I wrote this a few weeks ago, just after that quick link post. I was pretty emotional at the time, and I’ll just leave it unedited to give a sense of how I felt:
I just had a meeting with two professors and four graduate students, all male, in which we discussed that nytimes article. I’ve spoken about this article and my personal experiences plenty over the past week, but I got choked up and found it hard to talk without tearing up when I tried to say something about how women need that bit of encouragement (I wrote in my last post the thought on internalizing vs. externalizing) and how much more it means to women. It wasn’t a hostile environment; I know all the guys there personally and they’re all pro-feminism/obviously care about teaching, but I still had this psychosomatic reaction to representing the experiences of all women to this group of men who never got this particular little monster plugged into their psyches.
This particular little monster is the one that says boys save the day and overcome obstacles and girls get rescued, even when they try to save the day. Or the one that sees the handwriting on the exam and braces itself for a bad proof. The one that thinks you’re more like Amy and not like Penny at all (from Big Bang Theory, a show I actively hate for reasons I’ll go into later if ever), but that wants to be “normal.” It’s the monster that says you don’t know what you’re talking about and you don’t know what’s going on so why even try.
OK so that’s what I wrote a few weeks ago and it’s just been sitting here since then. Shortly thereafter I received a kind email from one of the professors:
Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and feelings in the ESP meeting today. I recognize that the subject and the issues mean a lot to you. 🙂
And, with a bit of time, I recognized what had happened and I emailed him back:
Thanks for the note. I’ve actually been talking about the issue a lot since the article came out in many different situations, so I was rather surprised when I got a bit choked up in the ESP meeting as I’m quite opinionated/vocal generally about it. Upon reflection I believe that I felt like I was speaking on behalf of all women in a room full of men, a responsibility that I wasn’t prepared for. It’s like having a discussion about race in a room with one person of color. It’s a little weird.
So that’s the state of things. When I’m a super-minority (as in the only person with a particular characteristic in an otherwise homogenous situation), I feel a burden of responsibility to represent whatever that minority is: woman, mathematician, non-white person. One way to deal with this is to shut it down and not deal with it, but that’s impossible if, for instance, you find yourself in the situation I was in. Another way is to embrace stereotypes: in undergraduate, I was the one of two math people in my residential college (~400 people) for my years there [one guy graduated and then a girl came in the next year], and I would often joke about being the math nerd and push up my glasses in an effort to make those around me more comfortable (my friends would often joke about being dumb at math or hopeless etc. See previous post.)
Anyway that’s a thing that happened. I did do something productive out of it, which was go through all of the graduate students in my department and figure out how many women were in pure/applied math out of the total number of students per incoming year. And by I did this I mean I did my year and this year’s students, and asked my generous friends to spend 15 minutes doing it for their years-information is hard to find and parse! There’s some ambiguity because when students leave they disappear from our website so we can’t tell if they’re in math or stats (our departments are together).
Here are our numbers: