Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gender-directed Weirdness

During a recent bout of air travel, I picked up some magazines to read during the times when e-readers must be turned off and in an upright and locked position because things might shift during the flight, or something.

I found this quote by Judith Herzfeld (a professor of biophysical chemistry) in the Aug 29 issue of The New Yorker of great interest, and even somewhat entertaining*:

".. I find it remarkable for the period [late 1950's] that a new and ambitious, even aggressive, science program was given to a female science teacher, Mrs. Esther Daly. I thought nothing of it at the time, but I suspect that having had a female science teacher in junior high school gave me some resilience for gender-directed weirdness in subsequent science venues."

Oh how I wish I had invented the term "gender-directed weirdness". Can I at least invent the acronym? GDW is, from time to time, kind of a theme of this blog. At the very least, I am going to add it as a label.

I never had a female science teacher in junior (or senior) high school, so I have no personal experience with such things, but I am curious about the use of the term "resilience", used here to indicate a positive effect of a female role model (FRM) at an early age. I was also intrigued by the part about thinking nothing of it (having a female science teacher) at the time. Mrs. Daly was therefore a retroactive female role model (RFRM).

When discussing role models in the past, I have wondered if role models (of any sort) have to do anything active to impart resilience (or whatever), or simply just be a person doing a job. We don't have enough information in the little piece from "The Talk of the Town" section of the magazine to determine what Mrs Daly did or did not do while teaching middle school science, but I like to think that her very existence as a science teacher was a powerful statement to the girls (and boys) that she taught, even if a subconscious one (at the time).

Or perhaps that is just me being lazy, hoping to do good without actually knowing how or what to do as a role model. Unlike flying on a plane and being given lots of instructions**, being a role model is a lot less well defined, and it can be hard to know what to do, other than just to be.


* Perhaps even more entertaining, though, was Elif Batuman's essay in Harper's Magazine.

** On one recent flight, we passengers were told to remove pens and pencils from our shirt front pockets, in case of an emergency. Does this still apply if one has a pocket protector for the pens and pencils, I wondered but did not ask?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think that to be a role model it matters not so much what you do but how your students perceive you. Image matters. Especially with middle and high school students. This is the age where kids and teenagers can be super-critical of every adult. this is not to say that one should try desperately to look cool in front of one's kids (won't happen), but if you're a middle or high school teacher and your students perceive you to be a complete dork (because of how YOU dress or behave or other superficial things) then it's unlikely that they will see you as a role model either. In fact it could discourage kids from following in your footsteps so as to not turn into you!

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about the extent to which my PhD adviser was/is a role model; I'm a postdoc now. In some ways, our personalities and worldviews are completely different, which limits the extent to which I can "see myself" in her shoes. I do, however, find it completely inspiring whenever I see someone (especially a woman) do good science, enjoy doing good science, have healthy relationships, and obviously enjoy things outside science. (I've always worried that having too many other interests that I want to spend time on prohibits a career as an independent researcher.) Where she and I differ is that she is probably much tougher and confident and doesn't mind as much when someone else in the field tries to discourage her from her work, blocks access to data, and so on. She just rants professionally for a while and moves on to something else, whereas in a similar place, I worry that my brief career is doomed. Seeing her handle these kinds of obstacles is very helpful. More direct mentoring would be nice, but she's an outstanding role model just by being a really good scientist and person.

Andrea said...

If one is the type of person to have a pocket protector, I would assume one is also the type to be able to fly the plane, and/or lead a Magiver-like rescue operation so one should be allowed to keep ones supplies. :)

Anonymous said...

There is some evidence that female role models "innoculate" female students against future effects of stereotype: http://m.insidehighered.com/news/2011/03/03/study_suggests_role_of_role_models_in_encouraging_female_undergraduates_in_math_and_science

Anonymous said...

I think "just being" contributes at least 80% of the positive effect. No study to quote, but that's what I would guess.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Sorry, but your second footnote got me off track. Really? Dang. Next time, perhaps they'll wrap all the passengers in bubble wrap. You know, just to be safe.

-L said...

Yes, GDW is an awesome term!

HFM said...

I agree that "just being", and refusing to apologize for what you are, counts for a lot. You never know what will do it, too. I once spent a summer in a foreign country working with high school students, and at the end one of them thanked me profusely for being a role model...because I was tall and not ashamed of it.

I did have female science teachers, but I suspect more of my "resilience" comes from being visibly disabled as a kid. I was so used to people underestimating me, as an individual, that it didn't occur to me to believe them when they underestimated me as a woman. My knee-jerk response was (and is) "bite me, I can too do that". (Thanks to some excellent doctors, I'm 98% fixed - older people have asked if I had polio, everyone else just thinks I'm a bit clumsy.)

Pagan Topologist said...

I never had a female math teacher until tenth grade and only two post high school. (I graduated high school in 1961.) Nevertheless, Marie Curie (Skłodowska) was the iconic example of a scientist who was constantly in our consciousness throughout my childhood. I was thus really surprised when, as a grad student, I began hearing about how difficult it was in science for women.

Cloud said...

@Anonymous at 8:29- I think the toughness and confidence come with age and experience. This is a classic case where faking it until you feel it will work.

I say this as someone who used to feel like you do now, but who now hears more junior people wish they had my confidence. That always takes me by surprise, since I still think that I am faking the confidence some of the time. Apparently, I've gotten quite good at it....

Harvestar said...

I had very few male teachers at all from preschool through high school. Part of that may be that I went to Catholic schools (run by nuns, though there were few by that time). I think I only had one male science teacher in 5th grade. It was more likely for me to have a male social studies teacher.

In college, it was only one female science prof and one female math prof.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

For the footnote, I assume that the airline was Southwest—they make jokes like that frequently, though they have been asked to cut back on jokes about safety procedures.

As for role models, the "just existing" bit goes both ways—a really incompetent person can reinforce stereotypes rather than breaking them down. I wouldn't be surprised if the totally incompetent math teacher that I had in 6th or 7th grade caused a lot of her students to conclude that women couldn't do math. (I did not reach that conclusion—my conclusion was that the principal was a total incompetent for ever letting her in the classroom. Even then I tended to blame administrators for everything bad.)

Anonymous said...

it wasn't until my junior year in college that i had a fsp for one of my major classes in physical science discipline. my interactions with her (mostly her "doing the job" she taught the laboratory section so more interactive than just a lecture) strongly influenced my decision to graduate school. i had never been able to see myself as a professor until I had her & I do owe her a thank you note...