Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Women's spaces

People occasionally write about whether or not women in STEM groups/meetings should include men.
Another hope of mine, perhaps an even less realistic one, is that it wouldn't always be women talking about careers-and-babies, but that more men would be involved in these discussions. It is still common for FSPs who are invited speakers at other institutions to be asked to have a "pizza lunch" or whatever with female students and postdocs, typically to talk about work-life issues.* Are any of you in departments that routinely invite men to do the same?
Up until I entered grad school (and therefore really faced discrimination on an impersonal systematic level, as opposed to the personal cultural discrimination that goes on inside most homes) I did not understand the need, in this day and age, for women's only spaces. After all, conventional wisdom is that for any "minority" to gain access to its rights, the issue of their rights has to stop being a niche issue, and has to start being a mainstream issue.

Furthermore, a lot of the things we discuss in "women in my field" meetings are really general interest issues. We talk about networking, research opportunities, job applications, grants and lots of other things that all academics care about. I find myself wondering whether or not men get similar career counselling. I am very grateful that I get this opportunity to talk frankly with people other than my supervisor about these general issues. I know a lot of men who would be too.

But then invitations like this pop up in my inbox:
Dear all,
Time for a new meeting of the [our groups] women has come! 
Which is about getting together, having a nice supper, teaming up, group-therapying about any sexist situation you may have suffered, brain-storming for avoiding them in the future, having many laughs and all in all have a nice evening together :)

"Group therapy." "Sexist situation." This is really why we have these meetings. We just don't necessarily say it so directly.

Okay fine, so we need a safe place to talk and discuss issues that detrimentally effect us in ways it doesn't effect men, but wouldn't it be useful for us invite men as well, especially the ones that are known to be safe to talk to? Yes, ideally. But how does one do that without acting like a teenager?

"Professor X, you are invited because this gaggle of girls have decided you are cool. Postdoc Y, you are not cool enough to be invited."

If one invites men to these meetings, how does one mediate against sexism at the meetings? Should one ask people not to come back? Wouldn't that be more exclusionary? How would one make sure that the standards are applied in a non-discriminatory fashion? 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Different norms

Travelling to different countries means, among other things, adjusting to tiny little regional quirks.

Do you pass on the right or the left?

Do you serve food with your right or left hand?

Which hand holds the fork?

Which hand gives the cash?

When do you say the equivalent of thank you, and when do you say the equivalent of cheers?

How much do you tip a waitress? A cab driver?

Most of these customs I can easily adjust to by being very aware of my actions for a few days, after which I fall into a habit that I then carry back home with me, at which point everyone looks at me funny. Well, not the fork. It took me some time to learn to train my left hand to cut and while my right speared.

There's one I'm having trouble with. In college, a black man told me that when he went shopping, the cashier more often than not put change on the counter for him to pick up. Most of his white colleagues always got cash handed to them. I checked with my friends. My white friends had it handed to them more often than I did. My black friends had it put on the counter more often than I did. Anecdata, I know, but it disturbed me. Since then, I have always made a point of handing cash to everyone. If the bills go on the counter while I am counting change, the coins get put in the hand. If for some reason this is not possible, it is always accompanied with an apology.


In a large chunk of Europe, money exchanging hands directly is just not done. A colleague explained to me that this felt to close to begging somehow. Okay, fine. Different country, different norm. But I can't do it. At international train stations and airports, there's an awkward beat while I hold out the money and the cashier figures out that he/she should take it from my hand and not the counter. At grocery stores and on buses, there's the urgent glances at the coin dish or the embarrassed pushing of change back at me across the counter as I recall that I screwed it up, yet again.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday's Females

Graduate students, I am more and more convinced, are the heart of any department. Maybe I'll feel differently after I'm faculty, but the department's I've felt most welcome in so far, it's been because of the efforts of the graduate students, whether it's been the solid mentoring and life advice I've received as an undergrad from the "Women in my field" brown bag lunches, meant for grad students, but welcoming to an undergrad who makes apricot turnovers, or the hugs an tissues I've received from fellow students when I find out that a friend my age has just been diagnosed with, or passed from cancer.

