Grad Life: Women can be our own worst enemy

Posted by barb on Jun 5, 2004 in Thesis/Grad Life |

This is an entry into my Grad Life journal that I’ve been avoiding. I was so excited to start classes my first fall. I had spent the summer fairly isolated from students my age, working on porting a oscilloscope’s control program from DOS to Unix. It was nice to get into the “real world”, but frankly, I had not done much programming, and felt completely out of my element. I actually missed the classroom, which was where I knew I could shine.

That was before I knew she would be there.

She was a professor who had gone through CalTech in the 60s, back when women didn’t make it through CalTech. She still showed the scars. She‘s a well-respected member of the astronomy community, and her hard work has really paid off for her career. However, at least to us students, she came across as a bitter woman with a mission to make grad school as hard for us as it was for her.

I do have to give her some credit. She took over the class at the last minute, becuase the professor scheduled to teach it passed-away just a month before the class was to start. In addition, her knees were giving her a lot of trouble, and she was developing cataracts. (Reports from a year later, after she‘d had surgery on both her knees and eyes were that she was much easier to get along with.)

Many of my bad memories of that class have faded in the last 6 years. However, there are two incidents that epitomize what she thought of us students in the class:

  • One day, we were supposed to use what we were studying to come up with possible quiz or test questions. A fellow student brought the question, “How is the interstellar medium like a high band-pass filter?” (I think — that’s at least the gist of it). Her response was, “And how is a grad student like a low band-pass filter?”
  • Another time, she turned back some homework to the class. As she was handing it back, she said, “Some of you girls might notice that I’ve put some harsher comments on your papers. That’s becasue I think you need some toughening up.”

Can you even imagine if a male professor had said that to the class? But since it was her, it was okay.

Even before these incidents occured, I felt uncomfortable and unhappy in that class. In fact, labor day weekend, which was just after the first two days of class, I went to visit my aunt in Altanta, and complained to her that I was already unhappy.

I looked for jobs in November of my first semester. The only reason I didn’t keep persuing that avenue is because my aunt offered to take me swimming with dolphins the following summer if I just stuck it out my first year.

Oh, and I found out something else about her last week. An acquaintance had another story about her. She wrote one of the qualifying exam questions asking students to find the distance to some object given a bunch of parameters, including H_0 = 50 km s^-1 kpc^-1. This acquaintance, while doing the problem generally correctly, had gottn 10/100 on the question with the comment, “H_0 is not 50”.

I’d like to say that things are changing, and I really do think they are. The next generation of female astronomers seem to have lost the bitterness present in a segment of the first generation. Now we just need to push the first generation out of positions where they interact or influence the upcoming generation, and we can at least bring better experiences to those just entering into astronomy.

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