8 March 2013
My experience as a woman in the geosciences
Posted by Jessica Ball
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.
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.
I’m glad to hear that you’ve had this experience! Through undergrad, I would say I had more-or-less a similar experience. There were, however, only two female professors at my undergraduate department at the time, and both were unmarried (one married a few years later) and never had children. Even so, I never felt that my gender was ever an issue through undergrad.
After I started graduate school, I unfortunately encountered sexism a number of times, and it absolutely affected me. It was bad– really bad– at times. To give an example, I was asking questions about something and a scientist turned to me and said, “You know, if graduate school is too difficult for you, it’s not too late to become a housewife.” I remember feeling shocked that such blatant– and also more subtle but still difficult– sexism still existed. And it wasn’t just from one scientist– I encountered it from a number of scientists over the years. It was such a shame– graduate school is difficult enough without also having to overcome sexism.
Well, I survived graduate school and moved on to the world of mining, which is by and large still incredibly male dominated, at least here in South Africa. I’m the only woman geologist in the small gold exploration company I work for, but fortunately none of my male work colleagues seem to harbor any sexism. And the field is changing: there are more and more female scientists and engineers entering the world of mining these days. In my case, my work colleagues seem happy to send me out into the field and to have me lift heavy things and solve various problems for them. They don’t treat me any differently from my husband, who works as a geologist for the same company. Sure, there are subtle comments and jests now and then (they like calling my husband and I Dr. and Mr., for instance, and they tease me for my lack of cooking skills), but I feel very fortunate to know be in an environment where I have great respect and where my gender doesn’t seem to matter. After my experiences in graduate school, it’s a welcome change!
Evelyn – Thanks for a thoughtful reply! I’m sorry you had such a bad time of it in grad school. It is a shame that you had to put up with that kind of crap, and I’m glad it didn’t deter you from finishing. (You had enough difficulties as it was!) And it’s good to hear that your colleagues now are respectful and professional, especially when they’re part of an environment where you might expect to encounter even more of the same. I hope when I finish I can find a place to work where that’s the case as well.
The first person who wanted me to write about volcanology was Janet Cullen Tanaka, in her pride and joy, Volcano Quarterly, so the circle goes ’round…
Evelyn: Nice reply!
Nice post. You should consider sending a link to this via the ESWN listserv.
Pranoti Asher, Ph.D.
AGU Education and Public Outreach Manager
I remember your AP Chem project…”smelly” doesn’t really begin to cover it. But all that aside, you’ve never let yourself be told “you can’t (insert action here)” for any reason, much less the one mentioned in this post. Not in all the time I’ve known you; my hat is off to you and your determination 😀
Aw, thanks Mike! I’m glad I had you around to encourage me -and still do!
It’s nice to hear that there is gender equality in this field. In Iran the situation is a lot different. Here the women might not be given the sledgehammer as many times as a man. And after graduating most of them would not be offered the same jobs, maybe because they are not as properly educated as men. Anyway, this kind of behavior has its roots in religion.
Thank you for posting your experiences here. I have been struggling with being a women in the geological field for two years now. I have always loved rocks ever since I was a kid and would take hammers and hit them open to look at the shiny crystals. I am now 20 years old and in my third year of college at Queens College in NYC, U.S.A and I am still trying to overcome the struggle with doing what I love and also pleasing my family. My brother still doesnt accept the fact that I am going into the geosciences and constantly urges me to go into Nursing because I am a women. Sometimes I even believe that Its what I should do to keep my family happy. But I am happy doing what I love and learning about science and the earth and rocks, so thank you for your post, it has helped me with my journey of overcoming the fact that I am a women in a predominantly male career field.