The last time this happened* my friend was half a world away. She had two kids she'd left motherless. When she passed, she was 2 years older than I am now. On a visit, her 10 year old son brought me a branch of dates he'd just picked, not realizing that accepting his gift meant a 30 minutes walk dragging a date branch to the main road, and stuffing it on a bus for an hour long ride. She took the branch and picked the dates off it, and gave me a more reasonable package of dates to take home, somewhat to his disappointment. He'll be graduating from college now. I've lost touch with the family now that she's not there anymore. But her smile. It still haunts me. As does the question: could I have done more for her? 

When she died, so far away, I was a first year graduate student. It was my new office mates who got me a glass of water and tissues as I sat sobbing at my desk. One even gave me a hug, followed by "I don't do hugs."

Last week, I got an e-mail from another friend, this time only an ocean away, also with two kids, also my age, telling me of her cancer diagnosis. Her situation is different, I know. She has health care, and lives in a large city in the US. She'll be taken care of. Needing frequent doctor's visits won't mean a half hour walk to get to a road that large vehicles can travel on. The company insurance workers won't sneer at her husband for wanting treatment, because of his economic class. She has the same theoretical survival odds as the other woman. But she has the treatment to make that a reality. What a difference a country makes. I think it is clear to me, after writing this, who I am actually grieving for. 

Still, after I got the news, it was a grad student in my brand new academic home who gave me a cup of tea and a frisbee to throw around her office until I could focus on work again. Grad students. I don't know what I'd do without 'em.

*You'd think I lace my friends' dinners with radioactive cesium.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wishful thinking

Associate != Assistant.

It doesn't matter that they start with the same 3 letters, and have a similar arrangements of letters that poke up.

It doesn't matter that the group with the job poster offered you a position for a post doc last year, after you had accepted your current position, so you had to turn them down.

It doesn't matter that you've already e-mailed all your letter writers excitedly telling them why you think you stand a chance at the position.

Associate != Assistant.

Fortunately, it seems none of my letter writers took my mistake poorly. It is good to have friendly letter writers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Be careful, you'll get a reputation

As women, we hear variants of this line all the time. It's usually used to warn us about how we dress, or about how aggressive we are, how much make-up we choose to wear, or not to wear. It starts shockingly young, middle school really, just about when we hit puberty, and follows us all our lives.

This is not to say that men aren't reminded about their reputations as well. They hear it about getting a reputation for being a bully, or for being a cheater, or not being dependable. They hear it regarding qualities that all people want to be careful with their reputations about. Please correct me if I'm wrong, men. Are there gendered reputation characteristics you get warned about?

As academics, we have reputations to worry about. Are we good advisors? Are our papers clearly written? Do we manage our labs well? Are we as dull as dishwater in front of undergrads? Do we get along with our colleagues and pull our weight in the faculty? Women, it seems from anecdotal evidence, worry more about appearing bitchy. I've known very few men whose reputation for being a chauvinist has preceded them.

Maybe this is because I've been unlucky. Maybe this is because given the gender balances in my field, I get most of my information from other men, since that's generally who is around. Maybe because chauvinist is not a name to attach to someone in polite company, just like it is really hard to call someone a bigot. Maybe it's because women (many minorities do this too), when they experience a negative interaction, tend to think it was a personal, one time thing. We don't tend to wonder if there is something systematic, and even if we do, we stay quiet. If we tell the wrong person, we'll just get a reputation for being over sensitive.

Fuck that. I'm keeping a list. My reputation can go to hell.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fridays Females

"Is this area J?"

"Huh? Yes."
I turn to see
a small woman - made up far to well to be in line at the airport
at 5:30 am.
She smells of cigarette smoke and fragrance.
Hoop earrings highlight her jaw line.
She could be one of my undergrads.

