Friday, April 06, 2007

My View of Men

When I attend talks in my department, my preferred place to sit is near the front, as that's the best place to be for asking questions. In my department, faculty tend to sit at the front of the room and students tend to sit at the back (postdocs sit anywhere), but the completeness of the separation didn't really strike me until I sat at the back of the room for a talk this week. [My daughter was playing on a computer in a room nearby, and I wanted to be near the door so I could keep an eye on her and be accessible if she needed me.]

The room is tiered, so I had an unobstructed view of rows and rows of men in front of me. I was surrounded by women (students) where I was sitting, but the front of the room was devoid of them except for one lone female professor. It brought back memories of my own grad days, sitting in the back with my fellow students, with a view of dozens of male professors in the front. Back then, I thought that by the time I was at the front of the room, I'd have lots of female company there. I am of course well aware of the continuing lack of Female Science Professors, so my view from the back of the room this week wasn't a realization, just a visualization. I wondered what the students sitting in the back think about the view. From conversations I have with students, it seems that women students today don't have the (delusional) optimism that I had as a student. Perhaps the pipeline has been leaking too long for them to believe it will change. Even so, I would hate to think that they sit back there and feel completely pessimistic.


Anonymous said...

When I was in graduate school, the professors sat in the front and students sat in the back. It didn’t bother me where people sat. However, I was keenly aware which professors had the greatest brain power. Even the kind of questions those guys asked seminar speakers revealed a depth of understanding and a nimble mind that I knew I could never have. Yes, I was intimidated to sit next to them.

PonderingFool said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PonderingFool said...

Well Princeton's proposal for grad students is a step that should give hope. Not ideal but at least in a the right direction.

R J-C said...

I'm a high school student, so I know next to nothing about these things, but I'd like to share my reason for optimism.

I plan to study physics and astronomy in college, an have gone to several physics/astronomy camps where I've met a number of kids with similar aspirations. My interactions with these young men and women have been very positive, and I have yet to encounter any overt sexism among them. I know that I will eventually have bad experiences, but I think the fact that at least some of the next generation of scientists are free from prejudice is reason enough to celebrate.

~R J-C

Anonymous said...

As a 4th year science grad student in a department with 50 faculty (5 female, I must say that more and more days I come up on the pessimistic side of things.

Geeka said...

I guess that are department is special. Half of the faculty sit up front (mostly the ones that want to kiss the ass of the chairperson), while the faculty that don't care about kissing his ass sit in back, with the chairman.

The same goes for students and postdocs. Pretty much everyone sits in the same place ever time. I, of course, sit in the backmost row right next to my advisor.

Science PhD Mom said...

This is the same view I had as a graduate student, and the male:female professor ratios have not changed in the four years since I graduated. There is a lone female full professor, and a total of two assistant female professors hoping for tenure. There was one female associate professor (tenured), but she left for another university. Ditto for my undergraduate university where I did undergrad research. Same story, different campus. Nothing changes, and I, too, remain pessimistic.

Mike said...

No undergraduates in the seminars?

In our seminars the first row is usually devoid of persons, then everyone is randomly scattered throughout the lecture theatre. No clear separation between students, postdocs and professors (apart from the professorial dinosaurs usually flocking together).

Ms.PhD said...

I notice. I always notice. But this is new.

In grad school there were no female profs who sat in front, they all sat in back. But now as a postdoc, there are some who sit in front.

For me, getting up the nerve to sit in front has been a challenge. I sat in front as a student and didn't care what anyone thought, but now as a postdoc, or maybe just where I work now, it is seen as extremely 'uncool.' But I prefer to ask questions from the front than the back. So I force myself to do it.

I always think of the grad student who was a couple of years ahead of me. She was a sexy, skinny little blond girl, whom no one would dare to call anything but cute and feminine, who asked fabulous questions and was never even slightly embarrassed to ask, ask, ask.

I don't think of it this way when I do it, but maybe I am setting a good example for students, as well as for myself?

Anonymous said...

To r j-c, the high school student:

I'm a professional astrophysicist, now a research scientist at a government lab, and I'm 3 years past my PhD. I well remember wanting to be an astronomer when I was in high school, but I was constantly teased by my classmates for it. While your optimism about sexism is commendable, numerous studies have shown that we're *all* biased, men and women alike. But that doesn't mean that women shouldn't be scientists, and nor does it mean that the situation won't improve.

Being a scientist is the most rewarding, fulfilling job in the world, and I can't imagine doing anything else with my life. It's more than just a job; it's a philosophy and a lifestyle that allows you to think effectively about virtually any problem. I say you should go for it! Be prepared for some "heavy weather", but absolutely do not let it stop you. Good luck!

Yvette said...

To R J-C:

There is only one person in the universe who this could be, so this answer will be slightly tailored. :-)

You are definetely right about how in high school genders are equally interested in physics/astronomy, as there have been several studies showing this to be true. However, studies have also shown that even though in high school it's about 50-50, when you reach the freshman level all the girls go away. Something is scaring everyone off- I suspect from experience it has mainly to do with girls not understanding what scientists do in the real world.

And btw about the science camps for high school students- yes, they're usually more biased towards girls if anything, but the same applies as most of those girls go off into other fields (at greater numbers than the guys). Sigh.

Btw general question to show my ignorance- what's the proposal Princeton has for grad students?

Prisoners of the Cave said...


Sometimes we carry intimidation only in our imaginations.

And sometimes all it takes is a light bulb to go on that these 'really really smart peoples' who stand in front of us to lecture us, or these 'really really powerful peoples' who run the world, are just as human, have the same bowel movements, and have the same ailments as the rest of human beings.

And sometimes this light bulb can go on by simply interacting with these 'knowledge' and 'power' brokers at the human level.

Okay nothing profound here, only obvious truths.

However, one that we tend not to remember when directly faced with these 'imposing authority figures'.

This is indeed the reason 'United we stand' - for we dare not challenge 'authority figures'.

And it begins right in the school class room. It used to begin in the home not too long ago in the developed nations, as it still does in developing nations, and just as the American and Western child was weaned away from subservience to draconian parental authority figures through the 1960's revolution, should we be optimistic that the same would hold true of 'united we stand' to 'social conformance' to the mantra du jour?

Indeed such conformance has now reached epidemic proportions. When I attended MIT in the late 1970s (studying EECS), there was still much social awareness and challenging the status quo was in 'fashion'. Recently, the director of Admissions at MIT (who by the way was forced to resign this week due to 'resume padding') had observed that the new student body, and the applicant pool, since 911, was highly conservative, did not challenge authority (in whatever general sense), very apolitical or conservative, and entirely consumed in passionately pursuing their respective passions (what I generally call the kitchen sink of 'American Dream').

Thank you for bringing out this interesting observation.

I hope you can also do something about it - for your description is merely symptomatic of a much deeper ailment that prevents the proper functioning of a 'populist democracy'.