Physics Graduate School
A friend of mine is chair of her physics department. She posted this somewhere private recently, and I asked her for permission to share it with you. It’s far more eloquent than I could ever be on the subject of how the “little things” add up to something far from little. And remember as you read: chair of her physics department and this is still how she views these memories.
When I am doing jigsaw puzzles, I’m using half my brain–the analytical half. The other half sends me into social thinking. I think of friends, social issues, social problems. For some reason, today my brain led me to remember graduate school. Specifically, the bad social parts of grad school. For anyone who thinks women & science is a dead issue, I offer my experience.
I walk into orientation for physics grad school and am faced with 25 fellow students. All male. The orientation teachers later told me they were doing everything they could to not scare me off.
First semester sucks. From A student to C student in one semester. I have a study group, but they’re not great. I discover I don’t really like advanced physics. But I’ve wanted to be a college physics professor since high school, and this is the path to that. I stick it out, but struggle, emotionally and in my classes.
I learn from more senior female grad students who NOT to work with. Professor X will steal the credit for your work; Professor Y is straight out sexist.
I encounter the second year grad students. The ones who earned their class the name “The Class From Hell”. They had a poster up in the TA office the previous year with a running total of how many female students came to see each TA. These amazing specimens move from dirty looks or come-on looks to comments: “You wear that just to show off your legs, don’t you?” “Not many skirts around this place.”
The thought that I would dress to show off my legs is so funny it takes my breath away. I’m in grad school, struggling and trying to stay sane, and I’m going to wake up and say “I think I’ll wear those tights that make my legs look good. Maybe that asshole second year will notice.” I didn’t even brush my hair every day. I washed it, braided it, and only rebraided after it got too messy by the third or fourth day. I had custom wrist braces which limited my hand mobility. (Keys on a carabiner clipped to my belt loop, since I couldn’t stick my hand in my pocket.) Obviously my only purpose for being there was to tempt him.
One skank doesn’t let my wedding ring deter him. He doesn’t take my hints. Even after outright refusals, he still hangs around. When he said “I don’t know how your office mate gets any work done. I’d be too distracted looking at you,” I shook with anger and fear. My office mate, a good friend and a sensitive new age guy, helped me cope with it.
Even well-meaning or honest remarks can make for an unwelcoming environment. I like long skirts, the kind where you have to hold them when you go upstairs, or you trip. As I was climbing the staircase one day, one of the profs I didn’t see much stopped and watched me. He commented that it wasn’t something you saw much of anymore. Yup. I was the only one in the whole building who wore skirts who wasn’t a secretary. He didn’t mean anything negative by his comment. But it sent a message all the same.
For a few years we had a female lab manager. She got the crap too. She would set up Monday’s labs on Friday or Saturday. Occasionally, when Monday class came around, there would be key pieces of equipment missing from the lab rooms. It got so bad that a few of the good folks in the department slept in the labs one night. Didn’t catch anyone.
Those who were supportive of the women in the department got together. A small group. Talked, discussed. Couldn’t do too much, though. But a lifeline, a support group. Managed to bring sexual harassment training to the department. It didn’t make a noticeable difference, but gave me a great piece of advice. When someone makes an inappropriate comment, you ask “what does that mean?” If the comment is legit, they won’t mind explaining it. If it isn’t legit, you’ve just brought everyone’s attention to it.
The department has changed a lot since I was there. More female grad students. Less overt discrimination and harassment. I don’t know how much covert crap is going on. Harder to find out. But the stuff I encountered did its job: I did not get a physics PhD. It wasn’t the primary reason, or even the secondary reason. But it was a part of why I left with a masters.
It got a little bit better after I switched programs. My office and my job were still in the physics building, though. I became sort of invisible. She failed, she is no longer worthy of my notice. The feeling that education was a lesser field was palpable. There were a handful of physics professors who encouraged me and worked with me. Two of them served on my dissertation committee. At least being invisible meant I got less crap. But it bugs me that in a way, they won.
P.S. I found out years later that my first year adviser once reached into his pants and “adjusted” himself in the middle of a class. A class with one female student in it. No one noticed but her.
This entry was posted on Friday, August 7th, 2009 at 5:45 am and is filed under Science, Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.