt what I had always known. My parents kept me out of Earth Science in middle school, and I was uncertain as to why. High school lab partners would ignore my suggestions, run to the teacher for help, and come back with exactly what I had just said. While working as an intern one summer for LLUMC, I was regulated to filing for the week we were to spend helping build the electronics for the new proton accelerator. I knew that science belonged to me in a way that it didn't belong to most girls, but I learned that it was not mine in quite the same way that it belonged to guys like my dad. Girls who see magic in the fact that oranges are literally made out of sunshine, rain and wind don't mix well with the serious face of science. They are, however, tolerated - even at times revered - in the arts and humanities.

Thankfully, the men and women who carry on Mary Lyon's legacy saw my ACT scores, GPA, and internship, and saw something different. They saw a young woman who would fit in just fine at a women's college where quarter of the students major in the natural sciences and more than a third of them in the social sciences. My mother, to this day, insists that I was "recruited" and the generous financial aid package I received was a direct result of my scientific successes. She may very well be right for, I must admit, if that was the intent, it was a success - although a qualified one. I entered as a freshman who was too uncertain of her abilities to risk taking both math and science during the same semester - and left with a degree in physics, cum laude.

The question then becomes, why am I no longer in science?

The full answer to this question is painful because it means talking about my failures and shortcomings, real and imagined. It means not only acknowledging that I've often refused to talk about some of the ways in which I've been treated because I've always thought it was partly my own fault, but also admitting that my biggest problems have been a lack of social skills and courage. It means exposing my vulnerabilities even though my extreme sensitivity has always been one of my most persistent faults.

But it's also well past time I spoke up, and important that I do so. I can no longer stay silent in the face of the many ignorant comments like those found at the slashdot thread Emma so eloquently dissected.

For example:

What, really, is the objective value in trying to convince women to do things they are freely choosing not to do?
The arrogance of this statement is that it assumes that women like me are "freely" choosing not enter into tech, math, and physics based soley on our relationship to the actual field of study. Nothing could be further from the truth in my case. Such assumptions are doubly arrogant considering the fact that the same commenter also wrote:
If the message that boys receive is "scientists and engineers = female", are the already underperforming boys going to be more or less motivated to study math and science?
Which smacks of the same kind of attitude that I've seen before in in 99.99% of the boys who come into my store - the idea anything that isn't dominated by boys is for girls by default. Contrast that with the number of bachelor degrees in physics that were awarded to women in 2001 (23%).

I do not work for little more than minimum wage in the kid's section of a large bookstore because I am "naturally" better at dealing with kids or because I cannot cut it - tech wise - in a technical field. I work where I do mainly because books, unlike science, have never ceased to be safe, and I've always been on the nervous and shy side. While I do not blame sexism alone for constricting my choices, my logical brain cannot but boggle at the audacity of men who cry "cooties!" at the mere mention of anything not hypermasculine and then turn around and say that I'm not competitive enough. Seriously, watch how the slashdotters mock femininity by joking about "Hello Kitty lab coats" and then recoil in horror at their own invention.

Although, I must ask, was is so frightening or wrong about femininity in science and tech? My computer has a Strawberry Shortcake sticker on it - does that revoke my nerd status somehow? Is it so preposterous to want to be feminine and still expect to be taken seriously? Apparently so, for the only accepted reason for wanting more women in science is for the sake of the guys. Ha! As tekanji says: "We are not geeks for you!"
People who want to do this stuff will do it.
No, actually, for some reason even those of us that want to do this type of work often don't. Part of it is because, as Ms. PhD admits:
When I was a grad student, I had that girlie handicap that I was terrified of breaking things. I had gotten yelled at as a child for breaking a ceramic sugar bowl and just assumed everything else in life would be like that- better to stay away than to get yelled at.
I had that too as a kid. I loved figuring out how things worked, but I was extremely afraid of breaking something and getting in trouble or failing and disappointing everyone. And no, this isn't because I was less adventurous - my mind went everywhere my hands were afraid to. It was because I was a girl and I was taught to be careful. It was because I was a girl and so I thought that when I failed, I was a failure; if I succeeded, it was because of luck or outside help. I was especially sensitive to this during all those years of winning at science fairs; internally, I downplayed my own work and attributed most of it to my father's help. Boys, on the other hand, usually blame their failures on external factors and take credit for their successes. Most telling of all, I gave my dad credit for my success, but not for my brothers'.
There doesn't appear to be any significant roadblocks in their way that would prevent them from going further in a scientific career today than in the past.
Really? How about social factors? I don't just mean how kids are brought up, I mean the type of environment women pursuing advanced degrees in physics would likely face.

