Beat down by example

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

From Science + Professor + Woman = me, in explanation of her hesitancy in visiting her old graduate school:

Another reason I avoid that place has to do with feelings of discomfort about a situation in which I played an unknowing but counterproductive role. After I had moved on to a postdoc and faculty positions, a group of women students in that department actively tried to change the negative culture for women there, but were told “We don’t have a problem. X got her Ph.D. here.” Can’t those guys do the math? If X (me) = 1, and many more women enter the program but fail or drop out, is there not a problem? I felt awful when I heard that my example was being used as a reason not to address longstanding problems. I talked to the person who said it, but to no avail. I am still a shining example of what a great place that department is for women. For how many decades can they continue to use me as an example?

One of the points of disagreement I’ve had with some people about the continuing problems of women in technology, is the belief that all we need are mentors role models: examples of women who have ‘made it’. Given such is supposedly enough to somehow make women feel more comfortable, and thus encourage more to enter the profession.

Focusing on examples of women who have made it, as a solution in fields where women are excessively outnumbered, though, disregards all the other factors that make the environment uncomfortable or even hostile to women.

Thanks to Melinda for the link.

update Frank is right, I should have used role model instead of mentor. He also opens up the burden that role models place on people — an interesting perspective. Perhaps we need more opportunities, and fewer models.

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