Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Month: August, 2012

Allow Me To Mansplain…

In the wake of Rep. Akin’s egregious comments about rape and pregnancy, this blog post has started making the rounds.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, that’s terrible that that sort of thing happens to intelligent, capable women; I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”

Then I realized I have.  And I don’t think it’s entirely about being female.

See, I’m a grad student (for a couple weeks more, anyway), and I’m currently the only female grad student in my group.  I’m also the senior grad student in my group, so I have a fair amount of experience in the field.  When it comes to routine, annoying problems, I’ve seen a lot of it.  And I’ve thought about a lot of it.

Yet, for some reason, people in my group don’t always hear what I say.  On several occasions, I’ve made a suggestion to someone having a problem that was either discounted or flat-out ignored. No response. Like the person did not even hear that I had spoken.  And then, maybe later in the meeting, or later in the week, or even a couple weeks later, the same suggestion would be tossed out by one of the (male) principal investigators.  It bears mentioning here that the only female PI at the group meetings is also one of the youngest PIs in our institute.

When the PI brings up this suggestion, it’s considered and almost always agreed to be the best suggestion for the situation, and we’ll all reconvene when it’s been tested because it’s likely that this will fix the problem.  Wait… what?

I’m also not the only person who’s noticed this.  A couple of my friends in the group pointed it out to me after a particularly annoying group meeting where I actually repeated my suggestion a couple of times, only to have no one appear to hear me. I was glad to know someone had, even if they hadn’t made that known at the time. And even more irritating is the fact that at least one of the guys who brought up that “no one listens to Jenn” actually did just that after pointing out that no one listens to my good suggestions.

Okay, enough back story. Am I here to moan about how nobody listens to the poor little women?

Not at all. I will bet that, while this seems to happen to me a disproportionate amount, part of it is because I am a (mere) grad student and the PIs are (wise) PIs.  The thing about scientific discovery is that it is generally a collaboration, especially in experimental physics.  There is just so much going on that you often physically require at least one other person to run all the equipment.  At the very least, you always need to be training a new person for when the senior grad student graduates (or the post-doc finishes his or her appointment).  And often the one who knows the most about the specific experiment is a lowly grad student.

As I finish my graduate career and embark upon my first post doc, I’m trying to keep this in mind. I’ve had too many encounters with post docs who believe they know more than the senior grad student just because of that degree, when in fact, the grad student knows way more about the specific experiment than they do. Heck, at first, pretty much all the grad students know more about the specific experiment than a brand-new post doc. And it’s dangerous. At best, you end up with a post doc who waits for explanation from the PI for everything rather than accepting the word of a grad student; at worst, you have a post doc who breaks things because he or she disregards instructions from a grad student.

So it’s not just about women versus men. It’s about all situations in which one person goes in thinking he or she has more knowledge in an area and therefore doesn’t need to listen all that well to the lower orders. And it’s good that Solnit has put a voice to the phenomenon as it pertains to men correcting women incorrectly.  It’s just “the boring old gender wars.” It’s not you. But the same is true for people experiencing the same frustration due to their age. While it’s a good idea not to get a swelled head about your own importance (especially in grad school), sometimes you’ve been on an experiment for five [expletive] years and, yeah, you know more about the specific electronics used because you built them all (or oversaw them being built).

I guess my parting thought is that this kind of attitude affects the retention of grad students in the sciences.  And, yeah, it’s going to affect the retention of women in the sciences because they get the potential double-whammy of being ignored for gender as well as age. But regardless of either, be confident in your experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up loudly. And know that’s not always you; scientists are full of blind spots and biases just like everyone else.

Once Again Down the Women in Science Road

I know, I know!  I’ve written a lot about this recently, but the particular challenges that women in STEM fields face is something near to my heart.  With the recent death of Sally Ride, the achievements of women in science have been in the news, too.  But that’s not really what this post is about.  This post is about gymnastics, kind of.

from Piled Higher and Deeper, by Jorge Cham

Specifically, this post is about Gabby Douglas’ hair.  Except that it’s not.  There was a recent piece on NPR about the brouhaha over Douglas’ hair in which there was one sentiment that struck me:  The idea that she is representing all black women by her achievement.

Sorry, no.  Gabby Douglas is representing herself and the USA (only because she’s choosing to compete as part of the US Olympic team).  She doesn’t represent women, or black women, or 16-year-olds, or even 16-year-old women from Virginia.  She is representing herself.  Her achievement is HER achievement.  Yes, it’s wonderful to see some diversity in a sport with a lot of homogeneity in the US, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that her achievement is her own, and the only person she might make look bad if her ponytail is less than perfect is herself.  So, really, there’s no reason to even both with her hair unless you’re one of the judges and that sort of thing is important in scoring.

And this is a lesson that a lot of people could learn when in a situation where they are in the minority.  You are just yourself.  For women in technical fields, that specifically means that your ideas and experiences are your own and not necessarily related to how any other woman in the field might feel, just because they share the same gender identification as you.  One problem that female faculty face is that they end up on a lot more advisory boards and committees because their departments want to make sure there is “minority representation” for everything.  The result is often a committee that is a lot more diverse than the department itself.  And, no one female faculty member really represents women, in general.  Just like no one old, white, male faculty member represents all the other old, white, male faculty members.

So, I think it’s time to lay off of women, and other minorities in STEM fields, about this idea that they are representing their entire demographic by their single presence.  And it’s time for women to ease up on themselves, and realize that just because another person is female does not mean that person understands you any better.  So try to attract female STEM professionals to your institution or laboratory or company because it’s unfair that for decades women were treated like they were inherently less capable than men in science and math, but don’t do it because you think that having female representation will make your institution/lab/company more attractive because of diversity.