Sunday, October 23, 2005

Breaking ground

As I woke up this morning, the radio station was interviewing a professor at the BU medical school who did some breakthrough research in the effects of green tea on cancer cell movement. Yes, I should drink green tea, if I can get over the fact that it tastes like grass...

But that's not what affected me in the interview. They spent an entire 5-10 minutes on *her* groundbreaking in another area - being a female science student in the early 70's. She was one of 3 chemical engineering students in a school in NYC (sorry, it was early and I don't remember the name!) She spoke of being challenged by professors, and given more difficult assignments (the unknown compound she was given to identify in organic lab was a lachrymate).

I started college in the fall of 1972, as a Chemistry major, as the only female out of 17 freshmen in the department. My college, Canisius, had been all male until about 3-4 years before, and I think I was their second female Chemistry major. Overall, the school was still about 80-90% male. So I guess I was an anomaly, but I didn't really focus on that, nor did those around me. If a school is 90% male, it doesn't seem unrealistic to have one major be 95% male. My grades were high because I answered the questions correctly; in science, there's no doubt of that. If I was treated differently, I just didn't notice, and I really don't think I was.

I can't point to the cause, maybe it was being an only child, maybe it was supportive parents, maybe it was that my mother had a college degree as well as my father, but I just have never considered it a possibility that my academic pursuits would be different because my birth announcements were pink instead of blue.

So I don't quite know how to react to hearing interviews like that. My career so far has also been in a traditionally male arena, but only rarely have I encountered anyone assuming I should be bringing them coffee instead of building a product. Maybe the gift my parents gave me was an understanding that any reaction like that was the other person's problem, not mine.

Which brings me back to the fact that if I'm supposed to be one of these women groundbreakers, why are my experiences so different? Why do I not value that experience the way a radio interviewer would? I want to be evaluated by the code I produce, not the amazement that someone of my gender could write it. I am happiest when praised for my work, not that I have done it as a female.

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