We make it through security-
 45 minutes until our flight.
"Do you want some coffee? My treat.
 I just need to find a cash point."

She's definitely too happy to be at an airport at 6 in the morning.

We settle down for toast or porridge,
cappuchino or tea,
and confess our lives to each other,
newly bonded as we were,
sleep deprived and punchy-
complete strangers and travelling companions.

She's visiting her new boyfriend.
He's stationed abroad for a year,
she's doing all the travelling now.
She hopes to bring her son over next month,
she doesn't know if his school will let him have the time away.
Maybe for Christmas.

"How old is you son?"

"He's five."
He's very good at abstract thinking-
tested borderline autistic.
She got pregnant in college.
Kept performing.
Finished her degree.
Graduated with honorable mention in music.
She pouted when her professor wouldn't let her sing at the last performance.
she went home
and into labor.

Happy graduation, Mom!

Her marriage didn't last,
but they still get together for lunch.
Her son sees them as good friends.
He has the kid during this visit.
No angst.
He's seeing someone.
As is she.

Her new boyfriend?
He's so GOOD to her son.
Her son loves him back.

She needs to figure out what to bring back her son. I give her suggestions of things that have been big hits with Epsilon, and we march off to our plane.

I can't get her out of my head. What would I have done with the cards dealt to her? Would I be the chipper young woman eager to fly to see her new lover, would I still be the older, weary one, trying to make it through the predawn commute so she can put in a reasonable day at work? Or third.... well, lets not talk about third ... 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Things that make me happy: Science for pre-schoolers

One of my neighbors from First Postdoc City, who I've been trying to keep in touch with, started talking to me about her difficulties answering her daughter's sciency "why" questions. I felt like door
opened in our relationship. Epsilon loves this 4 year old, he still talks about her. But living on different continents, it is hard to keep a strong connection with adults. It is manyfold harder with

Along with the explanations to the family's questions, I've sent links to sciency projects that might be interesting to young children, like Radio Lab (which has its own problems if you are a scientist, but does a decent job of popularizing it), and NASA's photo of the day arxiv (Thanks Alyssa). Dear readers, do you have favorite popular science sites that you love, and would like to share?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where have all the women gone?

Two weeks ago, I asked this question about women in academia in the part of the world where my partner and I currently work when I wrote about the observation that there seemed to be fewer women in both my and my partner's departments than there we'd experienced in the States. Furthermore, I observed that no one in our respective departments seemed to think the current numbers odd. To be fair, since that post, I attended a large department gathering, the first after the semester had started, and realized that counting the new graduate students, the numbers are not as bad as I had previously assumed, but they are still pretty bad.

IBAM commented that perhaps the cultural norm was for women to work part time after having kids. Anecdotal evidence of our friends and neighbors seem to support this, and it is possible that if the perception is that a mother should work part time after children, then women who want kids are more likely to choose fields where that is possible (i.e. NOT academia).

This got me thinking. Not being a cultural anthropologist with a focus on gender issues, I turned to The Googlz. Wanna see a scary movie?

Oh my, are the girls sexay. (Yes, girls. They all look like jail bait to me.) This was the ad put out by the European Commission's initial attempt this June to promote female participation in science. It's been widely mocked and since retracted, but the front page for the "It's a girl thing" campaign is still a bit frivolous and pink for my liking. Meh. Maybe it's just a matter of taste. Show me some data, you say.

This scary graph keeps popping up wherever I look.

For a better view, check out page 73 of this PDF.[1] The shades of violet are female percentage of women in 2002 and 2006. The shades of salmon are the same stats for men. The points on the x-axis correspond to advanced stages of an academic career, starting with a graduate student (or equivalent), ending with tenured faculty (or equivalent). But it gets better. Page 74 of the same report has the following graph, looking only at the numbers in the sciences and engineering departments [1]

Okay, so what about the US? The NSF collects fairly good data about this on a regular basis. From their 2011 report, I was able to dig up the following graphs.[2]

These are the percentages for female full time, full professors in the sciences and engineering (essentially Grade A from the EC data):

The NSF has data about PostDoc (Grade C in the EC Data) held at US institutions by gender and citizenship status.[3] There is much more flux of scholars coming to the US from outside of it that to the EU from outside of it. I feel like I should recognize that the data for non US residents is different than the data for US residents, though I don't know what the implications of the distinction are.

