A Feministic Step

The other day I attended a meeting to plan an upcoming panel discussion about space exploration. As someone was reading the list of professors that agreed to sit on the panel, I realized that not one of them was a woman.

I brought this point up, and there was just silence for a couple seconds. Then, the organizer (who is a woman as well), said “I didn’t even notice that! That’s not good!”.

It’s funny. Us ladies in physics/astronomy are so used to being around men all the time, that it doesn’t even dawn on us when something is totally male dominated (even though it doesn’t have to be). I’ll fully admit, two years ago I would have never noticed such a thing. I think it’s all these blogs about women in science I have been reading!

The whole group started brainstorming names of women we could invite. I was proud that a) I had the guts to bring it up (and I didn’t even give it a second thought) and b) that the group was keen on finding a solution.

Yet, at the same time, I felt slightly “bitchy” for saying that there should be a woman. Like I was the pushy feminist trying to force a woman to take part. In fact, someone else (another woman) mentioned that we shouldn’t just put a woman on the panel simply because they’re a woman; they should be qualified as well.

That attitude scares me, especially coming from a woman. It’s like we’ve been convinced that women can’t possibly be as qualified as the men…that the only way they can achieve the same positions is just because they’re a woman. Again, I would have found myself saying something like this a couple years ago, when I was young(er), naive, and ignorant about the situation.

I know things have gotten better, but this is just another example that it isn’t there yet. Women do not pop to our minds as experts or leaders in the field – even (especially?) to other (younger?) women. Is this attitude from younger women a generational thing, an age thing, or something else? In any case, it needs to change.

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Comments on: "A Feministic Step" (14)

  1. Sometimes I meet that attitude.. It's partly from younger, but also from older women. There is a scare that you'd get “a woman” but who isn't anything else than that… since she is viewed as “the female alibi”. I think it's mainly a precaution…

    I encountered that as an undergrad when an older professor said we could take any woman and put her on the panel since we needed a woman -nothing else was required. Clearly he wasn't with the program, and i don't think there are as many left still… but he was one of those.

    The young ones, I would think that they fall into the catergory “there is no difference btw men and women and y'all are oversensitive”. But I might be a bit cynical a and bitter crone in the making 😉

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  2. Anonymous said:

    I'm an undergrad at a major technical school, and I hear that kind of attitude all the time from other women. The thought process is often “I've never experienced [read: noticed] any sexism, therefore it doesn't exist, and those of you who bring it up are just making the rest of us look bad.” One undergrad, when asked how she thought her gender affected her experience at our school, replied that there was no difference whatsoever, despite the fact that she is the only woman working in her lab of a dozen people. Since only 3% of tenured faculty in our department are women, this is a pretty common situation.

    I think a lot of the denial comes from defensiveness — one of the surest ways to start a fight around here is to mention that a higher percentage of female applicants are admitted than male. I can certainly relate to that since I remember how horrible it felt my last year of high school when some of my classmates made it clear that they thought I had only gotten in to my university because of my gender.

    That having said, I also have a great “women in x major” student group full of people who aren't afraid to talk about gender and who are doing a lot of great work to recruit more young women to our field.

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  3. Chall – yes, that oversensitive comment definitely tends to come from naive girls who haven't “had the privilege” to be in those situations.

    Anon – I think you hit it when you say: The thought process is often “I've never experienced [read: noticed] any sexism, therefore it doesn't exist, and those of you who bring it up are just making the rest of us look bad.”

    I know I was guilty of thinking that way, but I have completely changed my tune. And, in fact, now that I look back to my early 20's, I did experience such things…I just didn't label it as such. I guess I thought it was “all in good fun”, or that I was being “too sensitive” (like Chall said).

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  4. Good for you, Alyssa! I'm proud of you for speaking up about your observation.

    This reminds me of a recent post by feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, entitled “Divided you fall”, about anti-feminism even between women.

    http://hugoschwyzer.net/2010/03/09/divided-you-fall-the-myth-of-male-weakness-and-young-womens-internalized-misogyny/

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  5. Frozone – very interesting post, thanks for sharing the link!

