Sexism

Okay…that was sort of a blunt title….but hopefully it got your attention. This week I’ve been on the blunt end of some sexist comments….so thought hey, I’ll make lemonade from those lemons and use the occurrences as a teachable moment and to jump start a conversation.  After all, I have discussed both of them with my trusted advisors (my family), and well, the perception of whether what happened was sexist or not was divided based upon gender….so…..I’m asking for you all to weigh-in on the discussion.

Incident 1:
In my area of Nebraska, Saturday was a beautiful day.  My daughter, husband, and I decided that it was a perfect day for a long walk.  We walked from our house to a state park.  Toward the end of our four mile walk, a pickup pulled up alongside of us.  The older gentleman (admittedly an ageist comment) rolled down the passenger side window and said to my husband…..”You know if you got your woman a job, you would be able to afford a vehicle and then you could drive wherever you were going.”

My response was total disgust.  First of all, my husband would never be so presumptuous as to assume that he called the shots on any decisions with regard to my career.  Secondly, the decades are long since over when there was a hierarchy within a marriage….and admittedly, my perception of the comment influenced my perception of how old this guy was.  My husbands response was that it wasn’t that big of a deal.  My daughters response to my husband was that “so it’s okay if my fiance wants to make my career choices once we are married in the fall.”  …And, well the conversation fueled us getting home much quicker.  At the time, I had a lot of sarcastic responses…of which none were actually said.  What really happened though was that my husband just nodded his head acknowledging he had heard the guy, and my daughter and I memorized the license plate!  I don’t know what that is going to do for us….but still four days later I could tell you the license plate number of that pickup.

Incident 2:

This incident was much more subtle….and in my opinion, no real sexism was intended.  You see for many years the whole Miss/Mrs has bugged me.  I basically thought, and still think, it isn’t anyone’s business at work whether I am married or not married…..but yet the Ms. designation seemed like I was on a mission to prove something…and I can’t say that I’m that willing to pick up that banner and protest.  It just seems like women are being asked to share a lot more about their personal lives than their male counterparts.  For men….they will be Mr. _________ their entire lives, no matter what personal decisions they make.

I was however very excited when I earned my Ph.D., because now I could be Dr. instead of Miss or Mrs or Ms. because a Ph.D. is gender neutral!!!  Finally, an honorific that is based upon my academic/career achievements rather than on my personal decisions.  But, then, a career choice to hold a position where those with a Dr. aren’t introduced in their posts as Dr. __  ….but rather Mrs./Mr. ___.  There are lots of “reasons” that this is the practice in my profession….but it still makes my skin crawl when at academic conferences or presentations, the men in the group are introduced as Dr. ____ and the women as well either Miss/Mrs. or by first and last name.  My workaround for this used to be to just avoid the honorific and use first and last names for everyone.  Then the decision to move to an office where the only other full time woman stationed there has the same first name.  Now I typically go by Dr. first name because my last name is hard for kids to pronounce/write/remember.  This decision drives my daughter nuts….she thinks that my using my first name instead of my last name, and allowing others to call me Dr. first name, I’m not requiring the same respect as my male counterparts which use Dr. last name.

Men see being introduced as Mr. ___ as a sign of respect.  My perspective is that if you introduce me as Mrs. ____ …..well why don’t you hand out my social media passwords while your at it.  From my perspective, it’s not respectful…it’s just invasive.  And, if you introduce me as Mrs. _____, I’m probably immediately thinking about ways to work into my public presentation a question for you to reveal personal facts about you.  Thank goodness my professionalism usually curtails my instinct to point out your sexism in public.  I’ve seen my female colleagues responses to this type of situation, and they usually try to “laugh it off”….but in conversations afterwards, I can tell you that the last thing that a woman is doing while “laughing it off” is laughing it off….there is a different laugh in response to these situations.

Today I was asked to sign some certificates as Mrs. _______.  At a glance it didn’t bother me….but I can tell you that it’s been a long time, perhaps ever, that I’ve signed anything as Mrs. ______ .  It reminds me of my parents signing checks.  My dad always just signed with his first and last name….my mom with Mrs. _______.  It took me longer to decide whether I would just sign the certificates with my first and last name, or to put the Mrs. on there, or to disregard what name was typed on there and sign it with Dr. ____, than it did for me to actually sign the pile of certificates. After all…some of these certificates are being awarded to female children whom I’m trying to show that they have equitable access to STEM careers. My actions however were to just sign Mrs. ____ and return the pile of certificates to my workshop partner….I said nothing….but now, here I am writing this post.

Wow….can we just get rid of all the sexist honorifics already….we (almost) got rid of checks!!!!  Both of which, if you ask me, are changes that should have occurred decades ago!!!!  And, let’s face it, if someone earns a doctorate it’s the North Central Coordinating Commission that determines the rigors of the program and whether it’s candidates have earned a doctorate, not whether upon completion the graduate is a male or female.  In my opinion, all earned doctorates should be able to use the honorific of Dr. and should be addressed accordingly.

Your thoughts?????

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2 Responses to Sexism

  1. Julie Peterson says:

    Yes, everything you said strikes a cord with me. And that’s one of the problems is that these experiences that may seem relatively small and insignificant when viewed one by one by someone else are constantly occurring, and nearly all women have multiple of these stories they can tell. I have been in a symposium and the male speakers were introduced as Dr. X, Dr. Y, and then I’m Miss Z. Why? I’ve been asked multiple times which of my male colleagues standing by me is my advisor or asked which scientist is my husband (because I’m surely not here at this conference because I’m a scientist?!). Heard 5 times (I’m counting) “you don’t look like a professor.” I’ve been ignored by a bank employee while applying for a mortgage, who was then shocked to hear my education level and salary. Had to argue with someone who was aggressively insisting that it was illegal that I didn’t take my husband’s last name. And these are just the “harmless” events that women experience- because sexual harassment and assault are a serious issue in STEM, as they are in other fields as well.

  2. Differences in perspective perhaps but I wouldn’t necessarily say sexism. And, I wasn’t the one there like you were. I guess my reaction to Incident #1 in primarily working with men would have been different in that I’d see it more as the person trying to infuse humor than an insult or being mean-so my response would have been to smile and tell him to enjoy his drive. And for me-that wouldn’t be a situation of laughing it off as it’s not the type of situation that would insult me personally. In situation #2, I think it’s perhaps also hard for those who introduce us. I don’t have a doctorate to be able to relate that way, but I’ve also experienced the difficulty on the announcer’s end in knowing how to introduce women scientists, particularly those of us without a doctorate degree. I think the best thing we can do is be sure we ask how any person would like to be introduced-and if you feel strongly about it-ask to be introduced in the way you prefer. Julie-I’d take that as a compliment that you look so young and that you are so accomplished for one so young! I’m not saying sexism doesn’t occur. Just my thoughts/perspective related to these incidents you shared.

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