Readings — From the August 2015 issue

Lab Rats

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From recent posts made to STEMfeminist.com, a forum that collects accounts of discrimination and harassment against women studying or working in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

I am a postdoc in a field that requires occasional soldering and minor circuitry. For my Ph.D. I created all my electronic equipment, and have over seven years experience doing so. Despite this, each time there is a project that requires soldering, my adviser says to wait until [male colleague] is in, since “he knows what he is doing.” Lately I have stopped asking, but when I tell my adviser I’ve finished the project, he always has to come “check it,” then acts surprised when it works.

When I was a new assistant professor, I went to a meeting for researchers in my field. I gave my talk, which was well received, with many questions leading to discussions then and afterward. Later, I encountered one of the well-known male professors, who told me my talk was very nice and patted me on the head.

Each year, as new (often female) trainees enter our psychology program, I notice that they all address female faculty by their first names and male faculty by their formal titles. I have had trainees address me by my first name, then immediately address a male colleague by his formal title in the same sentence (“Hello X and Dr. Y”).

When I was an undergraduate math student I scheduled a meeting with my department chair to talk about which Ph.D. programs to apply to. His response was that the most important thing for me to focus on over the next few years was “finding a life partner.” He said that given my scores and his estimations of my ability, I should consider a particular tiny, unheard-of program. Then he said actually I had better not apply to that program, because it was rural and small and there would be “three Asian men to choose from.”

As a new assistant professor, I was asked to join a multidepartmental collaborative working group preparing a grant. At the initial meeting, when the participants were milling about greeting each other, I heard a researcher comment to the colleague with whom I had walked in, “What a great idea it was to bring your secretary! Now we’ll all have accurate meeting notes!”

I was recently invited to give a talk at a university. During one of the off moments, the main host mentioned that he didn’t believe sexism existed at his institution. As proof, he pointed out that he had just hired a female postdoc. When I asked how many other female postdocs his department had, he said, “Well, she’s the only one.”

One day, in front of the entire class, my favorite geology professor told me that it was okay for me to get my bachelor’s degree in geology, but after that I needed to stay home and bake cookies for the real geologists.

As an undergraduate physics student, whenever I had the highest test score in the class the running joke was that I had slept with the professor the night before. They would sometimes draw pictures of me performing oral sex on the professor on the whiteboard in the physics lounge.

When I was trying to decide which grad school to attend, I was invited to visit a department at an Ivy League university. During the visit, I interviewed with a male faculty member whose research was related to what I was hoping to study. He spent five minutes talking with me about the work in his lab, then called me over to sit next to him at his desk. He had a browser window open and was looking at a series of photo composites of young women who were supposed to represent “average” faces of women from various countries. He finally decided that Ethiopian women were the most attractive to him.

I worked as an undergraduate R.A. for 1.5 years in a male professor’s lab. After graduating — knowing I was planning to apply to graduate school — I did my best to stay in contact with the professor in a professional yet friendly manner. Shortly before applications were due, I asked if he would like to get coffee or lunch to discuss my application, as he had agreed to write me a letter of recommendation. He instead suggested dinner at a bar/restaurant near his home. He insisted on buying me drinks, and continued to order several rounds throughout the evening. During dinner, he commented on my appearance multiple times. Afterward, I thanked him and said I would be walking to the subway station. He told me that the subway was closed and that I should sleep on his couch. I knew the subway wasn’t closed and suggested I try to catch a train or a cab, but he insisted. Reluctantly, I went back to his home, where he raped me. One week later, he sent me several sealed copies and one unsealed copy of a glowing letter of recommendation.

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