8 March 2013

My experience as a woman in the geosciences

Posted by Jessica Ball

International Women's Day Parade in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 2009

Being deep in the throes of thesis-wrangling has left me little time for blogging lately, but as a woman and a geoscientist I definitely thought it was important to write a little bit about International Women’s Day, and about my own experiences. I first became aware that this was a day of celebration when my graduate advisor and I encountered a parade in downtown Xela when we were in Guatemala doing fieldwork for my thesis. It was a beautiful day and the parade-goers were lively and excited and enthused.

More of the parade

I had never really thought about the fact that there was a day for women that people celebrated, perhaps because I have had what is unfortunately a rare experience of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field: I’ve never encountered anyone telling me I can’t do something because I am female, and I have never encountered anyone who’s made me feel uncomfortable about doing what I love. I don’t want to say “I’m lucky” that this hasn’t happened, because I shouldn’t feel lucky about not encountering misogyny in my field – it should not be the norm to expect to encounter any at all.

Perhaps this is because of who I’ve surrounded myself with in the course of becoming a scientist. I have to start with mentioning that my parents were a big part of it. Both of them encouraged my love of rocks (and dinosaurs, and dirt, and volcanoes, and every other messy geological thing I could get involved in) for as long as I can remember. Both of them took me to the Natural History Museum more times than I can count, let me drag them to fossil digs and put up with my rock collection, let me dig giant holes in the backyard, taped TV shows about geology and bought me every rock and mineral and volcano and dinosaur book I wanted. There was never any question that I could be a scientist – I only had to do my best at it.

In primary school, I had any number of teachers who encouraged my love of science. I distinctly remember filling pages of my second-grade daily journal with diagrams of volcanoes, and there were always science books around the classroom. I did a project for every science fair, was never told that the reason I was having trouble with math in fourth grade was because I was a girl (it was actually because I needed glasses), and the school librarian encouraged me to check out science books as often as she fed my love of fantasy and adventure novels. Half my choices from the school book fairs were something science-related, and my parents always bought them for me. In sixth grade, my teacher teamed up with our school counselor to send a group of us to visit the American Association of University Women in Washington, and I still remember my amazement and delight that an entire organization existed just for women who wanted to do the kinds of things that I did.

In high school, even when I disliked the science class (you should hear me whine about physics!) I was never told that I wasn’t good enough because I was a girl. My chemistry teacher encouraged me to take his AP class and put up with my incredibly smelly science fair project about volcanic gases. The year I took physics, I did a project involving a seismograph and how different building materials transmit earthquake energy – and I learned how to lay brick and pour concrete from my mother so I could build the structures! And I wasn’t the only one; two of my best female friends went to every science fair with me, and one of them even went on to the national level of the Intel Science and Talent Search with her senior entry. (I can’t remember exactly what it was, but she kept getting stopped by administrators because they claimed it looked like a bomb, so I think it was one of her more electronics-heavy inventions.)

When I got to college and started taking courses in geology, I knew I was in the right place. At William & Mary I was fortunate to have the support of an amazing group of professors who treated every geology student as just that – a geology student. There was no mention of male or female unless it had to do with bathrooms on field trips, and the students looked at each other that way too; I never once felt unwelcome or put down because of my gender. I was just as likely to be handed the big sledgehammer or the heavy sample or any other piece of equipment as the guys. No one ever commented on my looks or clothing or made me do something just because I was female. And there was actually a good balance among men and women among the students and the professors; we had three women and three men teaching us while I was there, our visiting profs were split pretty evenly, and my graduating class had 13 women and 5 men. (The years before and after were more balanced, but I never felt that women were in the minority in that department.) My undergraduate advisor pushed the women just as hard as the men, never treating us any differently (except for the one time he suggested that I be the third driver on a cross-country trip to keep the van from getting skunked up by the other two guys, but I take that one as a compliment on my cleanliness).

Here in graduate school, I haven’t seen any change from the environment I had in college (and at the job I took before coming to UB). My advisor is a woman with a family and a notable academic record; out of the volcanology group here, 2 of the five professors are women (and 5 of 13 in the department). I admire my advisor immensely for the way she’s found to balance her work and family responsibilities, and although it’s not been on my radar yet, I don’t think I would ever hear anything negative from the professors here if I wanted to take the same route. I have, since I’ve started going to conferences and spending more time in the field with researchers outside my department, seen some subtle evidence of the old male-centric geology world, although I’ve never experienced anything overt. (I’m also not going to count the time an older volcanologist fell on me during a field trip, because we were standing on rough ground, he already walked with a cane and I probably saved him from a hip fracture.) I know women who have been ignored, propositioned, insulted, belittled, and ogled, so I’m not unaware that the problem still exists, but I haven’t been a target myself. Good thing, too, because when I get pissed off about something, I can get very confrontational. (Those of you who know me have probably never seen me do that, because it’s very rare, but it does happen.)

But my point is, my good experience as a geoscientist is how everyone’s experience in science should be. There isn’t any extra effort involved in treating a woman the same as a man, or a girl the same as a boy, in giving them the same opportunities and encouragement. If I had been a boy, my parents and teachers, because they weren’t concentrating on gender, would not have treated me any differently. And maybe I am fortunate to have only been mentored by people like that, but there should not be any reason for me to use the word “fortunate”. I don’t want to be part of a community, scientific or otherwise, where a woman is “fortunate” to receive the same treatment as a man. In my last post, I talked about giving a presentation about volcanology for a girls’ STEM club, and how great it was to see that they were excited to talk to me and excited about the science. I would (and have) give the same talk to classrooms full of boys, girls, and probably some children who don’t even fall into neat gender categories. I don’t see any difference between any of them – all I see is potential geologists.

I hope more women can have the same experience I’ve had, because I think geology is well on its way to leaving behind the gender divisions that have dominated STEM fields for so long. And I will do my best to treat those who come after me the same way my teachers and mentors have treated me.