Recently, I had dinner with a female friend who just finished her master’s degree in hydrology. We caught up on general news and gossip over dinner. You know, boyfriends, new pairs of shoes, stable isotope spectrometry– the usual girly talk. Then, we started chatting about the happenings in our respective geology departments. She told me a piece of news that I’ve reflected on a fair amount over the last week. At my friend’s institution a certain geology professor, whom I know by reputation, is in trouble because of a few words he had with a new, female graduate student of his. Apparently, the student is threatening to file a sexual discriminaton case against this professor.
At first, I was appropriately shocked and horrified. It’s difficult enough for women to succeed in science without extra obstacles, such as deliberate discrimination, obstructing the way. Geology is, admittedly, better than other fields such as engineering and physics, but it still isn’t easy for women in this field.
Wanting to know all the gossip, I asked my friend, “So, what did he do?”
I expected something along the lines of sexual harassment, refusal to send her on a research cruise or to do field work, or a suggestion that she’s not as good at certain calculations because she’s female. In my opinion, any of the above would warrant a discrimination case, without special circumstances. For instance, I’d understand if a professor didn’t want to send me on an expedition to Saudi Arabia because I’m female. That’s just common sense, though I do think female geologists are capable of doing field work in many other Arab contries.
Anyway, my friend replied, “Not much, actually. From what I understand, he just told her that there was a piece of lab equipment that she probably wasn’t strong enough to open on her own. He told her that his previous, male graduate student had a lot of trouble with the machine, so she might, too. He suggested that she make sure that she only used the machine when there was someone else around who could help her open it.”
I was very surprised. I have to agree with my friend. The male professor in question certainly didn’t do much! Why does this female grad student feel that she needs to file a complaint? If she feels uncomfortable with her advisor, wouldn’t it be better to bring it up with the department chair (who is female, by the way) or another professor first, before filing an official complaint?
I have mixed feelings about the case of “discrimination” above. Honestly, I feel that the case above does not qualify as discrimination. The average female is weaker than the average male. Unless this new female student is a body-builder, I don’t see why she should be so offended. Then again, maybe I just don’t know the full story, which I admittedly heard second-hand from my friend. Maybe the professor said something more offensive or said the above words in a tone that was degrading. Or perhaps these words came on top of other, more discriminatory actions and words.
I am all for women being indepedent and succeeding in science. But why should it be a big deal for women, who are (in general) biologically smaller and weaker than men, to receive a little help from men with tasks in the lab requiring strength?
When I was an undergraduate, my senior thesis advisor once told me that I probably wasn’t strong enough to open a set of special beakers that we closed tightly and then put under pressure. I didn’t think anything of his words of caution. For safety reasons, it was important that someone strong open the beakers. Eventually, I did work out a technique of prying and pulling with special wrenches that allowed me to open the beakers on my own. For a long time, though, I would just go find my advisor or, more often, the 6’3″, very strong, male graduate student who worked down the hall from me whenever I needed to open the beakers.
Certainly, I feel that there are many traditionally-male tasks in the laboratory that women are capable of performing. If a professor suggested that I not work with hydrofluoric acid or lasers, for instance, because I’m female and might injure myself, I’d call that discrimination and would file a complaint. There are no basic biological reasons why a female is at a disadvantage at working with acid or lasers. At most, there is perhaps a height disadvantage that can be fixed by storing acids in lower cabinets and setting up lasers so that they’re not at eye-level for the females working in a lab.
On the other hand, I see no problem when a professor or lab technician suggests that I obtain help with a task requiring strength. I am a strong girl. I kayak and rock climb, but I’m still not as strong as a strong male. I perform many tasks which require strength, such as lifting certain items and removing sticky mass spectrometer parts. Other tasks I accept are beyond the limits of my strength. Often, I can be creative and look for tools and techniques that enable me to perform the strength-requiring tasks with less strength. When I do need to ask for help from a stronger colleague, though, I don’t feel less capable because I’m female and weaker. I feel more capable, in a way. Like stopping to ask for directions when you’re lost, sometimes it’s more important to admit you need help than to stubbornly do something you can’t do– or can’t do well– on your own.