Women, Science, History, Self

I ran across an excellent blog post, Invisible Computers, at Women in Science (courtesy of Geeky Mom). It’s another wonderful but agonizing story of women who did amazing things — hacked the world’s first programmable computer in order to run important military calculations — only to have their work promptly denigrated, claimed by others or stuffed into the dustbin of history. Fortunately, a documentary is in the works to tell the story of these six women. Meanwhile, many other women who contributed to the history of science in our own time continue to go unnoticed and uncelebrated while pundits continue to speak of women’s natural “inability” to work in these fields.

That blog post also links to a fascinating post at Tiny Cat Pants on the ways women are discouraged or discriminated against in science education. It occurs to me, as I read through the many stories posted there, that I cannot, for the life of me, recall studying under female professors until I took a history course as an elective in my third year (I majored in geophysics and engineering). And it further occurs to me that circumstance affected me a lot more than I ever considered, until today.

There were no women faculty instructing me in my undergraduate career until I signed up for that history course. Not in geology, not in math, not in engineering or physics or English or chemistry or German or statistics or CS. In fact, I only had two women as professors in my entire undergraduate career that I can recall — both historians and both of whom were enormously influential on my career path (the first inspiring me to study Tudor/Stuart history just as she did and the second who inspired me to pursue topics in medieval history as well as apply to the university where I eventually did my graduate work). I took every course that I could register for with those two professors and attempted to model my professional self in their image(s).

Go figure. I’m gobsmacked because it’s more than twenty years on and it never occurred to me until now that I am so deeply entrenched in male privilege that I never thought about this. That the only professors to really connect to my undergraduate self were the only two women I ever studied with. (I had no female professors in grad school, either, although I did some TA work for one other woman professor in my M.A. year — yet another academic with whom I’ve stayed in touch and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude while, excepting for my wonderful supervisor, I’ve never spoken to or corresponded with any of the men who were my graduate instructors, comps examiners or thesis committee members.)

I’m a faculty brat, fergawdsake. I grew up at a U, quite literally. I knew one woman fairly well who was a noteworthy professor in my father’s department. But beyond that? It’s a big, black hole in my mind. I can think of a lot of male academics I knew — the neighbour in pharmacy, the fathers of friends who were engineering, geology and sociology professors. But for women academics? Just one comes to my mind until I was twenty years old. (Dad, Sis? you may correct me if I’m seriously wrong here.)

I’m not saying that a women professor of geology or physics or stats or mech eng would have necessarily revolutionized my world. I’ll be the first to admit that I was not destined to be the world’s greatest geophysicist. I’m not saying that my male professors were discriminatory, inferior or ineffective (on the contrary, most of them were absolutely amazing educators and scholars). But I do think that there’s something to the idea that any one, male or female, who studies exclusively under professors of the opposite sex will have a hard time seeing themselves in that professional capacity.

7 Responses to “Women, Science, History, Self”

  1. Jane Says:

    “I’m not saying that my male professors were discriminatory, inferior or ineffective (on the contrary, most of them were absolutely amazing educators and scholars). But I do think that there’s something to the idea that any one, male or female, who studies exclusively under professors of the opposite sex will have a hard time seeing themselves in that professional capacity.”

    Oh, most definitely.

    I can count the number of women professors I had as an undergrad on one hand. Not one in my chosen major, nor in any of the related technical/science courses I took for my major in other departments. I was ultimately successful (obviously), but it was a tough, tough row to hoe. And it wasn’t until I was almost done with grad school that I even began to think that I was actually worthy and smart and capable and that my success was not just a fluke. I often wonder how many others dropped out or faded away because of the lack of visible women role models…and how sad it is that I’m even saying that in 2008, for pete’s sake.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. PhilosopherP Says:

    You aren’t alone… I had one philosophy instructor who was female… I didn’t know it, but it turns out that she was an adjunct and also a grad student where I ended up in grad school. She was the one who made me realize I could teach philosophy….

    Until I started writing a paper on feminism, and thus working with one of the few (two maybe) new female philosophy profs in my grad program — I’d never worked with a woman on a paper before. I’d also not really thought about the gender of my profs, nor had I thought about the function of gender in knowledge creation… of course, since I ended up writing a paper about feminism, epistemology and science, I’ve thought about it quite a bit.

  3. Anastasia Says:

    I’ll chime in, here, and say that I had one female prof as an undergrad (in a gen ed course) and one in grad school (about to retire). I’m not terribly impressed with the attitude of the vast majority of the men I’ve studied with but I agree with you that there are definitely those who are superior educators *and yet* there’s just something…

    I have thought about this, in terms of my current advising situation. it makes a lot more sense to work with a woman than a man at this stage. It’s been really good for me.

  4. Terminal Degree Says:

    I am in a field with a much higher percentage of female students than say, math, but I still didn’t have a female professor for a music class until my junior year. No wonder that 1) no matter how successful I was, the male students still got more attention; and 2) I practically worshiped the one female music prof I finally studied with.

    In graduate school I noticed, much to my dismay, that not a single conducting faculty member or grad assistant was female. *sigh*

    I can only imagine how much harder it would be in math/science.

  5. sm Says:

    I am glad to say that the many young women in our program have got a variety of female role models available.

  6. Belle Says:

    Yep. Add another one to the list of ‘never had a female prof in my field’ - until my last (!) PhD program. And I do history folks! Oh, BTW, that woman? There were two: one was known as The Vampire and the other was a political science prof.

  7. Notorious Ph.D. Says:

    My own Ph.D. advisor was male, and I was writing about women in a male-dominated topical subfield. The man was fantastic, and I still revere him, but I’m so glad for my female mentors as well.