Strong Enough?

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.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Yeah that's just a little too far on the sensitive side. Reminds me a bit of the kid who got expelled for making fun of leprachaun girl.

  2. Yeah, it's probably overreaction on the student's side in this particular case. Though as Rebecca points out, there could be other factors; a sneering tone or condenscending wink, etc.

    And the woman in question might have experienced much more overt harassment recently, so her advisor's words were seen as the last straw.

  3. Yeah, but even the smile and wink are pretty subjective and while wrong (and stupid) are not grounds for a lawsuit.

    However I think it is a bit unreasonable to begin to give the woman more slack on speculative events.

    I was listening to local radio this last morning and there had been a shooting in which a 30 year old shot two high schoolers then drove off and people were calling in and giving this guy the benifit of the doubt based on "might have" statements. Such as: "well the kids might have had a gun and the showed it to him."

    One person even went as far as saying that the guy might be a hero because the kids might have been planning to shoot up their high school.

    I know this is an EXTREME example but it is still one that has bearing to that kind of thought. I'm not even against that type of thought, just… well actualy I don't know my point. But there is one in here if ou sift around. Like a gooey duck way down below the surf.

  4. Although I won’t speculate on the case, as we simply don’t have the facts, I would like to comment on the creative use of tools and techniques for doing work. Mostly since I just recently impressed myself with this. This week I was given the task of moving a ~600 pound hot tub about 15 feet onto a concrete slab. After being told by too many people that I needed to get a bunch of people to help, I decided to see just how hard it would be to do it my self. So while I was home on my lunch break I tried to move it. It took a few minutes, but after thinking it through, I got it moved about 8 feet by my self barely breaking a sweat. The last 2 feet I left till I got home as I had to get back to work. But with some creative use of leavers, pivot points and rollers, I moved something that with brute force I could barely budge. I love solving problems like that.

  5. Good points about subjectivity and second guessing, N.R.

    Congratulations on your creative problem-solving, phiend. I used to work with moving heavy objects a lot as well.

  6. I remember in San Fransisco, while staying at a youth hostel, one night a girl we'd brought along to a scenic viewpoint for some night shots suddenly freaked out (probably by something someone said). To us, anything we had said was pretty harmless, and another girl who was with us confirmed that she didn't have a clue what the problem was.

    But the girl stormed off, alone, into the night, giving us a last parting shout about being sexist pigs. So we went after her, looking for her (since no matter how sexist-pig like we might have been, we weren't about to let a young girl find her way across the city alone at night. We didn't actually find her, so when we returned to the hostel, I told the guy behind the desk what had happened, and that we didn't know where the girl went.

    He immediately shushed me and told me to keep my mouth shut. It appears the girl had already returned and done her side of the story, but she didn't actually know our names so the manager couldn't kick us out since he didn't know who we were. He basically told me that I better make sure the manager didn't find out either, because, right or wrong, there's no way they would (could even) justify kicking out a young girl in the middle of the night, while they would have far less trouble kicking out a couple of guys.

    The girl apologized for what happened the next day, and said she'd been harassed (or possibly even molested, she didn't elaborate) at another youth hostel a week before.

  7. I don't understand why this is even about gender differences. Didn't he say that a male student had trouble with it, so she might too? I suppose, depending on specific phrasing, this might have meant, "If even a guy can't do it, you surely can't." It sounds, though, like, "Be careful with this; others have had problems in the past."

    Sometimes I wonder whether we, as a culture, might be a little TOO aware of discrimination issues. Yes, genuine cases of discrimination are deplorable, and people are entirely justified in prosecuting for them. Yes, the issues need to be talked about. I suspect, though, that we're setting people up to feel slighted when the "guilty" party was perfectly innocent. How many job candidates have sued for discrimination when the potential employer chose someone who was genuinely more qualified?

    The woman in question here may well have a valid case; the only details we really have are hearsay. Based strictly on the hearsay, though, it sounds a bit spurious.

