When I was a kid growing up in the woods of the Hudson Valley in New York, I was a pretty full-on science nerd. I loved being outside, and knew the names of all the local trees, all the native songbirds and most of the nearby geology by the time I was 10. My grandmother encouraged my studies — we watched PBS nature documentaries, she put up shelves for my rock collection, and she taught me everything she knew about human and animal physiology (she was an EMT, so she knew a thing or two). I won my eighth-grade science fair, and even though I had crummy earth sciences and chemistry teachers in high school, my biology, physics, and environmental studies teachers were excellent. I entered college at Syracuse University as a biology major, sure that I was going to go to medical school, but also pretty sure I didn't want to practice medicine (I thought I wanted to do research of some kind). Several things happened in college.
In order to receive a Bachelors of Science in any of the sciences, one had to be educated and proficient in all of them, as well as calculus (you can ignore this requirement if you get a BA in a science). So, in addition to my intensely fascinating cell biology and genetics classes, I, like other science students, had to take organic chemistry and physics. Chemistry was incredibly hard for me, especially since I'd had such poor high school instruction (my teacher retired the next year, so he hadn't been very motivated to teach), but I got through the labs and lectures. There weren't many women, but I had signed up for that chem lab with a couple of my friends and there were two teaching assistants who were women, out the group of six or seven.
But I'll never forget the afternoon I stepped inside my first physics lab. I scanned the room and felt my stomach drop. Of the 40-odd students, there was only one other girl in the room, and she was up front, her blonde hair piled on top of her head. I remember wondering if it would be weird for me to go sit next to her, and decided it definitely would be. The guys next to me were nice enough, and I liked hanging out with guys, I didn't have a problem with that. Years of reading Sassy magazine in high school, the encouragement from both my grandma and grandpa, and my own confidence (I had always been a good student) made me believe that I could totally hang with the physics guys. Somehow about 2/3 of this class was made up of engineering majors, but I held my head up. It was just a class. When I showed up for the next lab, the blonde girl was gone, and I was the sole female in the room, and one of the few non-engineering majors.
It was horrifying; some of the guys were nice to me, but many were not — they talked down to me, ignored me if I asked a question, or outright made fun of me for being a girl and for what I wore. I was not exactly a conservative dresser in college (OK, it was the '90s and I was full-on grunged out, with dyed red hair, Doc Martens and a pierced eyebrow), and I was deeply into music — which actually helped be befriend some of the cooler guys in the class. I'll reiterate — not all the guys were jerks, and a few even formed a bit of a protective buffer around me (it also felt weird to be grateful to be protected!) I felt so powerless. Every time I walked into that lab, I felt worse. A little more self-conscious, a little less confident — until I became completely embarrassed to be there at all, and stopped talking (which is a big deal for me.) Finally, the feeling somehow morphed into a deep feeling of shame. And then I felt guilty and stupid for feeling so ashamed to be taking a class that was a requirement. I didn't want to complain or switch classes because what could be more girly than complaining that you want to be moved to a class with more girls or a woman professor?
I was jealous of my friends who went to all-women colleges, since they would never have to deal with this situation.
So I kept my mouth shut, tried my best, and barely completed the class, but I passed. I soon went on to switch my major from biology to geology. I did well, even in the graduate level classes, and there were some great women TA's, students, and one professor. I graduated with my BS in geology and went on to get a great job as a geologist, but I always thought back to that physics lab, and how uncomfortable I was there. Just a few other women in my other tough classes was enough.
So I read the New York Times magazine article from this coming weekend (it'll be in the Sunday magazine but it's online already) "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?" with interest. Mostly, the article focuses on women in physics and math PhD programs, but many of the feelings and experiences are those I could relate to. One quote caught my attention:
"In response to the Summers controversy, she published an essay in 'The Washington Post' describing her gradual realization that women were leaving the profession not because they weren’t gifted but because of the 'slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.'"
I will never forget being in that physics class, and while some might say "toughen up" and "ignore the bad attitudes" (and some women certainly are able to; I was not), it isn't always outright sexism that stops women in their tracks (or outright racism, or homophobia that stop other people). Sometimes it's enough that you feel that you don't belong. After that one physics class, I never, ever would have considered majoring in physics, or even minoring it it, which would have been a great compliment to my geology major. I ended up double-majoring in English, which, of course, was a very comfortable place for a woman to be.
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