The young woman in my office wants to major in science. Let’s call her Jane and make her representative of all the young women with whom I’ve had this conversation. Jane’s hardworking, bright, ambitious, and doing exceptionally well in my yearlong, introductory physics sequence. She knows she wants to major in some kind of physical science, but isn’t really sure what kind of jobs are open to her if she follows that track, or how she will pay for her college degree. I discuss career options and show her scholarships available through programs promoting women in physics.
“I don’t want a girls-only scholarship,” she says. “I don’t want any special treatment.”
This is where I sigh, deeply.
Jane thinks of “girls-only” funding as degrading. She also dislikes the word “feminist.” Somehow she has learned that not only is shameful to ask for equal rights, but also to be embarrassed about accepting opportunities that would help her succeed in an environment that can be anywhere from unfriendly to outright hostile toward women. These opportunities would level her playing field. The problem is that Jane is in denial about how uneven the playing field really is.
I could tell Jane about my own experiences of fighting my way through an undergraduate degree in physics and a graduate degree in medical physics. These include blatant sexism with the most severe incident happening during my third year of college. The fall semester had just started and in my advanced circuits class, I was the only girl. I was used to being the only girl, and it didn’t bother me. We had only two other female physics majors on campus. Plus, this class was taught by my mentor with whom I worked in the ion source lab. I was looking forward to take a class from a charismatic talented professor in a classroom filled with male friends with whom I’d already been in several study groups. That supportive and engaging environment lasted only until our first test. When we were handed back our exam, mine had a grade thirty points higher than the one following mine. This was very unusual. I was used to being a top grade earner, but not ahead of the grade curve. But the topic of circuits was something I knew after spending the last year in the lab building and testing electronics.
That didn’t matter to the student sitting next to me who saw my grade and compared it to the distribution table displayed on the blackboard. He cornered me after class and said he knew I’d earned that grade because I was sleeping with the professor. It didn’t matter that several of my male friends defended me. The ugly taint of that remark followed me for the rest of that year. I had a cold clump in my stomach every time I earned a high exam score or did well on an assignment, wondering if my classmates thought I’d earned my grade through unethical means.
My experiences also include outright harassment. Like when I first started graduate school and attended the welcome barbecue with high hopes of making new friends and getting to know my new professors. The party took place in one of the faculty’s back yard and at first it didn’t bother me that I was the only female student in the incoming class. There was a woman in the class ahead of me and another one ahead of her. They were both welcoming and I also met several of the physics faculty wives, some of them professors at the university in other science disciplines or working in various departments at the university hospital, which was affiliated with the graduate school.
Toward the end of the night, after much food and drink—non-alcoholic for me since I drove to the party, but not for everyone—I went inside the house in search of the restroom. On my way out again to the backyard, one of the professors cornered me in the living room. He blocked the door by leaning his shoulder on the doorframe. Although I could hear the music and conversation from the party in the backyard, the sound was muted and seemed further away than it probably was. Something in the man’s posture made me uncomfortable, or maybe it was the way his eyes glided up and down my body.
“We’re so glad you joined the program,” he said. “You can never have too many girls in the classroom, or anywhere else, at least that’s my motto.”
He grinned and proceeded to explain the research project he was working on, a study comparing MRI images to true photographs of the human body. “I’m always looking for the perfect female form,” he added as he leered at my chest. “Maybe you’d like to volunteer.”
The creepiness of this incident escalated when I realized that because the MRI images he was working on were “slices” through a body’s torso, the comparative photographs were of super thin slices sawed off frozen cadavers.
I tell Jane none of these stories because she doesn’t relate to what happened decades ago, although it still happens today. In her short academic career, she has probably never experienced blatant sexism or harassment. And hopefully she never will.
Instead I tell her about the loneliness these incidents created.
And now Jane leans forward in her chair. This she recognizes.
She knows about tensing her shoulders when stepping into a classroom filled with men, about modifying her speech and behavior during group work and labs. She has felt the isolation of working in an environment where all historical contributions in the field mentioned in class are of Caucasian white men with whom she has nothing in common. Where the examples in the textbook are about applications she isn’t really interested in, such as racing cars, dropping bombs, or building robots. Not that women can’t do those things, but they don’t show science in a way that excites Jane. She too likes robotics, but would be more engaged and motivated if the examples focused on humanitarian applications of using robots in disaster relief rather than pointing out how far they can shoot rockets.
Jane recognizes that she feels lonely, even if she can’t articulate that is because she doesn’t quite know the cultural vocabulary and often misses non-verbal cues. Because of this loneliness, this isolation—I explain to Jane—she should apply for money aimed specifically at women. Because science need more people like her, people who can look beyond the typical applications of introductory science, who can innovate the teaching methods and excite the next generation of scientists.
Jane leaves my office with a handful of printouts and brochures. I can only hope that she sits down and fills them out before someone tells her that applying for “girl-only” money makes her appear weak and as if she’s receiving special treatment. Because the truth is that in a more diverse and inclusive academic environment all women and men will feel more supported and more welcomed. They’ll be able to perform better in a field that is desperate for ingenuity and innovation, which no one can supply while feeling lonely, isolated, or outright discriminated against.
Photo: Lego Feminist Science Set