Role Models

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

couple of items surfaced recently about the lack of women in science and technology, including a NYTimes op-ed piece rejecting the recent study about women in sciences and another weblogger writing about the importance of having women as role models (via Sour Duck.

The latter, in particular, caught my attention because when I was studying science in college, other than biology and environmental sciences, all of the teachers were men. This included my psychology classes, as well as the computer, math, physics, chemistry, and electronics. I did have women professors: in English, in Art, and speech and communication. Even my history teachers were male. I’d never really noticed before how male skewed my old schools were, but that was two or three decades ago, while women were still beginning to realize we could crawl out of our suburban holes.

My favorite teacher taught history, and though I didn’t follow history as a profession, I’ve had a love of history since. However, the teacher that had the most impact on my life was the professor who taught speech and communication, because she showed me how not to be afraid to speak up–both as a speaker, and as a woman.

Do I remember discrimination in school? Most definitely yes–in one case out and out discrimination. As an employee of the YVCC (Yakima Valley Community College) Women’s Center, my job was to interview professors in ‘non-traditional’ fields, to see what we could do to encourage more women in these professions. When talking to the head of the engineering department, he noted that one of the women in his classes lacked the ‘proper attitude’ to be an engineer. Why? Because she showed up for class every day, nicely groomed, with her hair styled and wearing makeup.

For the most part, though, YVCC, like many community colleges, was a fairly comfortable environment, and my teachers had a very positive effect on my life. When I was pre-law, I won a political science scholarship based on the recommendation of the political science teacher. I’ve always had a love/hate thing with math, but the calculus teacher managed to not only help me overcome this, I eventually ended up with an A for the class. I don’t think I did as well with the geology class as I could have, but that was more me taking on too many classes for the quarter.

I did like the sciences. Not the biology or so-called ‘soft’ sciences. I liked physics. I liked knowing how things worked and were put together. I grew up with Isaac Asimov and stories of the atom and on magazines such as Popular Science. Inspired in part by how well I did in calculus at YVCC, I switched to physics when I started college at CWU and that’s when things really went all to hell.

I remember that in my first (and only) physics class, always feeling as if whatever I was doing was wrong; never being comfortable about approaching either the professor or the assistants; discouraged from asking for help of the other students. I felt dumb in lab, and dumber whenever I took a test. It was confusing and demoralizing because I was a 3.89 average student at YVCC.

The same feelings of inadequancy happened with the chemistry class and a math class I took that same quarter: it never seemed to come together for me. I lost confidence, and the less confident I felt, the less well I did, and the less the teachers seemed to be interested in me. I continually felt out of place.

Luckily during this time, I also took my first computer class. The teacher held a PhD in English (not uncommon in the early years of comp-sci in many universities) and had a relaxed, though very disciplined style of teaching that was a breath of fresh air as compaired to the ‘chaos’ I felt in the other classes. It was like he was speaking a language I could understand, while the other professors were just jabbering.

I changed my field to computer science and did very well in the program: except for the math classes. I never did regain whatever confidence I had in math from YVCC, and barely limped along in the advanced math classes required to get a comp-sci degree. This actually puzzled the head of the math department, because he knew the teacher I had in YVCC and felt I should have been doing better in the math classes.

His confusion was made more so when I ended up taking a double-major in computer science and psychology. In order to meet a need in both programs, I would take my advanced statistics in the psych department rather than the math department. Both covered the same material, though the statistics program in the psych department allowed us to play around with some very advanced statistics programs.

I did extremely well with the math class as taught by the psych professor–a wonderfully mellow man who actually wore the heather twill coats and smiled gently at one and all of his students–as compared to the math teachers at the University who, outside of the head of the department, never smiled, and never had time for any students other than their ‘pets’.

Meanwhile, back in my computer science classes, the teachers were very encouraging of all students, regardless of sex. There were 32 students in my comp-sci graduation class, but only five of us were women. However, of the top three graduating, two were women, and I was one.

At the time I didn’t feel that discrimination was an issue at the university: only that I seemed to be the class dumb bunny in the physics and math classes. We assume that discrimination is overt, such as the engineering teacher’s statement that a nicely dressed woman can’t possibly be interested in engineering. As I came to realize, over time, discrimination is more a covert act than an overt one–of body language and communication style, encouragement and expectations, cultural focus and priorities.

In his editorial, Tierney wrote:

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it’s insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests. As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don’t go into engineering: they don’t want to.

“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors or quarks,” Hausman said. “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”

I wonder now what would have happened if things had been different when I was in school. If the comp-sci professors had been less encouraging, or I had walked into that first physics class and the professor had been a woman instead of a man.

We don’t need role models, as much as we need environments where women are welcome. I didn’t need to see that women could make it in the field as much as I needed to believe that I could make it in the field. It helped to have male professors who could engage all of their students regardless of their sex; but it would have helped more to have walked into that physics class that first day and not felt out of place in the first ten minutes of the class.

There’s little to choosing when the deck’s stacked against you. Tierney knows this; he’s right there, holding the cards.

Why women are not represented equally in the hard sciences and technology is based on a hundred, probably a thousand, different factors–ranging from discriminating teachers and peers to baby girls being cuddled more than baby boys. There is no one solution that’s going to change this. I do know, though, that we can’t even make a start if we don’t look at this situation and recognize that in a supposedly equal and diverse community, when a field is heavily skewed by sex (or race), than something is broken. Whether it’s the field that’s broken, or the society, it’s important to recognize that lack of diversity in any field is an obstacle in all of humanity’s future progress.

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