Friday, September 26, 2014

WISE -- Women in science and engineering -- some reflections

It's been a long time since I've posted...  I set this blog up originally to write about my various travels, experiences and adventures in the field, observing the effects and geologic records of tsunamis, particularly my experiences in the Russian Far East.  More on that, eventually...  and it's not divorced from the topic I do want to discuss.

Lately, those of us who are professional women in field sciences have been reading and posting on challenges and harrassment issues --both our own experiences and those of our students.  More on that later, too.  But several recent web posts have made me appreciate having a field party on Kamchatka that was led by women.  See my blog on that topic.

But THIS post comes from reading an essay by a current senior at MIT about her experiences,

and posted to Facebook by our former University of Washington undergrad student Jen Glass, now a young professor in Georgia -- a rising star and one attuned to issues of gender and science.  Thanks, Jen!

The young MIT engineering student (Jennifer) wrote, on 18 September of 2014:
     "I am a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a materials engineer, an honors student, and a woman. I also have been told hundreds of times that I don't deserve to be where I am. MIT admissions decisions come out on 3/14 (for Pi) every year. By 8 a.m. on 3/15 everyone in my high school knew I had been accepted. Tons of people came up to congratulate that day and afterwards but seemed strangely insistent on reminding me that "it is a lot easier to get in when you are a girl because they get so many fewer female applicants."    The idea that there was some sort of quota for women would be repeated to me over and over in the coming months, and it only got worse when I went to MIT."

Jennifer discussed not only gender, but also treated the topic of persons of color.  Kudos to her for writing..

Damn  --so many themes I can relate to over my extended career, still alive and kicking.  I came of age scientifically/professionally in the 1970s, and in general I have seen some progress (though I have many stories about gender biases) --such as for about 20 years I was the only woman in a department, and today in our faculty meeting there were 7 women present (two more absent) (albeit out of a possible 43 ....).

But the issue of being admitted to an elite program, as Jennifer was, or being hired because you are from an underrepresented group, hit at least two major nerves.  The first is, I could tell you many stories over my 30+ years in an R1 (primary research) university, when women who were as, or more, qualified than men were not hired for various unsupportable reasons.  Enough to make me crazy, but I have persevered.

The second nerve it hit is the one I want to address, and it's very related to our MIT student's post:   My niece is a systems engineer.  Her profession is one I could not have imagined for myself, in my era, though some women in that era and even earlier did succeed in engineering, despite the odds  (thanks largely to girls-only high schools, I think).  So to me, my niece's success is a real testament to progress in WISE.  And here, thanks to FIRST high school robotics programs.

This past spring, my niece was laid off.  She had left a more secure position (where to this day they would hire her back in less than a heartbeat) to one more innovative and people-oriented.  This more risky position didn't hold up, not because of her failings, but because funding in her expertise at that company declined.

I was confident, in the long run, that she'd get another job--one that suited her--BECAUSE MY NIECE IS EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD AT WHAT SHE DOES.  And/but when having a conversation with a close friend, I heard them say, "She won't have any problem, she's a woman engineer, and engineering companies are looking to hire women" (could also say the same about people of color), it raised my hackles and contradicted my experiences over the past decades.  And I am sure the same goes for my niece.

In my experience, a woman has NEVER been hired because of her gender, but in fact, she has to meet, or in reality exceed, the qualifications of any of the many others who apply for a position.  I could describe several cases where a woman was actually the most qualified person in a search, and somehow,... somehow they did not get the offer because...   let's see, what can I actually put on paper?  Not much, but believe me, the reasons were commonly constructed without real foundations.   Crazy making, but I have persevered.

So Jennifer's essay hit home on several accounts, not the least  being reflections on my niece's career path.  I do remain an optimist, but please, do not tell me that women and people of color are more easily hired (and retained) because they are from underrepresented groups.  While it might happen, I don't believe that, at least in my own experience in the fields of science and technology, it happens more often than the reverse.