I’m Not in Lab to Wash Dishes

(Please see my previous post for context.)

A paper written for Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies

September 19, 2006

Before becoming gender-conscious and keeping a gender log, I was completely unaware of the role gender plays in the academic area of science.  I had realized previously that there were very few female science professors (and I have yet to have one), but I never fully understood the consequences of having so few female role models in science academia, and the gender bias that students face because science is male-dominated.

My freshman year at Anonymous College, I became aware that there was not a female restroom on the chemistry floor.  I, along with many of my female peers, viewed this as an inconvenience and a result of poor planning in an old building.  We would receive comments from our male peers indicating that we should take the absence of a female restroom as a hint that female students do not belong in the chemistry lab.  A comment that I once could have laughed off, has now become quite disturbing and angering to me.

Upon reflection, I realized that on the days that I have lab (Wednesday through Thursday), I tend to dress more masculine.  One day I changed from a girly vintage sweater into a baseball t-shirt and also removed my earrings.  Part of the reason for this was because I knew I would be elbow-deep in a preserved cat, but I also knew it was important that I conveyed an image of a serious science student.  This happens to be a masculine image.  As I looked at what most men were wearing to lab, it was clear they did not have to perform a “costume change” before lab.  I feel that if I were to come to chemistry lab and set up a distillation wearing a skirt and heels, I would not only be taken less seriously but my peers, but also my professor.  Even I sometimes think less of the women who come to lab mirroring the latest spread in Vogue.  It should also be noted that in many labs it is not permitted to wear anything but long pants and closed-toe shoes, which again emphasizes the masculinity associated with working in a lab.

There was an instance in biology lab where my chair, just as old as the science building, was stuck in a raised position and would not budge.  As I struggled to adjust the chair, my professor, who was in mid-conversation with another student, came over and fixed the chair, without skipping a beat in his conversation.  Aware of the role that gender plays in so many of the things I encounter, I contemplated whether or not my professor’s actions were simply of kindness or a result of an assumption that I was incapable of fixing a chair.  I thought about how he would have treated a male student in the same situation.  And as much as I can hope his actions were gender-neutral, I can’t imagine his actions would have been the same had I been male.

As I find myself asking my male peers (who are no more qualified than me) questions in lab or lecture, I am giving into the “discouragement [of] a culture” which causes me to “resign [myself] to low expectations…before [I’ve been] given half a chance to become a more thoughtful, expressive human being” (Rich 24).  I have been passively taught to view myself as inferior to my male peers.  I dress a certain way so I will be taken seriously.  I am careful of the side-conversations I have during lab, although my male peers can talk inappropriately without worrying that their reputation as a science student will be damaged.  As Rich explains, all students—especially female students in the current college climate—truly must claim their education (Rich 22).  If I choose simply to “receive” my education, there is a very good chance I will walk across the stage at graduation with something less than my male peers.

Perhaps the biggest gender-log-worthy moment that I experienced was in chemistry lab.  Upon our arrival to lab, the instructions on how to filter our solution were slightly altered.  The filter paper had to be folded a certain way, something we had not been taught in class.  Of the people who surrounded my work area, the male students had used this technique in high school.  Another woman and I had never done this.  When we asked the men for some guidance, their response was, “Why do women have small feet?…So they can stand closer to the sink…That’s also why they can’t fold filter paper”  My female peer laughed at this comment.  I was so angry that she reinforced their behavior with laughter at the comment.  I was also extremely angry that none of the other students realized that if attitudes like the one reflected by the comment were still tolerated by our society, the male students would be in a lab with all male students.  My female peer and I would not be in the lab.  Without feminism, the women who would be “privileged” enough to be at college would be “major[ing] in teaching, home economics, English” (Baumgardner and Richards 26).  As I become more aware of the injustices of our society, I am angry that I’ve been ignorant about these issues.  I am angry that these issues are not priority in our country’s education system.

Being conscious about how gender influences my education, specifically in the area of science, will allow me to better “claim” my education.  I can learn to be feminine in a male-dominated field while being respected and recognized for my merits.  It is also my hope that I will be able to share part of this insight with others.  Now that I realize that the struggle for gender equality is not over, I want to share that realization to promote active change.

Works Cited

Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards.  “A Day Without Feminism.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions:  Classic and Contemporary Readings.  Ed. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 25-28.

Rich, Adrienne.  “Claiming an Education.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions:  Classic and Contemporary Readings.  Ed. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 22-24.

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One response to “I’m Not in Lab to Wash Dishes

  1. Pingback: Arrival to the Big Apple | michelle pomerleau

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