Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

On Comets and Commentators [Guest Post, Dissent]

Our second guest author (writing anonymously) is an undergraduate studying physics at Harvard, and I'm happy to count her as a friend. She's offered the following response to my original post about the Philae landing / Dr. Taylor's tacky shirt affair and Dr. Christine Piatko's response. The full index is here.

Her post follows, with minor edits proposed by me and okayed by her. The opinions presented are -- I hope, obviously -- not necessarily mine, but I do believe the proliferation of viewpoints to be useful.

With this, I'm going to close the call for dissents. It's been fun, though, and I'm excited to do it again. Stay tuned!

I work very hard to define myself as a physicist first and a woman second. Maybe this already speaks to a stereotype that I have internalized, since it should ideally be the case that "physicist" is a gender-neutral term instead of one that implies a male. It shouldn't be the case that I feel like my gender makes me an asterisk. But in my own experience in the Harvard physics department, a group of wonderful, supportive, brilliant, and lovely people, I have heard quite a number of comments implying that women in science are less attractive than the general female population, that we are less capable than our male counterparts, that we tend to be more assertive to the point of being "bitchy."

Ross: According to MIT's 2014 Community Attitudes survey, 48% of female undergraduate respondents and 33% of male undergraduate respondents at our peer institution reported that they had experienced a fellow student "suggest[ing] or impl[ying] women don't have to meet the same intellectual standards men do to get into MIT."

When Dr. Piatko calls for people to avoid gender-biased fashion decisions in the future, when Ross asserts that this is a misplaced forum for discussing gender parity in the hard sciences, when people ask me what it is like to be a girl in the physics department -- these discussions make me slightly uncomfortable.

I acknowledge that the gender distribution in physics is abysmal -- girls make up less than 20% of our department, and the distribution hasn't improved since the 80's when my parents were in college. I acknowledge that Dr. Taylor's shirt was a hideous, trashy thing that could be seen as objectifying the female body. I acknowledge that I have been afforded huge privileges by virtue of affirmative action for women. I acknowledge that the few women in the department do have experiences colored by our identities as women and that a space should be open to have those sorts of conversations, I recognize the need for young women to feel like they have role models of their own gender, I wish vehemently that one day, this will not be a problem that we need to talk about.

More than anything else, I hope the last point comes true. I get uncomfortable starting giant debates surrounding a shirt and taking away from acknowledging the triumph of the Philae landing because it begins the discussion, once again, that women are different, that we are some minority that must be coddled, that must be helped, because this world of science is harsh and cruel and male-dominated and if we don't do something, all the talented women will be pushed out. I don't like drawing attention to the fact that women must somehow be "propped up", that aside from the brilliant exceptions that serve as the token lady scientists, the rest are struggling against the overwhelming patriarchy and must fight so much harder to 'make it' in this system.

I want a world in which a woman is not an exception, in which Dr. Taylor's shirt is unclassy but not a symbol of the lab environment or the gendered nature of the science community. Sometimes a hideous shirt is just a hideous shirt, and oftentimes I wish we didn't find every opportunity to bring up the women in science trope again. In the world in which I operate, it is easy -- and enjoyable -- to be a fellow scientist, a fellow researcher, a fellow physicist; it is much harder to be treated as an equal when the discussion constantly turns to why I am necessarily different.

Maybe it's true that a young girl seeing this shirt subconsciously gets the impression that all scientists are male and have poor fashion taste and women are clearly rare in the ESA, but more powerful and more worrying, I think, is this message we send when we reiterate that women doing science/math is still some giant exception that needs to be singled out for support, that we collectively need to convince girls that doing science is rare!/cool!/empowering!/worthwhile!/hooray!

When we keep talking about having to send this message, it feels more and more like a lie that we have to sell. Dr. Piatko says that she hopes #shirtstorm will open up a space for people to have these discussions of the environment and culture of science workplaces and communities, and I recognize that this is a discussion that maybe is uncomfortable but necessary if there are serious transgressions that should be resolved. But I don't want this to turn into tiptoeing around the lab because we worry about offending women, into feeling uncomfortable working with women for fear of accidentally saying something offensive, into remembering that women are different and special and need to be 'acknowledged' and 'helped.'

And I know that many others look at this opinion and say that it represents an internalization of the system, that we need to move through an uncomfortable phase of acknowledging differences in order to move beyond it and to a new place of true egalitarianism. I don't claim to speak for all women or even anyone beyond myself, but I, for one, hope that we can soon move beyond highlighting matters of gender in science and towards a celebration of our collective triumph as a species and a constant drive for more interesting pursuits and discoveries.

The xkcd that I think sums up my feelings nicely: