Monday, February 28, 2005

Gender and Role Models

I've actually started this post a bunch of times, and I've never been happy with how it's turned out. So I'm trying something new: I'm just going with some random thoughts here and we'll see how it goes. Some of them may give rise to future posts, some of them might just stand here on their own, with no further comment.

Here goes.

I think that everyone in my field---not just women, not just people from underrepresented groups---should work to make the field more inclusive and more welcoming to people who have the aptitude but don't fit the stereotype. I honestly believe that the majority of people in my field would like to see it open up and would like to see a variety of faces and hear a variety of viewpoints. I have worked with men who are as committed to increasing diversity in the field as I am, if not more. My own thesis advisor, a male, was a member of a women's technical group, and many of his students were female---he was and is a very strong believer in the power of mentoring women. And he was a very effective mentor---his students, male and female, are very successful and very confident people who do very good work in the field.

One of the reasons I chose the job at my present school, in my program, even though I would be the first (and only) woman, is because several men in this department were passionate about recruiting and mentoring women to the program. They "got it". I felt that they understood the issues and could be valuable allies. So to me, taking this job was worth the risk of being the first woman. The environment was comfortable, the colleagues supportive.

I still believe all of these things. I still think that I am in a good environment. My colleagues and I still brainstorm about ways to get more women into the introductory courses and retain them once they are in. They have some great ideas. They are great sounding board for my ideas.


There is still a certain legitimacy that comes with being a woman that even the most sympathetic and committed man cannot bring. And that is the power of having a real, live example of success, someone who looks like you as a model for female students. Mentoring is fine. Encouragment is wonderful. But role models are so, so important. Especially in this field, with its stupid antisocial personality traits that are held up as the norm of behavior. My field is lonely. It's hard. It's especially lonely and hard at 3am when your code or design or simulation isn't working and you feel like a moron because obviously you're stupid if you don't understand why it's not working.....and of course you're a moron because look around you, no one looks like you, so clearly that means that people like you don't or can't succeed here.

That last part may sound melodramatic, but it's real. I've been there. Recently, even. I remember feeling it as an undergrad. I remember some of those nights in the lab vividly. I perservered because I was stubborn and because I had many, many teachers (in high school and junior high....not so much in college) who believed in me and made me believe in myself....enough to counteract those fear sessions. But many women I knew didn't have that support, couldn't see themselves succeeding, and were treated with indifference or, sometimes, outright discouragement from faculty and advisors. when they tried to reach out for help. They dropped out. Who could blame them? Yet what sort of talent did we lose as a result?

So anyway, what's my point? How does this relate back to my role as sole female faculty member in my program? I'm still trying to work that out. My thoughts right now go something like this: In a sense, what I do now takes on much more importance. For better or worse, some will see me as the "voice" and/or representative of women in the program. I am the only real role model here for women in my field. I'm not sure what this will do in terms of providing our young women on campus with examples of success in this field. I'm not sure how this will affect my plans for starting mentoring programs for women in my field here, but I suspect that mentoring will take on much more importance and significance for me.

I'm not sure any of this made sense. I hope that I can make sense of it.....soon. I'm sure I will try to work this out in future posts as well.

1 comment:

Ianqui said...

We did something interesting on our search committee this year. First we had to come up with a list of 6, and then all of the faculty voted on the real shortlist of 3. Since it was pretty clear who the list of 3 would be eventually, we decided to put a woman on the short list of 6 even though we weren't necessarily sure that we liked her better than another guy. (Basically, it was a toss-up, but we let the fact that it was a woman help us make the decision.) I was fine with that, but in a way, it's a weird thing to do. In the end though, it didn't matter--we ended up with 3 men on the shortlist. Oh well. But gender disparity isn't so glaring in my field, so it wasn't such a big problem.