One Regret

I do have one regret.  Although, on the whole, I am satisfied with how I’ve lived my life, there is one significant thing that I would have done differently if only I had been more brave.

I would have spoken up, each and every time, that I was harrassed for being a woman in science.

I would have said something, not just to the person involved, but to my supervisor, when a colleague at my first job decided to play fashion critic, look me up and down appreciatively, and comment on my appearance each and every morning over (his) coffee. 

I would have gone to the department chair when a professor and advisor asked me repeatedly during graduate school, “So when are you going to get married and quit?”  (Answer: I got married 5 minutes after I left your group.  I quit only after reaching the top of my game and deciding that I wanted more out of life.)

I would have told my undergraduate mentor when I was given a lesser grade than a male classmate who I had outscored consistently.  We were study partners and were both dedicated to our undergraduate research.  For him, this was seen as a plus.  For me, a detriment.  For when I approached the professor about the discrepancy, sure that he had simply made a mistake, he defended his decision to mark me a B and him an A-, because “I didn’t feel that you were concentrating on the class.”  He went on to clarify that it was because I was also doing research, although I had never let it affect my work and had only missed one class all semester.  (B*tard.  I still feel the anger I felt that day, and the power that you lorded over me.  I had not fully realized until that day that it was actually possible that I could work hard, outperform my peers, and still not measure up in the eyes of some who I respected.  Simply because of my gender.)

I would have talked to the dean when my freshman advisor taunted me about taking the national Putnam exam in mathematics, saying “Why are you even bothering?  You know girls can’t do math.”  (I did bother, even without the special review sessions that he held, and I got the highest score.)

In each instance, I did well, graduating with honors, going on to graduate school, doing good research, earning my Ph.D., becoming employed at my dream job, and succeeding.  Now I run my own business, in conjunction with my job as full-time mom, and I think I do pretty well at both.  But I was reminded of this this week at a professional meeting, when I met a woman who came after me in one of the groups.  She had encountered the same behavior, fought it privately, left the group, and also ended up succeeding (at another company).  I am proud of her for succeeding.

But I am shamed that I did not take stronger action against the person in question when he tried to diminish me with his words and his actions. 

35 Responses to One Regret

  1. Krista says:

    Wow, that’s totally unreal. I minored in chemistry in college and worked in an analytical lab after that. We were half male, half female and I never felt like that. My roommate majored in chemistry and is now literally a rocket scientist for a NASA sub-contractor. I wonder if it’s an east coast/west coast thing or a generation thing? Although I really don’t think you’re that much older than me. So weird.

  2. Laura says:

    I am new to your blog, so this is my first comment. I am currently a 4th year organic chemistry graduate student pursuing my PhD on the west coast. My lab is mostly 50/50 male to female ratio. I want to thank you and all the other women who have come before me and contributed to paving the way for women in science. I was fortunate enough to not experience anything like you have mentioned in this post, and I want to thank you for that. I know you said you wish you would have spoken up, but just succeeding has made it easier for me and other women to succeed in science. So thank you!

  3. MummyCha says:

    Yesterday afternoon I was having lunch with one of my managers and we were discussing methods for growing ice. We agreed that the best method involved using an atomizer. So I asked him who in the group would be the best person for taking the lead on that task. He replied that of course I was the most qualified for that task, because as a woman (the only one in his group) I have a lot of practice with using atomizers…
    Ok, the worst part of the story is that he was very serious, NOT joking at all…

    This being said, I must admit I have never been subject to much attack from my colleagues. I graduated in geology, where women represent 15 to 25% of the undergrad and grad communities. I am the only woman in many working groups I am part of, and I am very respected by my colleagues. They even open the door for me, and some time draw my chair so that I can sit without wrinkling my skirt…

  4. Ally says:

    You constantly amaze me. Yes, this is something we could all do better at– standing up for ourselves and fighting discrimination head on. Hats off to you for persevering despite all of the naysayers and perverts.

  5. abunslife says:

    My undergrad advisor suggested I go into nursing instead of biochemistry since I was struggling with my first semester weed-out chem class since they only have take “baby chemistry”. Turned out my professor was just really bad and I had to teach myself. Another bio professor after a bad exam, again in a weed out course suggested I drop, because science is a really hard field for women to get into….yeah, ok. Luckily I had a fabulous mentor in my highschool genetics, and microbiology teacher that told me it was ok, I didn’t always have to get an A. Fastforward many years, now I’m at one of the top medical schools in the country doing research in a male dominated field, but I’m good at what I do, and I’ve been there for over 10 years and plan to be there for a long time coming. Well, as long as the grant keeps getting renewed! 🙂

  6. Kacy says:

    You say you were angry, and do you know what – after reading this I am too. Good luck to you for being so strong.

  7. trish says:

    I’ve had to request to switch supervisors twice to get away from sexism – once during my PhD and once during my career. Both times the stress of not quitting and fighting back was more than I could handle – but somehow I managed and both times I found myself much better off. Sexism is still very much a part of the physical sciences, I wish that it was true that it’s not there anymore, but I’m only 31 and I doubt things have changed that much in the last few years.

    How bad is it? One of the main reasons I’m so thrilled to have a little boy rather than a girl is that he wont have to fight these same battles.

  8. Eva says:

    Ugly, ugly stuff.

  9. christine says:

    this made me so mad for you! when i was a n archaeologist there was definitely some macho crap going on. hated it.

  10. Yes, the way you were treated was wrong. And you have every right to be angry.

    But, you know how you “get ’em back”, WM?? You keep on succeeding. Do your jobs, the very best way you know how. You have your dream-job in science… and you are raising two of the Men of Tomorrow to be good human beings. They will have a tremendous respect for women, because of you!!

    And, of course, you can help other women. Encourage them, mentor them, and show them how it’s done.

    Seems to me, you’ve been doing this all along!!!

    You’re amazing, Susan. I’ve learned so much from you, and I am so very, very grateful.

    xo CGF

  11. Heather says:

    Don’t regret that you didn’t use your voice.

    Rejoice that you have it now.

    Our voices are stolen from all of us through the lifelong indoctrination we receive through this anti-feminist culture. Hearing strong women in the media called ‘shrill’ with a ‘cackling laugh’ fires me up now and I say something. NOW.

    I wasn’t in science, but in the EMS world. I, too, should have spoken up, but didn’t know I could. Now, I have changed careers, and work to change the culture that steals our voice.

    Congrats on finding yours again! You’ve reclaimed what was taken from you. You can use it (and ARE) to help our daughters not lose theirs.

    BRAVO to you for your voice of strength, hope, and experience!

    WOE unto the next B#$tard that tries to steal it from you again.

  12. You go girl – remember success is the best revenge.

    As for the Putnam exam – I’d completely forgotten that one… DH has a PhD in Math, he still has nightmares about this exam, despite scoring well. LOL

  13. Linda Lawrence says:

    Hurrah for females!
    In teaching precalculus and calculus in high school for many years, I have consistently had more females students! 6 of my 7 female calculus students just raised their hands that they are aiming for science careers in college. They may have an easier time!

    🙂 🙂 🙂

    Should we discuss the possibility of math genese?

  14. Becky says:

    I saw a t-shirt the other day: On the front it said “Men can’t help it. They’re not fully evolved” On the back it said “If they were, they’d be women”.

  15. imstell says:

    Isn’t it mind-boggling that those antiquated ideas are still out there? If you must have a regret I think that is an appropriate one (eventhough I have always held to a “No Regrets” mantra). I so agree with the “success is the best revenge” sentiment. I wonder how it would have changed the course of your life if you had taken the stand.

  16. whymommy says:

    Imstell, I am pretty sure that at that time, in that place, if I had taken any action beyond confronting the male individually, I would have been blacklisted or not recommended for the next step.

