Truth Values: women in the equation

26 Oct

It’s evolved into women in science month here at Webb of Science.

On October 9, I saw Gioia De Cari‘s one woman show, “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Larry Summers’ now infamous comments about women in science inspired her to turn her own experiences as a  math graduate student at MIT (she got a Master’s degree) into theater. My immediate reaction: this woman gets it. She articulates the experience of being a woman in an insular male-dominated world.

To be fair, I expect that chemistry is more female-friendly than mathematics, but some of De Cari’s stories– the office mate who professed his love to her even though she was married and the macho dynamics  of other offices– complete with posters of nuclear weapons– reminded me of some of my post-undergraduate experiences. Though I did my Ph.D. with a woman chemist, I spent a year in Germany in a department where most of the women were secretaries (one ran the stockroom, and there was another woman, an American, doing her Ph.D. on another floor). My adviser and my immediate colleagues– though all male– were tremendously supportive.

But I still had one jarring incident where I left a computer lab for a few minutes and returned to find a screensaver installed– a digital bare-breasted woman bouncing across my screen. I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like that in English, much less in German. I suspected that a student from another floor, a frequent user of the computer lab, had rigged up “bouncy babe,” but never knew for sure.

On another day, a visiting (male) researcher showed up, asked me about my research, and then proceeded to rip it apart as “stupid.” Fortunately, Peter, one of my German colleagues, pulled me aside later and gave me a pep talk.  “Haven’t you ever dealt with ‘macho’?” he asked. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I was just 22, and I really hadn’t.  That year I took a laboratory course where I was the only woman, and conversation stopped dead on more than one occasion as I walked into the room. It was weird and isolating, but enough of an anomaly that I could mostly ignore it.

Graduate school in the United States was more subtle, particularly working in a laboratory led by a woman. But I still found myself swimming upstream on more than one occasion. At one point, I was the only female graduate student in the organic chemistry division, so I got nearly constant emails from departmental secretaries to meet with nearly every prospective graduate student, whether he (for the most part) was interested in working in my group or not. It became a huge drain on my time, and I eventually felt like a fishing lure, dangling proof that “yes, we have women.” After one such recruiting season, I became picky, limiting my meetings to women and those who were actually interested in my adviser’s lab.

During those years, sometimes I just needed help to learn something new– how to put a gas regulator on an argon tank or how to charge a high pressure reaction chamber with hydrogen. When that help came from a male colleague in the world of organic chemistry on the male-dominated third floor, it was easy to question myself. Was I admitting some sort of fundamental feminine flaw in this lack of knowledge? I struggled to ask for help when I really needed it– until I forced myself to “get over it.” By my final year, I was the elder stateswoman, and I confronted one undergraduate in the lab who didn’t understand that a screensaver of Shakira, scantily clad, was not appropriate for his workplace computer login. I’d found the voice that I didn’t have when visited by “bouncy babe” more than seven years before.

I can’t really review De Cari’s show, in part because I identify with her experience too much. She experienced personal tragedy during her MIT years– the death of her father. I also waded through personal turmoil, and I made the transition to a more creative career. When she talks about acting while doing mathematics, she says, “I felt like an astronaut moonlighting as a stripper.” I laughed out loud. I remember those moments when I would slip out of lab and put on my journalist hat to interview a faculty member in another department. Or I was working at the science museum and faculty parents would walk in with their children. I smiled and said hello, but wondered in the back of my mind whether they were judging me.

The discussion after De Cari’s performance cemented her experiences with data. CUNY’s Virginia Valian talked about the accumulation of advantage. Both men and women tend to devalue women’s contributions, and the mountains for women are molehills piled one on top of the other.

The discussion moderator irked me with one comment: she’d wished that De Cari’s story had ended differently, with a career in mathematics. The comment puts far too much individual pressure on De Cari (or on me, for that matter). Those messages don’t help. It’s easy to feel like you’ve failed other women when you choose to opt out.

I wish De Cari’s mathematical journey had been easier, but I can’t wish for a different outcome. Realistically, academic science produces Ph.D.’s at rates that exceed replacement. Some people will leave the academy, and we should celebrate the knowledge and perspective that those scientists bring to other areas of society. The problem is when women leave in disproportionate numbers– as they do in most fields of science. De Cari’s experiences provide useful insights into the problem, but the solution will involve a cultural shift that encourages proportionate numbers of women– but not necessarily specific individuals– to stay.

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