May 04

Women In Science

Two days ago, Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) posted a call for responses from women on Twitter to a very troll-ish comment on his Women as planetary science role models blog post.

I will only say one thing: If women want to have careers in science and engineering, the door has been wide open for several decades. Women need only enter the door, and work at their education the same way all of we men have done.

I deny the idea that women have been denied entry to science and engineering in the last 30 years. I deny that women have been prevented by whatever force from advancing in their careers in science and engineering. There is no “glass ceiling” preventing women from achieving the highest levels of accomplishment and respect in science and engineering.

James Glass PhD, PE
Chemical Engineer, Licensed Professional Engineer, Colorado and Wyoming.

That’s a seriously large helping of denial right there.

Before continuing, let’s set the stage, shall we? I don’t see myself as a victim and don’t feel that I’ve been held back in any particular way, but I am a woman in science and a woman in tech in particular, so this hits close to home. Moreover, I have a blog where I can write what I want so I’m adding my two cents. What follows is fairly long, autobiographical, and, for some, potentially boring so feel free to click away and come back later when I’ll have some interesting poetry or fiction to post – you won’t hurt my feelings.

Moving on…

I have always been a nerd and a geek. There may have been a time, very, very early on where I wasn’t interested in learning and knowing things, but I certainly can’t remember it. I grew up watching 3-2-1 Contact, Square One, Mr. Wizard, and documentaries on PBS in addition to my Saturday morning and after-school cartoons. I had Barbie and My Little Pony but I also played He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Transformers with my brother, and I used my Speak & Spell so much that I wore out the laminate on some of the keys. I wrote my first computer program in BASIC when I was 10 or 11 and I have been playing video games since the Atari came out. Admittedly, I hated math until I got into Calculus because I found applied math either boring, easy, or both depending on the class, but when I discovered abstract math it was love at first sight and I was just as happy in college writing research papers on Computer Science theory as I was writing literary analysis.

Growing up, it was hit-or-miss whether I’d be in the gender-minority for a given environment:

  • In middle school I was the only girl in fencing the first year it was offered, but one of at least a dozen in shop class.
  • In high school I was one of around four girls and the only sophomore in AP Physics, but my AP Calculus class was essentially an even split.
  • In college I was frequently one of a handful of women in my undergraduate CS classes but my Chemistry labs had more women than men.
  • At my current company I have been: one of two women on the Software Team, the only woman, one of four women, one of six women, and now I’m one of three women but the only female developer.

I have, since entering the workforce, run into one or two people who dismissed me for being a woman and a distressing number of people online who refuse to believe I’m a woman because I like science and nerdy things and “sound like a guy” when I speak because I don’t “squeal and gush” about everything. But, on the whole, I have been monumentally lucky (and obliviously stubborn) when it comes to my academic and professional careers.

My parents never told me what to be interested in or that I couldn’t do something, and I was expected to do well in all my classes including science and math. I have a father who is equally annoyed with irrational behavior in all of his children and expects us all to understand how a car works, and I have a mother who expects all of her children to be able to feed themselves, do laundry, and understand the working end of a mop. I turn to my father when I want to geek out about cooking and food and I turn to my mother when I want to geek out about computers and tech news. I’m massively introverted so it takes me a very, VERY long time to develop lasting friendships, which means the few friends I do have (male and female) are accepting of who I am, nonjudgmental, and supportive.

I am immeasurably lucky to have so many diverse and interesting people in my life who continually defy the male/female stereotypes we see perpetuated endlessly in popular culture and who reinforce the idea that intelligence and skill should be the deciding factor in whether or not you succeed.

That being said, no one has ever encouraged my interest in science specifically, but no one actively discouraged me either; my parents encouraged education in general and supported following your passion whether that was art, science, or being a garbage man so I was free to find my own path to (and through) what interests me. I wasn’t looking for “open doors”. I was just looking for opportunities to learn, and if that meant I was the only woman in the room, oh well. Frankly, when you’re as introverted as I am, just being in the room at all can be daunting so you tend to ignore what others think about your being there as a matter of course to avoid being intimidated. Being an introvert was part of the reason I always sat in the first row in class… well that and, as I mentioned before, I’m a huge nerd.

I have never expected anyone to open metaphoric doors for me (or, for that matter, physical ones), but because no one ever discouraged my interests I also always just assumed they were out there somewhere and it was only a matter of finding my way there. If I had to go off trail to find them I was okay with that because I always saw learning as an adventure.

The end result is that I can disagree with someone, respect their opinion, understand their reasoning, and even learn from their perspective, without it affecting my confidence in my position. I am the clichéd wallflower in new environments and I prefer civility and constructive discourse over open hostility, but if I think I’m being humored, disregarded, or dismissed, I will challenge you, loudly and tenaciously, and repeat myself as often as necessary to make it impossible for you to ignore me or not take me seriously.