    Absolutely, positively sure.

    But time moves on, and I’m working to change this now. Next post coming soon.

  17. Susan K says:

    Wow WM, what a completely different experience I had.

    Undergrad geology we were half women and the top 2 or 3 students (myself among them) were women. So there was none of that – even in a field that used to be largely male.

    I had a summer I worked up in northern Canada for the Geologic Survey of Canada. I learned after that summer that I was the first woman student that researcher had hired. He was definitely old school, but treated me pretty much the same as the male student with us. So again, never felt anything like you had.

    And at grad school, again we were half and half. There was no male/female angst (but a whole lot of “if you don’t go on and become a high power professor at a big name school like us, you are a failure”). But that means at least that the assumption was that we COULD and WOULD succeed.

    Sorry you had such a different experience. And I KNOW that I am older than you (more older than I realized!).

    But don’t regret it. You do what you can do and move on and vow to do better.

  18. lisa says:

    I think you have mentioned that went to GaTech.
    I graduated from there in 2003, and never once did I have someone suggest that I couldn’t make it as an engineer becuase of my gender. Bias continues to recede. We may not speak up when something is said about our gender, but I think that being successful in the workplace speaks louder than any words ever could.

  19. MamaBird says:

    Wow, amazing post. I don’t work in the science field but I can say I have faced discriminatory and belittling comments before. Sometimes, I’ve challenged the bias (fought and won a $1K/year ‘raise’ at my first job bz they hired a man with the exact same zero experience and age as me for more) and sometimes I’ve remained silent (when the manager of the restaurant I worked for put my leg on the countertop and suggested they’d look much better shaved.) Now that I have a daughter, I hope even more fervently that, like you, each and every next time I will speak up.

  20. Katherine says:

    Well you can always google them and let them know what you think now. It’s never to late to do what you think is right.

  21. Tracy says:

    I am appalled that someone as young as you has experienced these reactions. I expect these memories to come from someone my mother’s age, not someone who is actually a few years younger than I am. Is my daughter still going to face these comments? It scares me.

  22. NoRegrets says:

    Did you read the piece in the Washington Post magazine from Pat Schroeder? First Person Singular a few weeks ago. I loved the comment at the end by the woman who told the sexist dean at Harvard that she was only at Harvard because she didn’t get into Yale.

  23. Amelie says:

    I think you already did and do a lot by showing (junior) women that we can, indeed, succeed at this. I have not encountered open discrimination as you describe it, but it makes me doubt my goals when I see over 50% female graduate students and under 5% female group leaders. I wonder why to put in all the effort when it’s most likely that I won’t get there in the end. People like you show me that I can be successful in science (traditional academic career or not). So thank you.

  24. Susan K says:


    Something you need to be sure you understand is that there is a big difference between “won’t get there in the end”, and “choose not to go there”.

    A lot of studies have been done and I don’t think any good conclusions reached about why women, who represent such a good fraction in grad school, aren’t represented later. And some amount of (maybe even most of) ‘choose not to go on’ may be related to issues of discrimination. But there is a fraction who really do “choose” not to go on. For whatever personal reasons they may have. The important thing to notice is that there ARE women who do make it, so if YOU want to, YOU can.

    I remember a good friend from high school, who went to the hardest engineering school in Canada. He had no interest in being an engineer – he wanted to learn how engineers think. Statistically, he is a failed engineer. But statistics don’t always tell the whole story.

  25. Amelie says:

    Susan: of course you’re right, but it’s still somewhat discouraging. I cannot believe all these women really chose to leave.

  26. canape says:

    You’ve worked with some real assclowns.

    Of course, you also got to work with your husband too, didn’t you? And we all know he’s not an assclown.

    Gender bias is everywhere unfortunately. In every field. If it weren’t, clerks in a music store wouldn’t always assume I’m in there to buy a gift for the man in my life.

    You’ve done amazing things against amazing odds. Always.

