Tuesday, October 01, 2013

She Would Not Wish This On Her Nieces

From e-mail from a reader (text modified to remove possibly-identifying details):

I had traveled to a conference with some colleagues, including my husband. 

The first person who greeted us was a conference organizer. We introduced ourselves by our full names. It was a small conference and we assumed that, as an organizer, he would have looked at the list of attendees. I was greeted with a broad smile and "Oh, so you're just along for the 'ride'."

Over the next two days, my colleagues, husband, and I lost count of the number of intended and unintended gender-targeted put downs and innuendos.

My career in [this field] spans 25 years and I am often asked to become involved with groups encouraging young women in Science and Engineering. As I would not wish this environment for my own nieces, I am unable to promote STEM as a good choice for females.

Over the years, as I have attended some of the same conferences as my scientist-husband, the assumption that he is attending the conference and that I am his guest ('along for the ride') has occurred a few times, but not recently. This e-mail was a sad reminder that this still occurs. How is it that some people -- and most specifically conference organizers -- have not yet gotten the memo about how The Wife might be a scientist or engineer or mathematician?

Here is a short version of the memo, for handy reference: Don't assume.

25 comments:

julie said...

Or here is my version of the memo: assume the wife IS a scientist or engineer or mathematician; you'll probably be right and if you're wrong you won't have insulted a colleague.

Anonymous said...

Tragic that this is still common.
There is really no excuse.
MM

Anonymous said...

Some recent events in my life:

At the small university where I work, we have a Friday evening dinner club. The wife of a faculty member has taken responsibility for making reservations, and circulated a note to us all that she sent to a newly-opened place that offers a set menu, so we could see their response. In it, she explained that the group was "a number of faculty members and their wives" although at least half the regulars are women, some single, some married. And this is a woman writing the damn letter! Sigh.

In a meeting attended by faculty and staff, the Head (admittedly only acting Head, and nearing retirement) made a comment about wishing he were in a warm climate with a cold drink watching hot women, then said, "Well, I guess I've at least got the hot women here." I wanted to grab a Sharpie, go up to him and write "FOSSIL" on his forehead.

The same person was in my office when a third party (also male) turned up to chat; I was complaining about the computing services (everybody does) and he made a comment about my complaining, "How like a woman." Luckily he scooted off just then, or I might have said something regrettable. I'm sure he would never have made fun of the same complaints from a male colleague.

Early in semester, I was standing by the mailboxes chatting with an older, male colleague. I was holding a huge armload of syllabuses. Two female freshmen walked up to us, looked straight at him, and asked, "Are you a professor?" "Yes," he said, "and she is, too." But they barely glanced at me, and proceeded to ask him where some classroom is. I might as well have been invisible.

I'm sure there's another one that I've blotted from my memory because it just makes me cranky. Anyone who says there isn't a subtle undercurrent of sexism is being wilfully blind. Yes, things are much better than they were, but they're nowhere near where they ought to be.

It's hard to know how to deal with encounters like these. Mostly I just try to ignore them, but maybe that's the wrong approach. Maybe these attitudes will only finally die out if we challenge them. And I'm so not a confrontational person!

Sorry, long comment. TLDR version: I keep running into casual sexism, some mere obliviousness, some more problematic, and I think we should be over that by now!

Anonymous said...

It's even worse if you're attending a conference while visibly pregnant. Numerous times, while pregnant, I have been assumed to be the wife of whichever scientific colleague I happened to be talking to (about science). This has created some significant awkwardness for me and my colleagues.

Geologist said...

sadly, this is my experience my entire career. Recently I've started bringing my husband to conferences because he is retired and basically gets a trip out of it where he can go see the sights while I work. Every damn time he is considered the scientist and I'm the "tag along".

I too, no longer can encourage women to do this as a career choice. It has been a long horrible road and I don't think all the hell I've been through and continue to go through is worth it.

GMP said...

I am a woman in a STEM field and yes, there is gender-directed weirdness all around, and I am mistaken for a secretary etc etc. However, I would not say it's a horrible existence. I may be uncharacteristically positive here, but I keep thinking that in STEM fields you can count on job security, a six figure salary (varying with seniority and field), and great flexibility in terms of what you do and how you organize your time. These are not something to sneeze at.

Besides, which careers are those that one could recommend to women interested in math and science and that are going to be free of sexism and other gender-directed weirdness? A nurse, a teacher? Medical doctor, dentist? Not everyone likes biology or the thought of being in contact with bodily excrements of strangers.
A working scientist or engineer in industry? I don't imagine people are much more enlightened there. Women in nontraditional careers will always face weirdness wherever they go, might as well accept it as baseline. If it bothers someone enough to leave, they should, but women seem to face negative stereotypes no matter what they do and where they are. Even if they are stay at home moms, someone will come to tell them they are lesser beings for not working. Breathing while female will sooner or later invite someone to put you down for one reason or another.

Patriarchy sucks, but at least we could actually keep working to make things better: acknowledging it sucks, but utilizing the strides made thus far, taking advantage of what is available to us and doing as much good as we can while we are there.