  8. Yeah…without knowing the full details, it's tough to comment. I'm very much against our culture of law suits, as I feel it contributes to a national lack of personal accountability in most cases, so for me it genuinely takes an overt and obvious problem before I'm on board with such complaints. Barring knowledge of that, it's hard to know where to side.

  9. "Sometimes I wonder whether we, as a culture, might be a little TOO aware of discrimination issues."

    Oh yeah. And for someone as crass as me, if I havnt pissed off some religious person, some crazy hippie person, someone who whants to be called a little person and not a midget…. then I must have a large group of torch bearing women chasing me.

    And of course I turn and say, "ladies ladies I know you all carry a flame for me but I'm only one man."

    I'm amazed I'm still alive.

  10. The way I see it, people will always skew the story so they look better. The events as we've heard them described might be colored a bit by Evelyn's friend, but how she heard them was likely less colored, and she had the same conclusion. So, the question becomes, does this summary of the story come from the girl or from the professor? If it's the professor, then we have a reason to be suspicious about it. But if it came from the girl, and it's her version of the events that makes her look bad, then they're probably pretty accurate.

    I didn't see anything in the post that clarified where this originated. Do you happen to have this info, Evelyn?

  11. Infophile, it doesn't matter where the story came from, really. I'm just using it to illustrate a point, and I'd actually prefer not to give out any more information. If this claim is filed, then I'd hate for there to be information about the professor or student floating around the internet. As I mentioned in the article, I heard this story second (or possibly third) hand, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of anything.

    However, I have to agree that sometimes our culture is hyper-sensitive to issues of sexual and racial discrimination. I think that it's better to be a little hyper-sensitive than not sensitive at all, but one also does have to be practical.

  12. Hmm.. can we turn this around?

    "Hey bro… oh you're going to see that movie? Well, my girlfriend didn't like it, so you've got no chance for an emotional journey!"

    …that's not quite it…

  13. I've known girls as strong as me,

    I've been having "weird headaches" and have been un-able to lift weights for many months. However, that passed a week ago.

    Upon my return to the gym I found that I was DOWN to 6 sets of 6 with 115 pounds on my standing military press. (I only weight 165). It was 135, before I got "sick". I'm just grateful I can lift again. But the POINT is…

    I know LOTS of girls who are stronger than me, ESPECAILLY right now.

    Telling someone to get some help is one thing, telling someone to get some help "because you're a girl" is another!

    I'm not sure where to go, because I wasn't there. But shoulder strengths is the "boys" rhelm and I know girls stronger there, than I am, when at my best, ( and there must be many, many more than that right now).

    (Boys and girls, go try 115 right now. Press this over your head, DO NOT JERK IT, while you're standing up. Do six, rest for a minute, then do six more, etc. six times…Not as easy as you thought, is it? Wait until tomorrow…you'd be surprised how many girls are good at it, and you'll be surprised how somebody drove two stakes through your shoulders while you were asleep…That IS what it feels like…but I digress…)

    I tend to want to sympathize with the complainer, at least until I've heard all the facts. Be that as it may, this sounds "odd" to me.

    Maybe the guy was showing concern, maybe he's just a jerk. How many male students did he admonish to "get some help"?

    I'll reserve an opinion until I know that "little" fact, at least.

    Then again, I get hit on the head more than most…

    (And I'm really old…)


  14. Sometimes, I think there's just too much sensitivity towards some stupid or pedantic but not sexually derogatory comments in the States… I'm from Ecuador, and here, there's a lot of discrimination and no one does anything to solve the many problems and injustices that come with it. It's sad and wrong, but still, I find it better to be able to deal personally with the offender, as long as you can, instead of just filing a complaint and leaving it to the courtrooms. It seems to me that in the States, things boil down too frequently to filing complaints and sueing someone. That's sad and wrong, too. Derogatory comments deserve a "Shut up old man, you'll never get into bed with me. -Deal with that". And a slap in the face. And a kick in the balls (if any). And a nice (in an evil sort of way) post in your blog.

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