Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why are there so few women who build their own house?

This morning I read a 10 pager in the New York Times titled Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? These things come up a lot in my twitter feed because I follow a lot of women scientists who tweet the links. Also I follow @NYTimesScience. I read these articles and I feel like I'm supposed to think, "Exactly! Me too!" but I usually don't. I mean, I'm a woman with a failed science career. Why don't I identify with other women? Does it increase my vulnerability to prejudice or decrease it?

I think up until the age of 25 I was just oblivious to gender based prejudice. From NY Times:
I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.
For me "pressures to be conventionally feminine" was my in-town grandmother talking me into shaving my legs when I was 11 (I've shaved every single day since then) and teaching me that I must NEVER wear socks with a skirt. (I never have and never will. But I never wear skirts or socks, so not a huge issue.)
Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.
The study’s findings apply equally in science. Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France “dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.”
I didn't know any of this. I was so sexually stunted up until my mid twenties I had no idea that boys were particularly put off by my being scientific. EVERYBODY shunned me in high school, boys and girls. Because I was better at them in ALL the classes. It never occurred to me that one subject was more important than another, and it certainly never occurred to me to pretend to be stupid. Frankly I didn't care. Why would I want to be popular with a bunch of people who were so mean, so shallow, so ignorant? I got along with the ten people in the upper level classes with me. And I didn't really feel that smart. I slept through Calculus every day. (I stayed up too late.) Then before tests one of my classmates would study with me. She would show me the steps the teacher did on the blackboard to solve the problems. She kept excellent notes. I would figure it out and explain to her why he did that. Then we both did fine on the test. I think that was the only time in my academic career I had a female study buddy. I never even thought about it until now.

I did realize in my 20s at my first job that I could get people to do what I told them if I dressed up. I honestly didn't think it had anything to do with sexiness. I thought it had to do with the impression of power and rank. In my mind that turquoise knit suit I had with the tight miniskirt and the low cut jacket with a peplum was an indicator that I was a valuable engineer and the men in the machine shop would pay attention to me and do my project in time for me to meet my deadline. When my office mate (a married man) said, "Oh, you look nice today. Trying to get something done in the shop?" I figured we were all on the same page. I wasn't trying to get the machinist to DATE me. I just wanted my parts milled! I thought of it something like that scene in The Holy Grail,

"Who's that, then?"
"I dunno, must be a king."
"Why?"
"He hasn't got shit all over him."

So basically this article is saying that all women are clued into the way people really work and I'm just totally naive and out of touch.