    *clapping politely for your superbness*

  27. strugi says:

    I am interested in all of the responses. I am in the physical sciences and got my Ph.D. in this decade. My lab is at least 50% women-our management is much more heavily weighted toward the men, but they have noticed and they are working on changing. When I go to meetings it is hard to miss how lucky I am.

  28. It happens in all fields. I was in finance at a large corporation. I worked on huge multimillion dollar defense contracts. So did another guy in our group. When I asked why his salary was so much higher, I was told that he had a family to support…
    Oh — and I am supporting… Oh… that’s right… I was a SWF… I guess I didn’t need to support myself!!

    I eventually left – after they paid for 1.9 masters degree programs… 🙂

    Yup… they paid… one way or another… they always pay.

  29. deb says:

    Women are still second class citizens and it starts so young. All young children are curious about the world around them. They explore, they watch, they learn and then at puberty, girls realize that they have become the watched. It’s not what we think or what we say, it’s how we look. It has to change. No wonder so many young women are angry and acting out. Who wouldn’t? We tell them they can do anything but it’s not true. The rest of the world doesn’t really believe that. Women are separate, still in our society.

  30. clifford says:

    You know smartz don’t always come packaged with common sense, YM. If you only knew how often guys try to say something, anything coherent or friendly to females in their field and end up completely insulting that person instead. As someone intimately familiar with the taste of his own toes, I can personally vouch for it.

    Anyone purposely trying to demean you deserves a kneelift to the cajones, though. How stupid.

    So, did you pass out laughing at the guy who told you that you couldn’t do math? I got dizzy just thinking about that.


    p.s. – homeslice in teh paragraph five had no power, girlfriend.

  31. susanniebur says:

    Oh, Cliff, I was so young … what does an 18 year old standing in the doorway of a respected senior professor’s office possibly say when confronted with something so blatant?

    But yeah. And Amelie? I didn’t know you were here. I’m tickled by that. Thanks.

    Thanks, to all, as always.

  32. Loralee says:

    I think it’s terrible that people were trying to diminish your talent and hard work. I have a different regrets. My regret is that I am a female who ISN’T good at math, science, logic.

    I have been trying to be “More than I am” for years and years. I don’t have a business mind, I am as tough as a rose petal and I’m rather silly and very creative minded. I don’t mind it when men cat call me. I am not career oriented and don’t mind staying home with kids as my full time job. (And yes, this makes me feel that I’ve let down the female gender).

    I had to work hard in school to just get a B average because math and science brought me DOWN. (I got a 14 in math on the ACT and got an over all score of 29 if that says anything.)

    I have always been disappointed that I was an opera singer instead of an academic, savvy business woman and have always felt like a lesser person because of it.

    However, the main people that have made me feel inferior as a person are WOMEN. Not men. Maybe it is because I am not threatening enough to men, I don’t know. Maybe some other women feel that I should be stronger, more independent, or vote for Hilary, I don’t really know.

  33. NYFriend says:

    And said department chair in grad school is a spineless wimp. You would have been wasting your energy had you gone to him. Really. There were so many offenses going on in that department it made me sick on a daily basis. I had to get out of there before their poison took hold.

    You sent a message when you left that group. And it was great to have you with us. 🙂

  34. Wow whymommy. I knew I liked your spirit! I have started a smart girls blog that is intended to encourage young girls to pursue their interests in science, math and the arts.
    Persoanlly I was a science girl that ended up going the health professional route. My professional life was rewarding, much I think because I was my own boss. But the undergraduate and graduate years were filled with “boy, she is so dumb she is in the wrong class and doesn’t even know it!” looks.

    Anyway, I would love to quote your blog sometime when we discuss more why gifted and careered women are not able or chose not to participate in their field after they start a family.

    I am so glad to here women are being proactive!

  35. whymommy says:

    Cool. Quote away, quote away. You are also welcome on my other new blog, Women in Planetary Science.

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