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  6. Anon: “One undergrad, when asked how she thought her gender affected her experience at our school, replied that there was no difference whatsoever, despite the fact that she is the only woman working in her lab of a dozen people. Since only 3% of tenured faculty in our department are women, this is a pretty common situation.”

    Well, maybe it was true for her. The pipeline gets leakier the higher up you go, right? So at the undergrad level this is perfectly possible. Just as one person not experiencing sexism does not equate to sexism being non-existent, rampant sexism does not necessarily mean that it has affected every single woman.

    I've given this issue a great deal of thought over the last few years. I would always have said that I've never personally been affected by sexism, although I obviously agree that it does exist. After reading many feminist blogs in the last few years, I've thought a LOT about whether I was just being naive. And I still can't think of any specific examples of sexism negatively affecting me. I've been offered every job and every undergrad / postgrad position I've ever applied for…

    Have I ever been affected in a less tangible way by systemic, insitutionalised sexism? Maybe, but again I can't think how. I've just been lucky enough to work in departments and companies with a much greater than average % of female PIs: almost 50% in my postdoc department, while well over 50% of the heads of department in the biotech company where I worked for a while were women.

    I do realise I'm in the minority here, but saying that every single woman in academia has experienced sexism is just as illogical as saying that none of them has 🙂

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  7. Cath – I don't think any of us are trying to say that women who don't experience sexism are liars. It could very well be the truth (or they just might chalk it up to something else, as I did). The problem (or at least what it is for me) is when such women believe that since they have never encountered sexism, that it must not happen to anyone.

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  8. And to add to that – it is also a problem when such women think others who talk about sexism or report such situations are “troublemakers”, “make women look bad”, or just don't have a “sense of humour”. Those are the women that need to open their own eyes.

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  9. Oh, I get that, and I didn't think that anyone was calling me a liar. But I have been called naive, blind, stupid, and other things like that (again, not here, but elsewhere on the internet), and been told that my situation is a complete impossibility. It's just a knee-jerk reaction for some people. And I completely 100% agree that sexism exists, and I don't think people who report specific incidents are trouble makers or any of the other things you mentioned

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  10. All I am going to say is I am really glad you brought it up!

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  11. You go girl! 😉

    I do think the other woman you referred to probably didn't mean that there wasn't a woman who was qualified, just that somebody shouldn't be included just because they were female (which I get if the brainstorming led to names of women who weren't qualified??) The scary part, though, is if it isn't obvious to this woman that there are women who are extremely qualified in all scientific fields these days.

    I sometimes think many women scientists tend to 1) forget how difficult it was for themselves, 2) think that if they had to go through it, all women should, or 3) didn't have any more difficulty than their male colleagues. No matter the source of the attitude, it's important to constantly remind ourselves as female scientists how difficult it still is for many women to rise in the ranks (especially those with families). When a woman does “make it”, they should be celebrated so that others can follow in their path.

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  12. Cath – that sucks that people call you naive, etc. just because you haven't “had the privilege” to go through something like that. Women can be their own worst enemies sometimes, can't they?

    Jess – thanks 🙂

    Dr. O – yes, it is very scary that, even with specifically thinking about women, we couldn't come up with very many names! I agree with you that any and all women in science should be celebrated, no matter what they went through to get there.

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  13. I heart you. Way to go!

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  14. Women do not pop to our minds as experts or leaders in the field – even (especially?) to other (younger?) women. Is this attitude from younger women a generational thing, an age thing, or something else?

    I think part of it is simply that the fields are still male-dominated. In related departments at my grad uni, there was precisely one female tenured/tenure track professor per dept. That is pretty typical in my field. With particular regard to panel discussions and seminars where you're looking for people who are good presenters, the gap is amplified b/c you find yourself thinking of people you've heard at conferences, which are also generally male-dominated.

    That being said, it sometimes seems that a woman's toughest critics are other women. Dr. O brings up some possible reasons for this. Sometimes it's almost as though we're threatened by the success of other women in science. Or we don't approve of the way she did it b/c it's not the way we (would) have done it.

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