The NSF also has data about PhD's granted in Science and Engineering from 2001 to 2010, (the fourth dot in the EC data.)

So what have I learned? My perception that there are fewer women in my field in the EU than in the States at all advanced degree levels matches the data about the presence of women in Science and Engineering fields in the US versus the EU. There are several ways to break this down further. There are, of course regional and field variations that I have not delved into yet. There is the question of how much the lack of female presence has to do with current hiring policy than with previous hiring policy. I still haven't come close to addressing whether or not more women work part time in the EU, and how this interacts with the number of women seen in academia. I leave this for future investigations.

I hope this turns into a regular blog series, though the posts will be spaced some distance apart due to time constraints. If you have any comments or thoughts or questions you would like to see answered, I welcome them. I especially welcome comments from European readers, since the main point of this project is to understand gender and academia in Europe.

[1] She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science, European Commission Report, EUR 23856 EN
[2] Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, Digest, 2011 (
[3] Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, Data Tables, 2011 (

Monday, October 15, 2012

Diva Moment

I think we've all seen this in our colleagues. The initial request. The realization that the request is not fullfillable. The unreasonable stance demanding that the initial request be fullfilled, climaxing to a demand that the world rotate around the needs of one particular scientist (or three year old). We've all seen colleagues do this. We may have seen our children do this. It makes the lives of administrators and parents miserable.

Having said that, I am going through my own diva moment. At the time of writing this post, I've been at University F for about 6 weeks, and I'm still not set up. Which is impressive since I don't belong to a lab. Wireless in my office is poor, and the VPN server won't install on my laptop. I still can't get Skype to interface properly with my desktop. This makes it very hard to meet virtually with colleagues.

I still have at least one government form to track down. Instructions on how to do so are unclear. I have colleagues telling me that I can do so easily on line. I have HR telling me that I need to go to a government office 30 mins away and take a number. Yes, there is a form that I may be able to e-mail in somewhere. No, she will not translate it for me, since the government office knows what to do better than she does. Legally, she needs to withhold half my gross pay until I procure this piece of paper. Oh, and by they way could I go to another office to prove that I haven't committed any crimes in this country before they hired me (ignore the fact that I haven't lived here before they hired me).

Part of the reason I'm not set up is that I've been traveling a lot (and will continue to through November). But the point of transplanting me from my original country to a university much closer to where my potential collaborators are is for me to visit them and try to pollinate some papers. Part of the reason I'm not set up is that my department's IT support is dwindling to 0. Part of the reason I'm not set up is that this country is trying to streamline it's paperwork, but the project is delayed, so instead of automatically issuing paperwork like they used to and will do again, people now have to run to 3 different offices.

I am currently refusing to let paperwork eat more than one day a week of my work time here. This slows down my progress in the pile of administration I need to go through. On the other hand, I think the frustration of standing in lines, and filling out forms in a foreign language is worth more than the interest I will loose on the extra money being withheld. So I'll get to it when I can. If this bothers her, I'll be the diva and she can make life easy for me. If it doesn't, then we are both happier for it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday's Females

I was listening to This American Life this week. The first part of it involves comedian Tig Notaro's talking about her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer's not funny, but in the hands of a skilled and introspective orator, it is an amazing and powerful story. She was scheduled to perform a few days after she was diagnosed, and, unsurprisingly, she didn't feel up to giving her prepared show. Instead, she gives an impromptu 30 minute performance, talking about her cancer. The full show is available at Louis CK's website for $5. About half of this performance is available for free on TAL's show. It's worth $5 for the extra 17 minutes of material.