I would have made a horrible nurse or MD, my dislike of biology and general misanthropy being the main reasons. Humanity is fortunate that I was not unleashed upon it through one of the "caring" professions, but I was pigheaded and oblivious enough to follow my love of math and physics instead. I think I am a halfway decent scientist and prof, and I am tireless in correcting people when they assume I am a secretary/student/postdoc, one (embarrassed and defensive) clueless person at a time.

Anonymous said...

I am a female scientist who has experienced plenty of sexism, inappropriate comments, sexual harassment, etc. I'm totally with you.

But...I'm not sure about the "wouldn't encourage this as a career choice for women" viewpoint. I mean...I don't know. I have a hard time with that. From what I understand talking to those in the generation above me (I'm an Assistant Professor), it used to be worse. Much, much worse. I have a naive hope that this trajectory will continue. The thing is, as much as I've experienced bad things as a woman in science, I've also - on occasion - interacted with both men and women who stood up to the 'jerks' on my behalf before I even had to say anything. That is always incredibly, incredibly encouraging to me. So maybe I'm still young and naive, but I want to believe the overall trajectory is positive.

I admit I have mixed feelings about my own niece entering this field, and that definitely gives the issue a new perspective. But right now, I wouldn't actively discourage her. I am (naively? stupidly?) hopeful that each generation will have an easier time of it. And I am pretty sure that if *less* women go into science, it won't get any better anytime soon...

Then again, final caveat: my perspective may be skewed as I am in the biological (not physical) sciences, where these things tend to be "not as bad." ?? I'm sure all of our individual experiences are different, and sum up to a different overall risk analysis ratio.....

Anonymous said...

As a female researcher, I have just attended a conference in Italy. My boyfriend works in the same field as I do, so many colleagues I met at the conference know him. I have been asked several time "I saw M. Boyfriend did not register for the conference, but I was expecting him to come with you and enjoy the location". At least some people consider that it is perfectly acceptable for a man to follow his spouse to a foreign country just for the fun of it !

Anonymous said...

My wife and I are both researchers in STEM. We moved to our current location (the Netherlands) so that she could take up a tenure track position. After her offer came up, I found and took up a postdoc position in the same city, but at a different institution/field.
Each time I meet new people at work, the assumption is that I decided to moved here, bringing my wife with me (that's the actual word most people use: "So you brought your wife with you..."). Sometimes, even after my explanations, it's difficult for them to grasp our actual situation.
Sadly, I've found that this gender bias is prevalent across age (from graduate students to professors), job (administrative and academic staff), sex (male and female), and nationality.
Having said that, this is not restricted to the academic world: it was extremely difficult for our bank to accept my wife as main account holder in a new joint account (that's a husband's job... what were we thinking<*gasp*>?). So I do not agree with the statement "wouldn't encourage this as a career choice for women"

Anonymous said...

This is so strange for me to read, because while I absolutely do not doubt that you all have these GDW/straight-up sexist encounters, it has never happened to me. I'm a female physicist in my 30s (in a very male-dominated specialty), I have a junior level tenure-track job, I have shown up at meetings/conferences with various assortments of male colleagues, husband, nursing children, etc. - and I've never been treated as anything other than a colleague. I've met a few jerks of course, but they seem to be equal-opportunity jerks. Maybe I live in some weirdly well-behaved corner of physics phase-space, but hopefully the fact that such a place exists is a good sign.

GMP said...

Things tend to get weirder as you get more senior. Many women, me included, think there is no sexism any more when they are young. But then they go up the academic ladder and find it is alive and kicking...

olympiasepiriot said...

I'm with GMP: "Breathing while female will sooner or later invite someone to put you down for one reason or another."

I'm a consulting engineer in a male-dominated sub-section of a male-dominated field in a really 'traditional' (read male-dominated) company.

Look, I've got this shit my whole life...you can't do this/you can't do that/you can't say this/you can't say that/you can't wear this/you can't wear that because you are a girl/a female/a woman...and, well, fuck 'em.

Ultimately, I'm going to warn women about the drawbacks but, hell, if they've got a certain skill-set and a certain approach to life and problems, this can be a perfect fit in terms of work. I'd have been a disaster in academia, I suspect. I'm a bull in a china shop to a certain extent in my present job, but, I'd have really been out of place in a University.

I used to be in the Trades. I studied engineering in my late 20's as a result of curiosity about certain technologies. It led me to several unexpected paths. There are other women out there like me, although we are far and few between and few get out of the carpenter/operating engineer/electrician side. Honestly, the sexism I encounter in my job is no worse than that I encountered in previous jobs...although it might be more hidden most of the time. [Tangent here: It is also no worse than that I encounter in daily life, in medical insurance coverage, in legal issues, in how so much of society behaved when I got divorced -- even though, I hasten to add, it is way better it would have been even 20 years ago -- and in something so stupid as how difficult it is to find women's dress clothes with useful pockets.]

One advantage I have is I stick out. People remember me. Work what you got, babe! And stay true to yourself. Family lore says when I was a crawling baby, I found a philips-head screwdriver and went wandering about looking for something to fit it into. By the time I was found, I had taken apart the entire door handle assembly from a bedroom door and arranged the pieces on the floor next to me. Is that a kid who needs to prioritize female-friendly when looking for a job?

