Thursday, September 28, 2006

Oppression O' the Day

Despite my apparent obsession with the topic of women-in-science, I really don't have to work hard at all to find examples of ways in which women are patronized, discouraged, and discriminated against on a daily basis. Some of the examples are trivial:

Trivial example: I was laughing in the corridor with a colleague yesterday, and someone (male) passing by told me that I "laugh like a schoolgirl". My immediate thought was that this must be one of the people in my department who thinks I am too young for a leadership position.

Some examples are very serious:

Serious example: A promising undergraduate student who is doing senior thesis research and has plans to go to graduate school has to change her thesis topic because she is pregnant and can't be exposed to the chemicals in the lab in which she was working. Her thesis advisor (female professor) has ideas for alternate projects, but this morning, the Undergraduate Advisor (old male professor, has a wife who raised the kids etc.) gave the student a stern lecture about how she will have to make compromises and it's going to be really difficult and he's not sure she can do research now etc. etc. He also has "intellectual" concerns about the alternate projects. This is one of those cases where mandatory retirement for aged faculty is really appealing. The student is fortunate, however, that her thesis advisor is going to make sure that she has the support she needs and can do a senior thesis.


Ms.PhD said...

Ugh. You probably have a beautiful laugh, and he meant it as a compliment-?

re: the student, that's a tricky one. There are very few things that, nowadays, you can't reasonably work with even while pregnant if appropriate precautions are taken. Now, it's possible she's super-paranoid, or he is, or the work really is dangerous in his lab.

If they're really using super nasty things, she really shouldn't work in his lab, she should find something else to do until she can be reasonably certain she'd only be exposing herself and not some poor unwitting embryo.

If they stuff isn't really that dangerous, but she's being paranoid, that's her choice, but then we shouldn't feel sorry for her, should we-?

It's all about priorities. I say, if you're going to have a kid, you have to decide if you're going to be the protective type or not. If you are, you might as well go all the way with it- no turkey, no sushi, no alcohol, no smoking, and no scary chemical exposures.

Female Science Professor said...

The student isn't being paranoid. She absolutely should not be in the lab while pregnant. When I was pregnant, I didn't step foot in that lab, and I'd rather she avoid it as well (it's my lab, by the way). Ideally, the toxins are safely contained, following all the usual regulations and safety procedures, but I've seen researchers and students make mistakes in there, and in some cases have had to ban certain people from the lab because I couldn't trust them to follow the procedures. For this student, there are alternative projects involving analyses of non-toxic samples, as well as computational-based projects, any of which would be very interesting and would give her an excellent background for graduate school. The only role of the Undergrad Student Advisor is to approve the thesis topic change; he's just jerking everyone around because he can. He should be encouraging, not discouraging, a very talented student.

Anonymous said...

That undergraduate adviser is a jerk. How is the student supposed to compromise - by endangering her baby?

I worry about my exposure to chemicals in the lab, too. I'm not pregnant, but the hazards still nag at me from the back of my mind. I hope nothing I do now will haunt me later.

Anonymous said...

The undergrad student advisor should be officially reprimanded in some way; that's a terrible story.

Anonymous said...

I myself am struggling with the issue of whether to work in the lab during my pregnancy. I worked through my last pregnancy, but I'm more cautious this time since it's high risk and I'm in a new lab. So far so good, just been doing XRD XPS SEM materials characterization. However, we're soon going to be using arsine and hydrogen selenide gases in the XPS lab. We're flowing the gas in a vacuum chamber to react it and then introducing the sample into the XPS chamber. Theoretically I should have no exposure, but arsine and hydrogen selenide are Class 4 health and fire rated materials. I don't know whether I'm being paranoid or not. How DO you know???

quaditi said...

i am a reasearch student and going to finish my phd within one year.i have become pregnant now...its fifth week running. i do work with lot of hazardous chemical like toluene ,hexane etc.and do lot of electrom microscopy stuff.i am very much worried and better to say confused to be happy for my kid . i do not know unknowingly how much damage i have done for the kid??
but wht can i do? i cannot leave my almost finished work .i am feeling terrible.

Female Science Professor said...

You have to stop working with hazardous materials immediately and discuss it with your doctor. Your supervisor needs to work out a way that you can continue your research without coming into contact with the hazardous chemicals. It is probably fine for you to continue with the electron microscopy aspects of your work yourself. If your supervisor is unwilling to make other arrangements, you need to talk to someone at your university who is responsible for the health and safety of employees, and also communicate with your doctor about the situation.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a very old post but just wanted to leave a comment about working in the lab while pregnant, just in case anyone is reading this.

I have worked for many years in labs using a large variety of chemicals and gases (including arsine). I have always taken precautions but have on occasion been exposed to small amounts of potentially harmful substances (due to ventilation failure, for example). Such things happen.

Two years ago when I found out I was pregnant (six weeks along) I immediately stopped all work in labs where chemicals or gases were used. A bit of research revealed that 90% of the substances used at my workplace have "unknown" effects on a developing fetus - in other words there is no available research indicating whether there are effects.

I had a very safe healthy pregnancy. However my baby was born with numerous birth defects. He has had several surgeries and will have more, and may always have a difficult life. I know it is very, very unlikely that his problems were caused by something I was exposed to in early pregnancy, or even before I was pregnant (or something my husband, who works in the same lab, was exposed to). But the truth is - WE WILL NEVER KNOW.

I just want to very strongly urge anyone who is pregnant to be very careful about what you are exposed to in your research. It is NOT paranoid, or overprotective, and does not mean you are less dedicated to your research or career (both of these are VERY important to me!). But things do happen, and it is very hard to live the rest of your life wondering if you have caused serious physical harm to your child.