Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Little Things

Experiences shape us and we are shaped by our experiences. But experiences are just an accumulation of little interactions with the world around us. Some of these little interactions, if they happen often enough, start to have a big impact on your overall experience. Talking about your own experiences and how they differ from others can help bring awareness to the inequalities we face. For me, that started by posting short Facebook statuses highlighting a few of my experiences as a white, straight, female astronomer. I am summarizing my posts here along with discussion. I hope that these posts give you a glimpse of another human's experience and encourage you to tell of your own experiences.

Too Pretty

A comment I get pretty much every time I tell someone I am an astrophysicist.

Person: You're too pretty to be that smart.
Me: Don't worry. I didn't let my looks get in the way of analyzing galaxy spectra.

What surprised me the most about posting this exchange is the number of my friends who were appalled that this is said to me. For women in scientific disciplines, this is something that we hear-- a lot. We are constantly defying people's expectations just by our presence. Imagine if we spoke about our knowledge!

The reason I posted it is not to appall people but to give them an idea about why women feel discouraged in fields dominated by men. When someone says this to me, I immediately get the impression they don't think I'm intelligent or capable of studying astrophysics. It's exactly what they said. Pretty people aren't smart. Men aren't usually referred to as pretty so I know that my gender identity spurred this comment. My response is my way of showing them that what you look like has no effect on your ability to succeed in a field. And it usually keeps them from saying something like that again to someone else.


My partner and I met our first year of graduate school in the Physics department. Six years later we found out we'd be having a baby! Upon telling other academics the news, the responses to each of us differed drastically.

Response to my partner: Are you excited to be a dad?
Response to me: Are you going to finish your degree?

Just to remind you, my partner and I were in the same program and at the same points in our studies. We had both passed our qualifying exams and our preliminary oral exams. Both of us were in the home stretch to earning our Ph.ds. We were both teaching assistants and doing research. The only difference is that I was carrying a human life inside of me. While pregnancy affected me physically, after the baby was born, both my partner and I were taking care of a new human. Being the only one asked about finishing my degree made it seem like these academics were questioning my ability to finish and didn't see it as a detriment for me to leave the field. They obviously didn't think my partner would have a problem finishing.

Don't Worry

In fifth grade I did poorly on a Math test for the first time. I went to my teacher to ask what I should do. Her response to me was "Don't worry about it. Girls aren't as good at Math as boys". I just kept thinking "That doesn't answer my question". From that point on I never asked another teacher for help until college.

Unfortunately, too many children are told something like this at some point in their lives. Those of us who have other people in our corner can rise above it. But many children have parents who were told the exact same thing. Where do they find support? My parents were my privilege. They always told me I was good at math and encouraged me to work hard at it. But what if they had also been told at a young age that they couldn't be good at math because they were female or poor or not white? Would they still be able to encourage me?

Our experiences shape us and we are shaped by our experiences. We cannot move forward towards equality if we don't understand the experiences of our neighbors.

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