Friday, October 17, 2014

Thank you for the introduction, Mister Chairman (part 1)

Part of a series of posts on being a woman in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and how it isn't actually that bad, most of the time. 

Sometimes I forget how big the gender gap in STEM really is.

Last year, I traveled to Germany as an invited speaker for a large physics conference. After I'd arrived, registered, and settled into the room my talk was held, I scanned the room for familiar faces. It suddenly struck me that the audience was completely dominated by men.  I looked down at the speaker schedule and realized there was only one other female speaker in our entire symposium of twenty talks.

You know what? It was fine. It was otherwise totally normal, unsurprising and fine. The symposium was interesting, the venue was perfect, the conference organizers were generous and welcoming. I never felt singled-out or disrespected in any way.

There was only this one little thing. While serving as chair for an afternoon session, I introduced a nervous graduate student speaker who automatically replied, “Thank you for the introduction, Mister Chairman.

I simply smiled and took my seat. A few people in the audience chuckled. It was obvious English was not his first language and perhaps "Mister Chairman" was exactly how he practiced it. Why would he assume the chair might be a woman? Was he supposed to say "Miss Chairperson" in this instance? I don't even know. Can you blame him?

I never wanted this blog to focus on my experience being a woman in engineering. 

I never wanted to write posts like "Can you believe this male coworker said this questionably sexist thing to me? What does this mean for women in science as a whole and how are we going to prevent this from discouraging young women to pursue science?"

Honestly, I've never experienced blatant sexism. 

I'm not saying sexism in STEM doesn't exist. It totally does. I'm not saying the conversation about sexism in STEM isn't important. It totally is. Sexist bullshit DOES happen and there are a lot of people contributing great, thought-provoking articles about gender inequality in the STEM community. 

But in my years of academia and industry, I don't have any horror stories. I've never been stopped in my tracks by sexism. There's only the occasional little things, questionably sexist but usually amusing, that remind me I'm an outlier. Maybe they build up over time but they never seem to matter in the long run.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about being a woman in engineering because I'm too busy being an engineer. 

I'm posting this because maybe being a woman in engineering and NOT experiencing sexism is important to talk about too.

To be continued.