Unpacking a bit more

Yesterday’s post was frustrating. However, if anything good came out of it, it was some sharing of stories and mutual affirmations on the Twitters that yes, this happens to women all too frequently; yes, it’s obnoxious; and that hopefully some people viewing it thought about their own internalized biases, and how those may reflect in behavior toward women. I’m reminded at times like these how important social media networks have been to me, both in introducing me to new people (I’ve already found many new scientists to follow because of this) and in having an outlet to discuss and commiserate. So, some thoughts.

1) I hadn’t considered this in the beginning (because it’s my life and all), but from the write-up alone, I probably sound like “just a mom,” especially with my baby’s picture within the post. I mention at one point my colleague and link to a fellow scientist, but let’s be honest–people don’t always read these posts carefully or all the way through. So I was an easy target. Many studies have shown that people still describe scientists as old, white men–the Einstein stereotype. Just google “scientist” and check out the images: a bunch of nerdy, older white guys for the most part, and a handful of women (some scantily dressed, cause that’s exactly how we science, amirite ladies?). I got this type of attitude just the other day, as the driver who picked me up at the Philadelphia airport (a driver who routinely transports scientists!) was still surprised that I was a young woman and doing the work that I do. I’ve gotten that response previously at conferences as well. Women just aren’t accepted as scientists, even at times by other people working in the field.

2) I think many people (especially men) may underestimate or not understand just how frustrating this type of behavior/attitude is to women. Or worse, minimize it or not accept that this happens. I’ve been gaslighted previously by male (and female!) colleagues, telling me that surely my perception of a situation or event was incorrect. I accepted that they were right at the time (this was long before #ripplesofdoubt or other such support and story-sharing). No way would I stand for that now.

3) Blowback. The current situation involved a pseudonymous man on the internet, but all too often in these types of situations where women are dismissed and their expertise minimized people are involved who are more difficult to ignore. They may be senior colleagues in one’s own department or college. People in the field who could be reviewers of your papers or grant applications. Even collaborators who, in theory, should respect your training and value your expertise can try to appropriate your work because they see themselves as more important. (Thankfully this has not happened to me, but it has to several of my female colleagues, with mixed results in the end as far as credit, authorship, etc.)

In the end, much of this type of sexism is not conscious on the part of the one initiating it. I’m sure that people who told me I don’t look like a scientist meant it as a compliment and truly believed it was–because after all, scientists aren’t supposed to be young, or female, or particularly attractive. I’m sure that those that may have assumed I’m “just a mom” and didn’t bother to pay any attention to my professional accomplishments before explaining my field to me don’t think they’re particularly biased against women. Outright, blatant bias against women is much tougher to get away with today (in theory, anyhow), but the more subtle, “everyday” sexist behaviors are still very much amongst us. If it hurts people’s feelings that they get called out on these, well, tough. The only way things change is by shedding light on them. I have a bright spotlight and I’m not afraid to use it.

You’re also too pretty for math

I wasn’t going to raise this comment en blogge, but with Dr. Isis’ new post, it becomes more relevant. From Rick Fletcher on the “you’re too pretty” post:

It’s a major issue if your department won’t hire your or promote you because you are a woman. It’s no surprise that a retail clerk at a small shop in a downtown area is not the smoothest operator.

25 years ago it was a common response when I was introduced as a PhD chemist: “You don’t seem like a scientist.” Now it’s a common response when introduced, “Why are you single?” People say some dumb things. Not exactly the news.

But again, it’s an issue if the people who matter to your career hold you back because of your gender or appearance. Is that the case? No?

You can’t tweet the science but you can blog your indignation over getting hit on. Check your issues bag, it might be time for spring cleaning.

I already responded in the thread so I won’t rehash here, but via Isis comes this lovely reminder of why it’s more than just the people who hold my career back who matter–it’s an all-too-pervasive attitude, and it’s not just about me. Isis caught this screenshot from the store Forever21 (a store that I think we have in our mall here; I’ll have to see if they carry this particular product):

Yes, for less than $4, you too can tell the girls in your life that they’re too attractive for math. As Dr. Isis notes:

This is the kind of nonsense that frightens me. Washed up old fucks like Harvey Mansfield don’t worry me. I worry more about the small messages that pervade popular culture. The messages that we have to defend our girls against when we take them to the mall or the market.

Things like this make me realize just how far we have to go.

Bingo. *This* is why comments like that matter and aren’t just some kind of harmless flirty pick-up line, or just my “issues” that I need to “spring clean.” It affects all of us, and we all need to be aware of it and respond, rather than sweep it under the rug and dismiss it.