I chose to major in physics not only because of the subject, but because of the people in the department. In my experience, that holds true for a large number of undergrads. Why would anyone choose a path that would involve making them a permanent Smurfette over choosing a similar path where they would be more likely to be seen as simply a scientist? The truth is that physics no longer competes with home ec for girls attention, it competes with biochemistry, medicine, and a whole host of other scientific fields that, despite being remarkably similar, do not suffer from a lack of interested women - or a more balanced social environment.
I couldn't name a single mathematician as a kid. I had no role models...I didn't know a single mathematician or scientist.
Bullshit. Most boys could name their teachers, college professors, peers, and the guys in white coats on TV. Even my physics department was lacking in female role models - but it at least tried to make up for it by fostering strong ties between under- and upper- classwomen. That alone made all the difference in the world in my case. Watching those wonderful, confident young women accomplish so much, and then have them turn around and encourage me was essential to my success. Good academic work usually relies on good support from teachers, advisors, and peers. Women considering applying for a master's programs in physics at MIT rightly wonder if they will receive the same support as their male peers. Even in the absence of active discrimination, institutional sexism can be daunting, if not devastating.

When I began studying physics at MHC it was like I had been handed back a part of myself that I had lost. For some reason, I keep losing it again and again. I know this because I feel its absence like a missing limb, not because I look at the stats of women going into physics and think "oh, the horror!" (although, yes, it is pretty pathetic) - so the fact that people keep arguing that women like me do what we do only because of innate likes and dislikes frustrates me to no end. I am where I am and I do what I do in large part because being a women in physics, statistics, and computer science often requires that one be either a bit heroic - or one of the guys. I wish I could be the former, but I must admit I am quite often a coward, and I have absolutely no desire to be the latter.

Life is not binary. Sexism may not be the only thing responsible for my exodus from physics, but neither can it be fully absolved of culpability.


ScottM said...

Well said. I'm going to share this with my girlfriend who went the engineering/computer route, but wound up in journalism.

leilaflea said...

Physics/astronomy Smithie here - nice to meet you. :) That was ages ago, though...

Anyway, I went on to pursue my PhD but ended up leaving with just my masters. In my case it was mostly due to personal choice, but as you've said it's always more complicated than that. I won't bore you with details, but I wanted to comment on what you said about taking responsibility for your failures and passing on the credit for your successes.

I remember being told early on in my career about the Imposter Syndrome and how it affects women in science. It was nice to know that my feelings had a name and that apparently a lot of women suffered from it but...that was pretty much it. I was never aware of any effort to help women get beyond it, and I was completely at a loss for how to do it on my own. (This was before the many internets sprang up.) Looking around now it seems there's a lot more discussion about the issue, but when I first heard about it it was pretty much just, "it's all in your head, honey, run along now."

Don't know how old you are or when you experienced all that you've written about, but I hope universities - and women's colleges in particular - are doing more these days to address these sorts of issues.

Tara said...

This post made me sad in a patriarchy-blaming way, and so angry at the person who can say out of one side of his mouth that we shouldn't encourage girls because people who want to enter the field will, and out of the other side of his mouth that we shouldn't encourage girls because then boys who want to enter the field won't.


parodie said...

Thank you.

This post of yours allows me to forgive myself a bit for switching out of honours math in undergrad... I was especially struck by this part: " I am where I am and I do what I do in large part because being a women in physics, statistics, and computer science often requires that one be either a bit heroic - or one of the guys. I wish I could be the former, but I must admit I am quite often a coward, and I have absolutely no desire to be the latter."

(here via the carnival of feminists)

Mickle said...

thanks for all the supportive comments!

Leilaflea, I graduated from high school just over a decade ago (scary scary scary that it's been that long) and I graduated from college in '99

The funny thing about the Imposter Syndrome (never knew it had a name) is that I'd actually read about it in high school 'cause there was a lot of stuff out at that time about how girls vs. boys learn, etc. and reading that stuff actually influenced my deciding to go to MHC. I knew myself well enough to know that I'd be vulnerable to those sorts of things, and MHC seemed less likely to let it fester.

Unfortunately I never learned to take an active role in dealing with it because all the women there were so great I never needed to. Which, after all, was the point and much better than not having such great support, but it's also part of why I crashed so hard at grad school, I still didn't know how to recognize it or handle it in myself.

ACM said...

Life is not binary. Sexism may not be the only thing responsible for my exodus from physics, but neither can it be fully absolved of culpability.

indeed. nor is physics a lone outpost of this phenomenon: I was in a biology lab where a hockey jersey hung on the wall, and where individual lab members (of either gender) were either "on the team" or "off the team" of the alpha male (not the lab head), with severe consequences. nobody would believe I wasn't parodying this one...

