From childhood to adulthood, young girls and women are conditioned by society to fit within certain gender norms. They are expected to be nurturing, communal, and passive. They don’t lead, they follow. These gender norms influence how teachers, mentors, and colleagues perceive women’s abilities and professional options. Elementary school teachers discouraged these women faculty from doing math and science, or simply did not encourage them; science teachers told them boys were smarter; other adults told them to play with dolls instead of blocks; and professors told them they didn’t belong. Later in their careers, deans and department chairs expected them to put families on hold while society expected them to have families.
In the midst of these social expectations and the discrimination, interviewees recalled a few advocates who stood out. The teacher who realized they were bored in math class and challenged them; the professor who saw their potential and encouraged them; and parents who built their confidence.
Gendered social norms influence not only our perception of what a scientist looks like, but who can be one. The stories and images in this exhibit combat the stereotype that scientific aspirations and technical competence are “masculine.”
Ask yourself: How do these gender norms still apply today in your life? How might they affect your future career if you’re a woman? What can you do to overcome these gendered expectations in your daily life, regardless of your gender?
My first true engineering course was thermodynamics. The founder of the engineering school was teaching the class; it was his last semester before he retired. He looks out the first day of class and there were two women in the class, my good friend and me. ‘Ahhh, women aren’t supposed to be engineers.’ He actually said that in class. I remember thinking then and there I was going to get him to change his mind before the end of the semester. So as a result, I was motivated to learn thermodynamics inside and out. I actually got an A+ on the class and the only other A in the class was for my girlfriend, so we got the only two A’s in the class.
I was getting papers rejected and I honestly thought that it was because I was a female so I started using just my initials and I started getting my papers accepted.
So I’m pregnant with my second child and went to the dean: ‘I’m expecting another child and I want to talk to you about leave,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s a shame because I’ve decided to let you go.’ It was absolutely stunning to be fired when in terms of research and things that faculty are generally expected to do, I was doing a good job; it was absolutely shocking. The people at my doctoral university were just utterly up in arms and they had me go talk to a lawyer. And the lawyer said, ‘You know, you might be able to keep this job, but do you really want this job?’
I was still breastfeeding when I went to interview at a very prestigious university for a position. I was going to need to pump milk in the middle of my interview. I was in cahoots with the secretary so that I wouldn’t have to explain this to the male professor. She had me set up in the previous chair’s office. So I’m sitting there with pictures of the leaders of my field, who are all male, all these portraits of the famous pioneers while I pump my breast milk, so—that was humorous.
One of the few women in the department said to me, ‘You’re going to be the first woman to be promoted from within and you have to be perfect.’ The notion that I had to be perfect was extremely difficult for me. I’m a perfectionist in my own biased view; I think a lot of us in academics are. It slowed me down on the book that I was working on. I found it quite difficult.
What was just unbelievable was when I tried to get help and started to explore the grievance and complaint systems and talk with lawyers [about gender discrimination], I was just horrified by what I saw. It felt like I was on a space capsule, tethered, right, outside. That’s how I felt as a woman in science or a pioneer. I started to see that leadership and systems in the University were set up in a way that it seemed there was no place to go that was trustworthy where you could get problems addressed. At that point, I felt like that cord linking me to the capsule was cut and I was just floating. I thought, ‘this is just nuts; I’m a successful faculty member who’s proven myself as an outstanding teacher, researcher, an outstanding University citizen. I thought I had the respect and trust of people of highest integrity in the University, but when it came to this, no one was going to step up and help. I was just cut loose and I was in a state of profound shock.
I don’t think people did anything special to welcome me when I started as a faculty member so I knew I had to make efforts to fit in somehow. So I bought season tickets to the basketball games and to the football games and sat in a block with the other faculty, purposefully, so that we would have something to talk about. That was my attempt at trying to make sure that I fit in the culture, and that helped. It was pretty important.
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