No pregnancy stuff to report right now — we’ve given it our best try this month, so let the two week wait begin! Instead, today I thought I’d write about a gender in science issue that came up for me this week.
This is the time of year in the US when offers for summer research positions come out (the biggest program is called the “REU”, or “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” program). This week a (male) sophomore for whom I’d written recommendation letters stopped by my office full of smiles and nervous excitement to tell me that he’d gotten two offers for summer positions. Yay! And this was particularly exciting because this is an international student who is not eligible for most REU programs — so he’d only applied to three programs (ones that accept international students), but wound up with two offers. I’m so proud!
He wanted advice on choosing between the positions, so I asked him to tell me a little bit more about what the offers involved. Both are good, and would represent a positive step in his professional development. One is at a small college similar to our own, with a supervisor whom I know very well and who I think is just the bee’s knees: brilliant scientist, great guy, just an overall inspiring person. The other is at a super-awesome national research facility with a prominent researcher who I’ve only met once. I’m vaguely familiar with his science and I think it’s quite good… but when I met him I got a very weird, gendered vibe.
A few details: I was invited to give a colloquium at this super-awesome national research facility last fall. I went, and had a great time… except for interacting with this guy. He signed up to come to lunch with me, and made one weirdly gendered comment at lunch. Then after our meeting he walked me back to the visitor office and made another weirdly gendered comment. I was sharing the visitor office with another young female scientist who had just been hired by the institute and was visiting to look for houses and meet people there. In my presence, he made another weirdly gendered comment to her. It was weird enough that after he left, she looked at me and said “Was that as weird as I thought it was?” and I assured her that it was. These aren’t creepy comments, just comments that bizarrely and irrelevantly alluded to our gender. For example, as he was leading me back to the visitor office through the (legitimately confusingly laid-out and enormous building), he said to me “Well, here we are, back at your office! I walked you back because this building is so confusing — and I’m not saying that just because you’re female and women are stereotypically bad at directions.” See what I mean? Weird and gendered, but not in a creepy or sexual way.
So, when this student told me about his offers, I immediately gushed about super-awesome national research facility, how he’d get to experience a really different environment from the small liberal arts college he’s familiar with, how there would be lots of interesting students and scientists around for him to interact with, etc. Issue of supervisors aside, I think it’s clear that the research facility internship is a better choice for him. But as soon as he mentioned the supervisor I thought “wait, was that the guy…” and then looked him up, and it was. I thought about whether or not to say anything… this guy’s science is good, he’s a pretty prominent member of the community… but he was weird to me…
Reader, I said nothing.
Then I thought to myself, “if this student were female instead of male, I would have warned her away from this supervisor.” The internship at the other small college is also good (although objectively not as good as the opportunity at super-awesome national research facility), and I would not have felt comfortable sending a female student to work with this questionable dude knowing that the alternative was to work with my rockstar scientist-friend at this little college.
Then I felt terrible.
How could I have this double standard? To encourage a male student to work with a guy I think is a bit of a creep, just because of the prestige and opportunity of the fellowship, while knowing that I would deny that same prestige and opportunity to a female student?
I talked about it with my husband, and he essentially said, “Well, sometimes society is irrational. And when society is irrational, we have to work around it by making irrational decisions, and there are no good answers.”
What would you have done?