Mathbabe linked to Effing Dykes recently. In particular, she linked to this post about women's bodies. If you don't know the original Whitman poem "I sing the body electric," spend some time with that poem. It is a beautiful declaration of love for the human form, done in, what now seems to be, a non titillating way, but was nonetheless  scandalous in the 1900's. When I first read it in college, it was amazing to me that somewhere, in the English language, there was a written document appreciating the human form without sexuallizing it, told, lovingly, from the point of view of a queer man. Effing Dykes does the same in her  post "The Body Electric," with a focus on women's bodies. I think it may be the most powerful statement I have read about bodies for a very long time.

To round out my Friday Fantasia on the female form, take a look at Jo(e)'s post. She has a series of naked photos of friends and colleagues, usually taken at conferences, though this is not. I love Jo(e)'s blog, and I love her (and her friends') frankness with their bodies.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What to do with that wrapper

To continue my meditation on strengths of the US, the following scene happens regularly at Chez Barefoot.

Partner walks into the kitchen with various plastic containers from dinner.
Me: Here, let me toss those.
Partner: Shouldn't we recycle them?
Me: In [this country]*? No.
Partner spends a minute trying to find the little triangle with the number in it, fails, sighs, hands me the plastic. 
There's a piece of paper on our refrigerator with the recycling schedule on it. It also says that His Town aims to get to hit a goal of 43% recycling by April 2013. I am stunned. The town will charge me about $170 to safely dispose of my old laptop. It will also charge me the same amount of money to dispose safely of my used batteries. Our old electronics are traveling back to the states with us for our next visit.

My department doesn't recycle paper. My apartment complex in My City doesn't have a dumpster for recycling. I wish I could say this means that I've done the extra research necessary to find out where the central recycling station is in My City and taken my burrito wrappers and glass bottles there, but I am not that dedicated.

As my partner pointed out to me, the US is both the birthplace of the modern environmental movement and the Tea Party. It is home to both Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky. To not give the country credit for both is to do it injustice.

*To be fair, some of this has surprised colleagues raised in neighboring countries, where the stigma for not recycling is stronger than in the US.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


A colleague (male) is fumbling around under the table trying to plug in his laptop.

"Having trouble getting it into the right hole?" someone asks.

When we all ignore him, he helpfully adds that if he were at a bar, he would have said more.

Desperate, I point out that what he said was explicit enough. I don't have the courage to meet the other female scientist in the eye.

Just to cheer me up, my partner sends me this.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Jobs and genders

I complain a lot about the US. I do so lovingly, though it may not
seem that way. The US is my country, and if I have any patriotism in
me, it is in the firm belief that I need to do everything I can to
make my country better than it is (in the direction I believe is
better of course... opinions may differ about whether my better vector
actually is). Now that I've moved away, I have a clearer perspective on
the strengths an weaknesses of my country. Nothing I didn't know in
principal before, but some things have come into sharper focus over
these last few months.

I spend most of my time living in what some 'Mer'cans would call
"Socialist States." In some ways its great. I don't need to own a car;
there's decent public transportation. I don't have to worry about
healthcare. My partner's doctor apologized for how expensive it was to
fill a perscription ($13). He almost laughed out loud. Our
universities deal with our pensions. There are humane maternity
benefits and childcare becomes affordable after the age of 3. I feel
like I've walked into a dream.

"It's so nice having another girl around" says the female grad student
from the office next door.

"We're not the only woman in this department?" I ask. I swear I've
talked to other female grad students, and I know there is a female
professor, but I'm still a bit disoriented, waking up from my dream.

"There's A and B, and of course Professor C, but you are the only
woman in this building."

Shit. I've talked to _all_ of the women in my subdepartment, and it is about the size of my previous department. In the States, I'm used to 25% gradstudents
being female, and 2 in 10 professors being female. The postdocs slices
of departments I've seen are small enough that I don't want to draw
generalizations. Here, the numbers a are less than 1 in 10 female grad
students, and 1 in female professor in 15.

