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.

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8 Responses to “Physics Graduate School”

  1. August 7th, 2009 at 10:35 am

    peter says:

    Is there something wrong with “physics” students? I guess abstract thinking makes them incapable of socially acceptable behaviour.
    I had studied agrology for four years, with about three female students among 30 or so male students in the mid to lare seventies, and I cannot recall any untoward behaviour. The female students were well accepted, and participated fully. I remember working on a feasibility study with one of them, and the relationship was professional.
    But that was in Germany, and maybe the US still has issues when it comes to gender and even racial equality.
    I find the behaviour addressed in the posting disgusting, unworthy of anybody engaged in intellectual pursuits and simply unacceptable.
    It reminds me strongly of the scene in “BORAT”, where he encounters exactly those idiots in the motorhome.
    If that is the quality of American students – shut down the universities, and let them do work in the field – not fieldwork, but “field” work. Maybe Mao’s ideas had some merit.

  2. August 7th, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Rystefn says:

    The little things add up. Sometimes they add up quickly. I imagine it leaves a lot of people wondering what is and isn’t a part of the problem (and I know it leaves some people assuming lots of things are issues that are completely innocent). Generally, I’d say that the advice about asking “what does that mean” may be the most useful thing a person could take away from this.

  3. August 7th, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Peggy says:

    Peter: I hope it was true that your program was friendly to women, but keep in mind that as a man you might not have been aware of or even privy to such interactions. Note that part of what Physics Chair describes wasn’t outright harassment, but just being made to feel “other” – you don’t need someone to tell you right out “you don’t belong” when you are being shown that you don’t belong in dozens of tiny ways.

    I’m glad Physics Chair found a program that suited her.

  4. August 7th, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    D. C. Sessions says:

    Context counts. A lot.

    It’s one thing to comment on a woman’s skirt in a mixed group and all you’re commenting on is the skirt — clothing is, after all, a social statement and “that color works for you” is just recognition of that.

    It’s another matter to comment on her skirt when she’s the only woman in the group. Even if meant innocently, it highlights the fact that she is the only woman in the group.

    Context counts. A lot.

  5. August 9th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Yep. I just try to stay away from commenting on people’s clothes in the workplace period, anyway. Unless it is to ask someone if they have a job interview scheduled. That’s just my way of letting them know they look really sharp, and in fact is usually the only occasion in a call center that merits dressing really well. I don’t think it is all that difficult a concept to understand, and I wonder why people don’t realize that at work people would rather be complimented on their work than their appearance.

  6. August 10th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    travc says:

    There is (at least was) an unwritten rule around Caltech when I was there as an undergrad.
    If someone is annoying you, first assume they are just totally socially inept and inform them bluntly of their offense. If they continue, then you can get righteously pissed off, otherwise no harm no foul. Corollary: If someone tells you bluntly to stop doing something that annoys or creeps them out, roll with it even if they are misunderstanding you (assume they are just clueless and misinterpreting your actions).

    There is certainly a lot of sexism and generally creepy behaviour, but a good chunk of it is just social ineptitude.

    There was a specific physics prof (most notable among several such examples) who was horribly sexist and lecherous. Females were well warned, but the prof was literally irreplaceable (top of his subfield by a good stretch). Females did work for him anyway (including a friend of mine) because he was really that good, but had other profs in the department who would ‘have their back’ and intervene on their behalf when needed (the other profs got to feel good about helping out, collaborate on work, and poach great students who finally got fed up with the letch… so a win win in an odd way.)

    Issues of stealing work (which I still run into regularly) are much more serious IMO. Academic honesty is a fundamental and violations cannot be tolerated. Someone who steals their students (or anyone’s) work is by definition not a good scientist. Places where people’s name matters more than their work often allow this sort of thing to go on, but that is a mistake which will hurt them in the long run.

  7. August 13th, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Ben Zvan says:

    Sounds like this orientation session should be longer:

  8. August 19th, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Sexual Harassment Training says:

    If it sounds iffy.. just dont say it.

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