Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sports Analogies and Strong Women

And now for more of our regularly scheduled women-in-science programming. Themes: You Can Do It, We're Getting Better, and Keep Trying.

A woman recently came to speak here. She's worked as dean or president at six or so colleges; she's retired now.

She talked about being in college in the 50's. "The dean of Pretentious University called me into his office at the beginning of my senior year and told me I couldn't be a math major because I was a woman. [Had he not noticed until then?] I'd taken a lot of classes and done very well, but too bad! So I switched."

"After I graduated and got married, I was looking for jobs in science. This was during the post-war industrial boom. But every time they said, 'We don't hire women for technical positions. But can you type?' So I got a job as a technical writer. That's like science, but it has words; and you know women are good with words. Hah."

"And I got pregnant and they fired me. Never let anyone tell you laws can't change discrimination: that's illegal now."

"I'd put my husband through medical school; our kids were in high school. So I was working as an editor, and I started working on a PhD, just for fun, you know. I'd bought a doctor, I figured I'd never have to work again. And then! one day my husband ran off with his teenage receptionist."
"I was the first female president in an entirely male hierarchy. And I have to tell you, I was good at my work, I was very good, but I don't think I would have gotten any of those jobs without affirmative action. Without external pressure for change, as well as pressure from their constituencies, the female students, they wouldn't have hired a woman.

They were trying to be all friendly and welcoming, so they organized a retreat. They'd never done a retreat before. And at the end of it someone asked me, 'So, how's it been, Sue? What do you think?' And I said, 'It's been lovely, very interesting. The only thing is, I wish everyone could use some metaphors other than sports. Up to bat. Home stretch. Team player. All the time. Maybe art, or literature, or politics, or, ah, anything else?'

And this person, to whom I had spoken in private, told everyone else. To be malicious. So for years, it was 'Well, let's level the playing field. Oh! So sorry! I forgot, you don't like sports.' Fifteen times a day. It was harassment. I could have sued them, but I bit my tongue. I knew what it was, and it was on purpose, a distancing thing: You're not one of us."

[I asked: Do you have advice for us young women on how to deal without discrimination without being furious all the time?]

"Furious! Well, it's better than depression, which is what most people experience when they realize there's discrimination. But really, choose your battles. And make allies. Avoid venting to the people who are driving you nuts. And have good friends so you can vent."

I can never decide if hearing these things is heartening or not. It was worse: much worse. And women still earn 75 cents for every dollar our spouses, sons, partners, friends, and fathers make. (For a bunch of complicated reasons, only some of which are to do with discrimination, but many of which are to do with structural inequalities.)

In an effort to be more positive, and in response to someone's question, I was trying to think of things I like about being a woman in science. I like meeting other smart men and women. And I like science. But I don't think I like a single other thing about it.

What's good about being a woman in science? Or, if you're not in science, about being a woman in your profession?

(Comments are open; welcome, any carnival readers! Drop in and say hi!)