In the states, my partner sees a minority of female faculty in his
field, but it hovers between 35-45% female in high ranked
departments. His field is much more self conscious about this gender
disparity than mine is. His current department is closer to 1 in 5
female faculty, heavily concentrated in a non-mathematical
subfield. He's asked around, and it seems that this gender
distribution is normal, not an outlier.

Where have all the women gone?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Euro Crisis Fall Out

The academic job situation in southern Europe isn't good. ... The academic job situation anywhere isn't good. I hear stories of yearly contracts not being renewed, or not being renewed until they have either almost expired, or a few weeks after they've expired. I hear about faculty staying on for months without pay or with reduced pay. 

I just heard a story about a woman who commutes a long distance to teach classes at a satellite campus. Her baby is due at the end of November. The university doesn't have a plan yet to cover her classes. I blurted out something about a belief I had about Europe having great healthcare/maternity protections. The others at the table tell me that not giving her a break may not be legal, but now isn't the time to push on these issues. I don't know what to say. If there are faculty working for no pay, how does a pregnant woman demand that someone cover the last few weeks of term?

This isn't the biggest issue in the European economic crisis. But insofar as this blog chronicles the instances of sexism I see in my field, this situation is worth noting.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Things that make me happy: Dual language books

The last time I lived in a city where the public library system had books in my minority language was in college. After visiting my grandparents in their country my freshman year, it dawned on me that I
really did want a deeper connection with the language and culture there. I knew the local alphabet, but to say that I was literate was a stretch. On a lark, I investigated the collection of the main library,
and the branch library near me, and found books at many reading levels for me to stumble through. This was the first big city I'd lived in. I didn't know how luck I was. I've conducted similar searches in branch and main libraries near me in places I've lived since, and never found a collection of books or movies in my parent's first language.

Until now. His Town is small enough that there aren't branch libraries, just the main one. But the foreign language section of the children's room is phenomenal. Some of the dual language books we have already, which pleases Epsilon to no end. Apparently it is cool to own a book that can be found at the library. Other dual language books we own, the library has in a different language, which is also
fascinating to Epsilon. And sometimes, I find things like a mono-language version of Cinderella, in my minority language.

I was worried that moving to His Town, we would have to be self conscious about finding books with multi-colored characters. So far this hasn't been an issue since Epsilon has really only been interested in the section of the non-fiction shelf that focuses on vehicles. We go to the library, bring home a DVD of Thomas the Tank Engine, some books in the minority language, and one on helicopters. I'm good with this.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More than a coffee problem

Would you buy coffee from a woman swimming in chocolate? I take that question back. Today's post is not about judging your, dear reader's, sense of hygiene. Most health regulatory agencies make it a moot point.

Personally, I really wouldn't want to buy coffee from a woman swimming in chocolate, especially if she looked like she was experiencing a highly sensual, and possibly private experience. The fact that she is wearing a really cool hat made of spoons and fun espresso cup earrings wouldn't change my mind.

I'm not really thrilled about buying coffee from a machine with her picture on it at work either.
I feel like I'm experiencing a small act of violence every time I go to the department lounge to get coffee. If I weren't only visiting for a few days, I'd make other arrangements for my caffeine.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Useful trick for writing research statements

I spent Friday writing to a few letter writers about my current projects and directions I plan on going/ projects currently on the hopper. I'd meant for it to be a short e-mail detailing why I thought I was particularly good for a particular position that I'm currently excited about. 

I come up three hours later with what looks an awful lot like a draft of a research statement. But since this was a letter written to people I am very comfortable with, the e-mail flowed like a casual correspondence. This needs to be tightened up, and I need to cut and paste bits from old research plans I've written, but on the whole I think it is a good draft. 

I don't know if I'll be able to trick myself into writing like this for future job/grant applications. Maybe I can pretend to be writing a friend instead of composing a document for a scary process.