In the Laboratory

Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your gender in the workplace?

Yes, yes. Here and elsewhere. The majority of times I’ve felt discriminated against in the workplace have had to do with being a mother or being a pregnant woman. Although I would not say that those have been the only times. The other times are just more subtle.

I became a scientist, got a PhD, and was working on finding a post doc—in science, you usually go train as a scientist for several years before you go on to do whatever you are going to do. For me, that was a university professor and a researcher. I went on several interviews when my son was three months old. At one of those interviews, I was sure I was doing quite well. It was very clear I was going to be offered a position. But at the very end, the person interviewing me said, “Oh, by the way, I was wondering, what will you do with your child?” And I said, “I assume there are daycare options in this area, so I would take him to daycare while I was at work” and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry, maybe you are misunderstanding me. Let me give you an example.” And then she referred me to someone I had met during the day that worked in her laboratory. She said, with sort of a distaste, “She had a child. And she was able to take her child to her family in China for them to keep. Do you have some people that can keep the child?” At that moment—I had already interviewed with the whole lab, I had given a research talk, I did all these things—I just scooted my chair out, I stood up very professionally, and I put my hand out. And I said “Thank you very much for inviting me to give a talk,” and I shook her hand. I knew I couldn’t say much more than that because I was feeling really vulnerable and what she said was so incredibly offensive. And then I picked up my bag and I just started walking. And so she ran out into the hall and said “Wait, wait, I’m going to have an offer for you!” and I just kept walking and I didn’t turn back. I just walked. I didn’t know what to say, or do. I wasn’t prepared for what that would feel like.

Another time in my life, I was much older, and I worked here. I got pregnant again. I went into my supervisor and told him that I was pregnant. The first thing that he said was, “Aren’t you too old for that?” It felt like a form of discrimination to be told that I had some age at which I should no longer be birthing children. And then, when I was asking about having a maternity leave, I was told that there were multiple women in the department who were pregnant, so maternity leaves could not be given to all of them. Because I was not a first time mother, he told me I could not get a maternity leave. At that time, I was used to these kinds of things, so I quipped back, “No, but I’m an old one,” but the joke was lost on him.

And this I’m not proud of at all. I’ve had three children and I’ve never had a maternity leave. I’ve showed up to work within a three week time period for all of my kids, and for one of them I showed up about six days after they were born. And that’s not good. I’m not bragging one little bit. I think I felt pressured that if I didn’t perform at a certain level that I would be viewed as not a good scientist or that it would somehow affect my later term job prospects. I’ll take responsibility for some of those feelings. But there’s other things, like hearing people say that they do not want to hire women scientists because they have kids and then they don’t work as hard. And I find that to be preposterous.

Have you ever felt discriminated against in the classroom by students?

My experiences of feeling that way with students are incredibly overshadowed by feeling that way with my colleagues. There are still places on this campus where I feel marginalized because I’m a woman. And it’s not with students.

I think especially when I was a young woman faculty I would feel discriminated against in the classroom by students, but it just doesn’t happen as much anymore because I’ve learned how to have a rapport with my students and develop respect. But when I was very young, when I just started as a faculty member, I was often mistaken as a student. Sometimes I felt like students weren’t taking me seriously and weren’t addressing me the same way as they would a male professor. But it does not feel like a shadow over my life. I’ve had wonderful relationships with my students.

The longer I’ve been a faculty member and the more I’ve been able to read both my own evaluations and others while serving on tenure and promotion committees, I feel like I can read evaluations with an eye looking for implicate bias. And you see trends. You see trends around gender, you see trends around race. To tell you the truth, I see the same kind of trends when I read letters from departments about faculty members. You see the same kind of language. So I don’t want to be blaming it all on students. That kind of talking is such a part of our society. You see a lot of “brilliance” with the men, a lot of “nurturing” with the women. I work really hard to tune that out, so I can find out the real things I have to work on, and I try to do that with my colleagues as well. But yes. I see it. It’s real.

Do you think you have a healthy work/life balance?

I’d be lying to say that I have a healthy work/life balance, although it improves. It’s improved over time. You can have a career and you can have children and have hobbies and friends. And my job has multiple facets. I want to publish research papers, but I also am going to be giving a final and I have to grade it. All these multi-faceted things, to juggle all of them? All the time, some part isn’t getting what you hope it would get.

But do I feel good about where I put my energy at certain times? Yes, actually, I do. Like I feel good that sometimes I go home and work is just done in my head. I have a child and we just finished reading Bud, Not Buddy and had a really good conversation about historical fiction. That I loved. But then there are others times when I have to say to my child that I have to grade tonight, but we can sit side by side together. I feel fine about it now. I didn’t always, but I have a good sense that I put my effort where I need to. And I’m also better than I used to be about saying no to people. No I can’t be on that committee, no I can’t do that. I don’t always do it, but I’m better about it so that I don’t overextend myself and I can work on the stuff I really like to work on.

Do you feel as though there is structural gender discrimination at the university?

Yes, absolutely. As a scientist I would be a little remiss to say this because I have not sat down and added all these people up, but I would say, in general, women faculty get called upon to do service activities at this institution at a higher rate—I’m not sure if they get called upon more or if men just don’t do them as much. There are different kinds of service at this institution and some things take more time than others. Of course, there are many wonderful men doing those things. I’m just saying I think there’s a bit of a bias in that more women seem to be doing more service, and it is some of the harder forms of service. You know, there’s some committees where you show up and serve an advisory function, so the preparation for that is not going to be huge. And then there’s committees where you have to pour and pour over materials and you have to write reports. So there’s different kinds. And I feel—and again, it’s a feeling—that I’m sitting around the table with a lot of women on some of the really hard committees doing the hard tasks.

Do you think that your workplace is dominated by men?

I work really hard to only work in groups that I feel have a good balance of power, both in terms of gender and various other things. And so if weren’t very deliberate about who I choose to spend time with at this institution and who I choose to work with closely, and if I didn’t actively choose to be with people who help create workspaces that feel good, then yes I would feel that this is a male space. There are quite a few women in science and math here, but even so, the voice of a man weighs more. In all honesty, I talk about this with several female colleagues and we’ll say, “Well, maybe we need to get x man or y man or z man to say this so that we’ll be heard.” And that frankly still pisses me off. And I’m not saying anything about our administration, I’m saying that to get the other science men to hear, we need the science man voice. Because we feel like we will not be heard. And that part stinks.

You do not find very many women full professors on this campus. And many of them are very new. So there is still, in this country, a spot at which women are not moving up. And that is troubling to me. That’s troubling.

Do you think your scholarship has been discriminated against because of your gender?

I’ve never felt that way. I have certainly had grants rejected and had papers rejected. And in my mind they’ve always been for valid scientific reasons that I’ve then been able to go back and address. And I’ve been able to get a lot of papers published and a lot of grant dollars. That being said, I’ve almost always worked on an interdisciplinary team that included men. I’ve never been on an all women team. But I haven’t felt like I’ve been targeted at all because of my gender in the science scholarly world.

Do you have anything else to say?

I hope I didn’t give an impression that I think everything is negative, because I don’t, and I think that we’ve come a long way. We used to have a provost who was a women scientist. We had a Women in Science night. That night, she read two response letters to her graduate applications aloud that basically said, “Thank you for your application. You have really good credentials, but we don’t take women. We find that they take spots of good-thinking men.” These letters were from very reputable, nationally known institutions. And that was just eight, maybe nine years ago. She went on to become a scientist—luckily, someone took her. Now I have lots of women from this institution in some of those same institutions and they’re flourishing there. So, you know, things change slowly, but they do change. And that’s exciting to me.