But I do have two science degrees. Isn't it fair to think that there might be other women as clueless as me that study this stuff and do these jobs because they just don't know any better?
The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on. My freshman year at Yale, I earned a 32 on my first physics midterm. My parents urged me to switch majors. All they wanted was that I be able to earn a living until I married a man who could support me, and physics seemed unlikely to accomplish either goal. 
I trudged up Science Hill to ask my professor, Michael Zeller, to sign my withdrawal slip. I took the elevator to Professor Zeller’s floor, then navigated corridors lined with photos of the all-male faculty and notices for lectures whose titles struck me as incomprehensible. I knocked at my professor’s door and managed to stammer that I had gotten a 32 on the midterm and needed him to sign my drop slip. 
“Why?” he asked. He received D’s in two of his physics courses. Not on the midterms — in the courses. The story sounded like something a nice professor would invent to make his least talented student feel less dumb. In his case, the D’s clearly were aberrations. In my case, the 32 signified that I wasn’t any good at physics. 
“Just swim in your own lane,” he said. Seeing my confusion, he told me that he had been on the swimming team at Stanford. His stroke was as good as anyone’s. But he kept coming in second. “Zeller,” the coach said, “your problem is you keep looking around to see how the other guys are doing. Keep your eyes on your own lane, swim your fastest and you’ll win.” 
I gathered this meant he wouldn’t be signing my drop slip. 
“You can do it,” he said. “Stick it out.”
I don't remember every talking to my parents about bad grades on a test. I think I probably called my father to laugh about the first Statics test I took. I got a 42. I did drop that class. I took it again and got an A on the first test, and something terrible on every one after that. I ended up with a D. I also got an F in Calculus and a C in Physics and a B in English and an A in Weightlifting. I liked that I got a complete run of all the grades. But I was on academic probation and I was very worried. I don't remember getting any encouragement to go on, but I must've done. I expect I called my father and he said something succinct like, "It's hard. You just have to study more." My brother probably told me the same thing. He never got grades that bad. He never worked at a job that required an all-nighter every Wednesday either. I was working about 50 hours a week as an editor on the student newspaper at the time. I think I accepted that I was going to flunk out if I didn't stop. I turned the job over to my assistant editor. I reconnected with him a few years ago and found out he absolutely hated Georgia Tech because it was hard and his social life was awful. He quit and went to law school. I had no idea. I think people who had a good time in high school liked Tech less than I did. I hated high school. I thought college was SUPPOSED to be hard. I was PAYING for it. I had no concept of a social life. It didn't strike me as odd that nobody asked me out on dates. I didn't have money or the wardrobe for stuff like that anyway. I don't know why I didn't put it together that the other girls I knew had tons of dates. I just really don't know. I still argue that it's irrelevant what you're studying though. They were all taking classes just as hard as me. Maybe they were better at just not talking about that stuff with men. Or maybe they just had way more hormones than me. (Probably that.)
Not even the math professor who supervised my senior thesis urged me to go on for a Ph.D. I had spent nine months missing parties, skipping dinners and losing sleep, trying to figure out why waves — of sound, of light, of anything — travel in a spherical shell, like the skin of a balloon, in any odd-dimensional space, but like a solid bowling ball in any space of even dimension. When at last I found the answer, I knocked triumphantly at my adviser’s door. Yet I don’t remember him praising me in any way. I was dying to ask if my ability to solve the problem meant that I was good enough to make it as a theoretical physicist. But I knew that if I needed to ask, I wasn’t.
I feel really bad for the author of this paper. I'm sorry she didn't get the praise she needed. But I'm also confused why she thought she would. I think she must have had the kind of parents people have on TV shows, not the kind I have. Her professor acts just like my father would. That's what I expect. I get all my satisfaction from the job of work, not from praise for the job of work. I am recently realizing this is abnormal for women, but clearly it is not something tied to the chromosomes, it's societal. When I tried to switch my career from electronics engineering to civil engineering I spent a year as a Project Technician, but basically I was a secretary to a Professional Engineer in coastal engineering. I enjoyed writing reports for him. He would write the basics out longhand on yellow legal pads. Then I would type that in Word and almost entirely rewrite it and reorganize it as I went along. He liked it. He quickly learned to leave out details he thought I could fill in. He just got the important stuff down and let me fix it. When I finished he would sign it and seal it and I'd send it out. He never said anything embarrassing like, "Great work! We make a good team!" I KNEW it was good work. I liked learning coastal engineering by typing, and he got the advantage of my mastery of language. (I really enjoy typing.)

Unfortunately the whole engineering group expected me to do secretary stuff like send faxes and make travel reservations as well as my field work inspecting sea walls and writing reports. One day the head of landscape architecture got to the airport to find no e-ticket waiting for him. When I got back from walking 10 miles on the beach I had an email saying "help me understand why I didn't have a ticket." Oops. When I got back to the office my boss said, "Jesus, Barbara! I thought you could do this job! It's not ROCKET SCIENCE!" This was a man whose nickname for me was "Atom Splitter." I gave him a look. "If it was rocket science then I could do it! Don't you think if I was good at Secretary I would have majored in that and not something as hard as Rocket Science?!" He allowed as how it was his mistake for giving me the desk where the administrative assistant used to sit. He moved me to the other side of the building and hired a real secretary. She did a great job with all the chores. And I still got to write the reports.

One day after about 8 months she quit. I spoke to her on her last day. She was complaining how trying that job was. "Oh, I know! They're always interrupting you to do some trivial thing when there's an interesting report to edit!" She gave me this confused look. "I'm fine with multitasking. I love it! I'm talking about how they never say 'Thank You!' There's never any encouragement at all!"

"Are you serious? Well then we were both ill-suited to this job but for the complete opposite reason. I thought the amount of positive feedback I got was perfectly fine."