That’s not to say that things always go my way when I stand up for myself; the key is that I am willing to accept the consequences of my actions:

      In my high school Physics class I was told by my (male) final project partners that they didn’t need my help and that they would let me know when they were ready for me to participate. I couldn’t force them to work with me so I came up with a topic and did the entire project on my own. On the day our group was supposed to present our project I got to class early and told the teacher that my partners had refused to work with me in any way, that I had done the project entirely by myself, that I would be presenting the results by myself, and if I had to lose points for not working with a team that was fine but I would absolutely not allow them to take credit for my work.

      In college I was told by a (female) student adviser that the basic Chemistry series would be too hard for me and I should take the remedial series first. This was the summer before my freshman year so I had no idea how hard a college chemistry course would be and no way of knowing whether the adviser was right. I cried for a bit because I was unsure and scared then talked to my mom to work through the problem. I decided to ignore her advice, trust my abilities, and plan my courses as I saw fit. If that meant I received a bad grade because I had bit off more than I could chew then at least I’d know where I needed to slow down and could make an informed decision.

      In grad school I was told by my (male) research professor that I was lazy, useless, and a bad student because I refused to work 80 hours a week as a research assistant like my male counterpart – that I was also working as a T.A. as part of my financial aid and going to classes myself while he was not was, apparently, irrelevant. For that, and a variety of other reasons, I gained the dubious honor of being the first female student (possibly the first student period, I can’t remember with certainty) to be kicked out of the program. (FYI, that particular observation comes from the department adviser who mentioned offhandedly that my committee was making me jump through hoops because kicking me out of the program when my grades were so strong would make the department look bad and they were trying to make it as hard on me as possible so I would quit).

      In the workplace, I’ve heard on multiple occasions that it’s okay to not take women seriously in tech because they’re not “real” developers – they’re just using a developer position as a stepping stone to move into a managerial position. While, obviously, there are exceptions, I feel confident in saying that as a general rule any career path in tech will involve team management in some form as you move forward. That I am expected to believe male tech professionals aren’t looking to move beyond an entry-level developer position, or that their successes are a result of their passion for technology and not because they’re actively working toward furthering their careers (like women are) is so blatantly stupid that I generally just laugh in the face of anyone dumb enough to regurgitate that idea.

Everything I do is a consequence of my decisions to act or not act: I can choose to push my way through obstacles, find a way around them, or simply ignore them, and as illustrated above, I have made use of all three tactics. But not everyone is born a stubborn packhorse, and I saw many female Computer Scientists fall by the wayside who probably would have stuck with it if they had been made more welcome or, at minimum, not treated like they were an oddity. When I started my second year as a Computer Science major almost all of the women I started out with had changed majors over the summer, and in most cases to majors that had nothing to do with the physical sciences. When I started grad school there were only around six female grad students in the entire Computer Science department and no female faculty. I can’t know for certain that the women who left the program as undergraduates felt intimidated or unwelcome, but comments like “hey, there’s a girl in the class!” that made them the center of unwanted attention, the patronizing lectures I sometimes heard going on behind me (I was still sitting in that front row), and the lack of female faculty to serve as an example, probably didn’t help.

The truth of the matter is that there are still plenty of people out there (men and women alike) who consider women in science an aberration and hold to the notion that the differential is “understandable” because the female brain “just works differently” and they are happy to make a point of telling you so. As Glass points out, there are more doors open to women in science now than there ever have been, but those doors aren’t always clearly marked; no matter how open or unguarded, it’s hard to walk through a door that’s kept hidden from you. I found plenty of doors because I believed they were there and basically ignored anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. Where I am today is as much a testament to my upbringing and stubbornness as it is to the opportunities I have been afforded, and I’m pretty happy where I am, but I have to admit that sometimes I wonder how many doors I missed along the way simply because I didn’t realize they were meant for me.


  1. Liz

    Well said Sarah! It is absolutely true that the doors are unmarked and hidden.When I was graduating, the only thing anyone told me I could do with a Biology degree was get my teaching credentials. I never heard of Biotech…or any of the other opportunities that abound in the field. It was only by shear force of will that I looked beyond what others were offering. I too feel that there were doors I missed along the way. A shame really…I would’ve rocked those doors!

    1. thegoblin

      LOL! I didn’t think anyone would actually read through the whole post 😀

      On the one hand, I understand where those kind of comments are coming from because, overall, I think there are plenty of opportunities for women in science these days. The catch, of course, is that those are areas women have been kept out of for a very, VERY long time. That kind of social training doesn’t vanish in one or two generations – it takes time for new norms and expectations to be established – so acting like the issue is “all fixed now” is naive, dismissive, and damaging.

      I’d wager it’ll take another 3 or 4 generations at least before things even start to level out… and that’s just on the academic front >__<

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