Anonymous said...

Amazing post! It took me years to work up the courage to study math. Even though both my parents are engineers, I didn't think I could do it. In fact, I also attributed my success to having parents who helped me. I still fear that when the time comes to make a career in mathematics I will allow the fear of failure to hold me back. I still see every exam and paper as a test--that if it doesn't work that I've hit the end of my capabilities. I hope that when I am eventually faced with some failure or challenge to my confidence I don't allow it to stop me.

Thanks for this post. It resonated with me about things I didn't even know were holding me back.

lost clown said...

Thank you, so much.

I am a "non-traditional returninig student" who has been recently 'encouraged' (that would not be a strong enough word) by a female Physics prof to change my major to physics. I was in her class, tutoring everyone else in the class, and it took an entire quarter of her pulling me into her office telling me that I was a scientist and that I should change my major before I actually listened to her.

I have just begun the physics program this year (and have maintained an A average), and remembered how much physics made sense to me in high school and how happy it made me. I know that it'll be a long hard road ahead of me, but then again, I love it so much I can't imagine doing anything else. Even though I was going to let my love of physics languish.

My department does indeed suck and my lab TA is a sexist prick (although he is nice to me, oh wait I mean hitting on me, ugh.) Lucky for me, Nancy (my old prof) talks to me about problems I will face, and is there to encourage me through the hard parts. Also I discovered the Women In Science network for Seattle. Unfortunately all the physicists I talk to have left physics for the reasons you catalogue.

Mickle said...

acm - ick.

There were some great people at LLUMC, but also I got to see a lot of highly paid doctors - who were commonly regarded as saints by their patients - treat the nurses and female doctors around them like dirt. It's easy for me to forget that just because it's slightly better on average in fields like biology, that that doesn't mean there aren't far too many jerks in science period.

lost clown - thank you for being such an awesome role model - and it's great that you have mentor, from what I hear from grad students in general, and women in science in particular, it's often essential.

lost clown said...

Thanks. That's how Nancy convinced me, really (besides reminding me that I didn't like my women's studies classes and that I had all ready been published so if I ever wanted to be a women's studies prof or feminist theorist I could do it without a degree.)

Her idea was less on going straight physics (I'm a student at a college where you can design your own major) but definitely something science based and talked about trying to work at the NSF where I'd get to make policies concerning science in schools (and helping to get more women and girls involved.)

It's me who decided not to go half-assed. But as my friends tell me, if there's anyone they know who can do it, it's me. I imagine a lot more feminist theory/articles coming from this as well. I want to turn physics into a "girly" field. (And I got to correct a 4th year (male) physics student today. hehehe. I'm smrt, and those evil physics guys can kiss it.

Denise said...

Wow. This resonated with me in ways I did not expect, but I'm glad for. I'm currently in grad school for chemistry, working in a predominantly male lab and isolated from most of the other women in the department. Thanks for writing this!

aurora said...

wow. great post!

I struggled with very similar things while in school. I always look back on elementary/middle school. I was always the first one to finish my tests but I never wanted to be the first to turn it in because i didn't want to draw the attention that i was smart. It got to the point that i often checked my answers about 4 times before getting up to hand it in, waiting in agony until someone else would get up first.

Even this last year (9 years later). I was debating going back to school for an Masters in Public Admin or law school. It took me a while to realize i was REALLY considering the MPA because i was scared of failure at law school. Once I figured that, I knew what I needed to do and am currently waiting to hear which law school I will attend in the fall.

(here via Carnival too)

Jane said...

Thanks for a wonderful post. I am sad that you left science--science definitely needs more women like you around! You are so right that it feels like you have to be a hero or renounce your femininity to succeed. I'm a computer scientist, the only female faculty member in my department, and my departmental support systems are non-existent. I refuse to renounce my femininity, but I get sick of playing the hero all the time---I just want to be normal and get my work done, damnit!

Rebeccae said...

This resonated with me a lot - I also grew up with a love for science and won science fairs with projects I'd done with my father's help. In high school, I thought about becoming a chemical engineer, but I spent more of my spare time writing stories and came to the conclusion that what I really wanted to do was write.
In college, I took Astronomy and the most advanced Physics class that I could - even though my major was Creative Writing - and minored in Computer Science.

I do at least think that the most important factor in my choice to pursue writing rather than science is that my love for writing is greater, but I admit to some "what if" feelings. I do hope that as a writer, I can write stories with strong girls and women that break out of some of the prescribed roles, and inspire and empower people in the real world to do the same.