And even faced with this evidence that I'm not a normal woman I just chalked it up to her not being brought up with engineers. I STILL thought I was looking at differences in personality of scientists and secretaries, not women and men. Because I'm a woman and I'm nothing like that.

Which is kind of how I feel when I read these articles about why there aren't more women in science. Why are these women so different from the men? I feel right at home in the male environment. Is it because I grew up with a brother and male cousins for my only playmates? Is it because I emulated my father and not my mother educationally? I expect the women that ARE in science are also weird in their own way, with their own background that shaped them. I'm not sure what anybody can do about it. I'd be inclined to say it comes down to your parents, but look at Amanda Palmer. Her parents are scientists and she is decidedly nothing like them.

More from NYT:
Not long ago, I met five young Yale alumnae at a Vietnamese restaurant in Cambridge. Three of the women were attending graduate school at Harvard — two in physics and one in astronomy — and two were studying oceanography at M.I.T. None expressed anxiety about surviving graduate school, but all five said they frequently worried about how they would teach and conduct research once they had children. 
“That’s where you lose all the female physicists,” one woman said. 
“Yeah, it’s even hard to get your kid into child care at M.I.T.,” said another. “Women are just as willing as men to sacrifice other things for work,” said a third. “But we’re not willing to do even more work than the men — work in the lab and teach, plus do all the child care and housework.”
Yep, that's where you lost this female physicist. This is why I won't go to any meetings for supporting women in science and engineering. I went to one as an alumni and I was disgusted. It was all about this. Husbands and babies. I NEVER wanted babies. Never for a second did I worry about how I would do science once I had children. In fact I never visualized anything about my future, not the job OR babies. Which is probably why I failed. But it is extremely off-putting. I feel like I should start a group for Childfree Women in Science for people that want to talk about something besides life balance. I like going to talks by scientists where they talk about SCIENCE! And I can get that by participating in groups of men.

Another quote:
Back at Yale, Urry laughed at my own stories of how inept I had been in lab — drizzling acid on my stockings, which dissolved and went up in smoke, getting hurled across the room by a shock from an ungrounded oscilloscope, not being able to replicate the Millikan oil-drop experiment. Even she had been a disaster in lab in college. Only when she took a more advanced lab and spent hours poring over a circuit diagram, figuring out that her fellow students had set up an experiment wrong, did she realize she knew as much as they did. 
“I’m soldering things, and I’m thinking, Hey, I’m really good at this. I know the principles. It’s like an art. It took me years to realize I’m actually good with my hands. I have all these small-motor skills from all the years I spent sewing, knitting and designing things. We should tell young women, ‘That stuff actually prepares you for working in a lab.’ ”
I never thought of that. I was never a disaster in the lab though. I sure as hell never wore stockings. I guess I already had tons of experience doing things myself. I also had a good lab partner who made the oscilloscope show the right things, then I wrote better reports and got better grades than him. (I felt bad about it too. But now he owns the company where he learned to use an oscilloscope and I'm a freelance pro-bono science writer, so I guess it was good foreshadowing.) I tend to credit my success in lab to good writing, not sewing. How could it be sewing? My brother made model airplanes but I sewed. I tried a plane once but I didn't know you were meant to put glue only on the edges of the wing then shrink the paper. I put glue on all the struts too. My brother was nice to explain to me what I'd done wrong without making me feel any worse than the actual hideous wing did, but I think I was glad to throw it away and just go back to needle and thread.