Anonymous said...

I agree that things seem to get weirder as you get more senior. I'm in my early 50's now, and the older I get, the crankier (and, sadly, more bitter) I seem to get. I don't like getting bitter, which just makes me more cranky! I think it all just adds up over time. The first few times, you don't notice, or shrug it off. The 100th time...

Dr. Dad, PhD said...

Apparently I am absolutely out of touch because I think this is/was absolutely out of line.

Maybe it's because 2/3 of my mentors have been women, or that I've never really belonged to "the boy's club," but HOLY CRAP I wish I'd been there to say something....

Anonymous said...

I don't want to derail the truth-telling here. But I'll give an example of how you can ... mess? ... with it.

I brought my husband to a conference or colloquium dinner or two while in graduate school. Sometimes he would be asked if he, too, was a mathematician. He'd say he considered himself something of a topologist. (He's a Marxist philosopher, an Arctic explorer, and a colonial-era Irishman too, by the reasoning that went into that.) Then he'd say, "I heard that you mathematicians think there are more irrational numbers than rational numbers. Look, that's crazy... Is it really true?!"

It was like putting a cat among pigeons and certainly no one asked him if he was a mathematician after that!

Anonymous said...

All these things look like small things, but indeed they add up over time. I just started my TT job in a male dominated field in a very male university. Recently a colleague faculty member send an e-mail to a few other colleauges and me (all being male except me) starting with guys, ... As it is bad enough receiving e-mails from people you don`t know that address you as a male, it is - to me - totally hurtful when I get that from someone who DOES know me. But I tried to keep it humourous, and wrote back Girls, ... I thought that would have been hint enough, it didn`t spoil our relation. Then yesterday evening, bang, again an e-mail from this same person: Guys, ... I can try to shrug it of, to not care. I might even be successful, but it feels to me like cutting off a small piece of my soul (and we know how that worked for Voldemort).

Anonymous said...

Things have improved. 21 years ago, on my first day in my second job out of college, I found a new toilet was being built - very kindly, just for me ! You see when the building was built (1950's/60's) no one had considered there would ever be a woman working there. It was a research establishment with labs, accommodating up to about 20 staff.

I have to say, since that time and in every other establishment and University my personal ablutions have been sufficiently provided for.

Anonymous said...

When certain people say that women choose not to go into STEM and therefore it's their responsibility to change that if they think it's important, those people are missing a huge part of why we make decisions in the first place.

Every career (or any) choice a person makes is the integration of thousands of interactions, positive and negative, with that career and the idea of that career. No one makes choices in a vaccuum. In this case, the hostile environment has led to LW making the decision to perhaps not encourage her nieces interest in STEM as much as she otherwise would. The cause of their choices to avoid STEM in the future, ultimately, is the sexism their aunt experienced.

Does that mean that she should lie and tell her nieces everything is OK, to try to combat this? I don't think so. A caring person like LW wants her relatives to be happy, not angry.

Anonymous said...

A colleague of mine took her painter husband's last name when they married. They have the same first initial. He goes along to do child minding when she is invited to conferences.

She still cannot believe the number of times this has happened to her. He typically pipes up and says, "No, I am. I'm here to babysit." only to get really rude glances.

Really, academia? This is 2013 for crying out loud!

cherishthescientist.net said...

Oh yeah. Have this happen a lot. The funniest was when we went to a conference where we were both attending but I was presenting a paper. Someone asked if I was enjoying the activities for the spouses...even with the big red 'speaker' ribbon attached to my nametag.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who is a geologist went to a conference that had a field trip. On the field trip, she was collecting a rock and an older man on the field trip asked her if she was collecting the rock "for her rock garden at home". She said she didn't have a rock garden, not understanding why he said that. Then the man said "So you must be getting the rock for your husband. Did you check with him to see if he even wants a sample here?"

Anonymous said...

Whole I do get tired of the gender discrimination and misogyny in STEM, I don't see how warning young women away from these careers is helping to solve the problem. If anything it would worsen it because there might be even fewer women. Also, women are likely to encounter this is most other professions as well not just STEM. It is only when our numbers increase will our presence become normalized.

Anonymous said...

How about a female feminist researcher who works on the issue of women in STEM making that assumption about a female colleague? It happened to me...

Anonymous said...

I think I've only once been assumed to be a fellow mathematician's wife (and not a mathematician myself) at a conference. It was especially embarrassing because the someone in question had romantic feelings for me, which I did not in the least share. (This was during my PhD, and I had very recently become engaged to my now-husband.)

My husband sometimes accompanies me to conferences, and is often asked if he is also a mathematician. (He was, but quit his PhD to do something else.)
I speak at pretty much every conference I attend, which probably helps with being known to be a mathematician myself. Also my current research area is fairly small.

Anonymous said...

I'm aspiring to be an awesome lady scientist and I could just see how this goes down... They look at me and ask if I'm along for the ride. I say "Eh, actually, my husband is the one 'along for the ride.'"