Friday, November 16, 2012

Girl power

I couldn't have hoped for a better response to last Friday's post. Quite a few of you knitters outed yourselves as fellow scientist and engineers. I can't thank you all enough for sharing your experiences. I was saddened (but not entirely surprised) to hear that many of you, whether in science and/or academia or otherwise, have experienced discrimination in one form or another for being female. The fact that only 12 companies out of the Fortune 500 have female CEOs is a clear indicator that this is a further reaching issue than academia.

Sure, it's gotten more subtle--but isn't that almost worse? We don't even realize it's happening (or that we might even be perpetrators ourselves). I'm sorely tempted to write a full follow up post, but really all the high points have been hit in your comments. Ewenique had a great point that programs that bend over backwards to recruit women into math and science positions (or any position where they are underrepresented) may often end up having a Cobra Effect--in essence, backfiring. When I expressed an interest in moving into project management a couple years ago, I was told by a senior scientist whom I respected very much that I'd "be promoted to your level of incompetence because you're a woman." It was clear that he viewed the push to get more women in upper management as a disregard for qualifications, and deeply resented it. Not a good way to bridge the gap.

I also anticipated hearing from at least one person who had been "Mommy Tracked" and was not disappointed (well, it's certainly disappointed that it happened--you know what I mean). Amanda described the phenomenon of employers' reticence to hire and/or promote women of childbearing age. When I mentioned the study I shared with you in the last post to a coworker, his first question was the age of the fictional women used in the study (the resumes sent out were identical but fake--the names were changed to be obviously male or obviously female). They were supposedly undergraduates, which puts them on the low end of the childbearing years. His point was that maybe the professors didn't find the women less qualified (although unfortunately the study indicates that they did)--they were anticipating the potential loss of productivity or even having to find a new employee in the case of a pregnancy. Don't even get me started on the problems with trying to get into a tenure track in academia if you're also ready to start a family. Is this fair? Hell no! Do I have a good solution? No I do not. I understand where the mindset is coming from and I have no idea what can be done about it.

But the unanimous verdict against staying in a career out of a sense of duty was an incredible relief. I suppose I don't even need to ask if I have an obligation to stay because of the desperate need for science in the US (the subject of my next post). Earlier this year, when I expressed some mild doubts about continuing my current path due to various reasons, I had a friend tell me point blank that he would lose respect for me if I 'gave up' and did something else. That comment wormed it's way into my mind and I began to wonder if it would be a common sentiment. As Voie de Vie points out, women have a tendency to put the needs of others before our own. I don't think we're necessarily born that way--but we are often molded, consciously or not, to be self-sacrificing caregivers. But as Al Pacino tells Keanu in The Devil's Advocate: "Guilt is like a bag of fuckin' bricks. All ya gotta do is set it down."


  1. First.. I have heard that phrasing about people being "promoted to their level of incompetence" forever... in every job. Gender has nothing to do with it, and unfortunately it appears to be generally true. The other adage I've heard a lot is, "They took a perfectly good engineer and made a terrible manager out of him/her."

    I don't think I mentioned in my comments last week... when I left the Rocket Factory, and ceased being a "Rocket Scientist" I got backlash from people, that I had no idea had any investment in what I was doing. For some reason a whole lot of people were upset that I was no longer a "Rocket Scientist." When they should have been concerned about why I was "unhappy."

    The fact is, when(if) you cease doing what you do, some people will be disappointed, upset or even angry. You have to be strong in who you are and why you are making the choices you are making... Really, it's between you and your Co-Pilot... and maybe Sammy. Everyone else, while perhaps important, they are ancillary.

    Lastly, it sounds like Al Pacino's character was pretty smart... or at least the writer was. :-)

  2. What Kathryn Ray says :) If it's that important to you, do it: those who abandon you were not real friends, and a few fireworks from those who genuinely care about you but disagree with your actions, can be weathered :)