Counted Cross-stitch I made when I was about 13 for my town-grandmother.
When she died my aunt gave it back to me. I'm glad I did this when I was young
because I can barely hold a needle any longer. Hands are worn out.
More from NY Times:
Most of all, we need to make sure that women — and men — don’t grow up in a society in which they absorb images of scientists as geeky male misfits. According to Catherine Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, gender differences in enrollment rates in high-school physics tend to be correlated with the number of women in the larger community who do or do not work in STEM fields.
This is only half true. Why does it matter if the scientists in the community are women? I grew up in a TINY community. But in that tiny community I regularly encountered scientists, engineers, naturalists, teachers, and writers. None of the engineers or scientists were women. The women (and some men) were writers and teachers. But I honestly didn't differentiate between the women and men when it came to role models. My mother teaching me the rules of grammar seemed equally helpful as my father teaching me l'Hopital's Rule. I was collecting rattlesnakes for Bruce Means to dissect when I was just a kid and helped him use his radio tracker to find snakes in the woods. I remember my father studying for the professional engineering exam. I used to thumb through the whisper thin pages of his CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and admire it's odd dimensions. (It had small covers like a novel, but was about 7" thick.) He taught me to use his old HP reverse polish notation calculator with the red LEDs when he got the new programmable one, and bought me an HP15C as soon as they were introduced. Clearly I didn't mind being the kid who was different, and I didn't mind emulating my father AND my mother. I liked that I never had to loan anybody my calculator. And I liked when my orthodontist said he liked my poem in the school poetry pamphlet. Of course I was the only kid in school with these science oriented role models. None of the rest of them lived like I did, 15 miles away in the country with a long distance phone number from the kids in my class, doing science for fun.

Unfortunately my obliviousness as a child just gave me a lack of people skills that in middle age equates to being unemployable as a scientist and invisible as a woman. So I'm not wishing this path on any other would-be scientists. I think if I had joined a sorority and learned to get along with other women my life would have turned out differently. But at the same time I enjoy that I get my satisfaction from doing a good job of work and don't require any personal or societal praise to feel fulfilled. Isn't that just what it's like to be a person who asks questions and then seeks the answer, who designs something and then builds it? Why are people continually asking why there aren't more women in science and not asking about any of the other things I do that are weird?

Why don't more women build their own house? I've built several. I'm not good at it particularly, if you go by speed. I'm terrible compared to a man. I'm 1/4 as good at hammering as a man I know who also has built several houses, as a strike-for-strike comparison will show. But I still do it. And I don't care if nobody encourages me or if nobody says they like it. Most of my relatives have never even seen the houses I've built. They aren't impressed. They weren't impressed when I got a physics degree either, or an oceanography degree. Despite what it says in my aunt's book she did not come to my college graduation. Only my dad did, because I made him. I said, "You paid for it, we're going." I paid for my own Masters Degree and I didn't bother with graduation. My diploma came in the mail.

I kind of wish I could show my relatives my house because I'm proud of it, but that's fine. I get it the way I want it and I feel good about it. Maybe that's odd for a woman, based on what I've read. We're supposed to need all this "support." I was the same with science. I thought I was pretty terrible as a physics student. But I didn't spend a lot of time comparing myself to other students. It was none of my business what their grades were. I was actually really surprised when I showed up at graduation to find out I was ranked 30 out of 60 in my graduating class. I would have thought I was dead last. I just did physics because the professors were good, the subjects seemed interesting, and I'm stubborn. I'm still drawn to the physical questions. When Bruce Means tells me he keeps live frogs in a zipper bag I immediately think of the physics of permeable plastic. Thinking too much about a frog in a bag really weirds me out. It's possible I do physics to deflect the empathetic anxiety I get from biology.

I'm glad that as person who isn't actually "in" science I can satisfy my curiosity with half-assed experiments and not have to take down tons of data if I don't want to. I think I can "be" a scientist without being "in" science. It's a shame there's not a better word for somebody who builds their own houses who isn't "in" building. I'm just "handy at DIY." Nobody would write an article called "Why aren't there more women who are handy at DIY?" though, because there are as many women as men on TV shows doing home renovations. But as a portion of the population, how many women and men would be considered "handy at DIY"? Where is that data? Is perception of a problem more important than an actual discrepancy? Does it only matter if it's a career and not a way of life? Do you need just one TV show to make it so? There are more shows than Big Bang Theory that have scientists, even women ones. Eureka, for example. Also Bones* and Voyager. Firefly had all the extremes covered by women. I don't have the channel that gets Mythbusters but I follow them on Twitter and I'm sure there's a woman on there. She might be doing science and being handy at DIY.

I have to write up my experiment with yeast in a zipper bag now.

* Bones is a terrible example of a woman scientist. If she was so smart she would learn from all the help people give her in how to get along better with others. Also reversing her desire to not have children infuriated me. I stopped watching then.

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