Friday, October 18, 2013

#Ripplesofdoubt & #Ripplesofhope

Right now, there's a fascinating discussion on Twitter about the experiences of women in scientific disciplines. Search the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt and you'll read story after story of women who were harassed or devalued in their chosen careers due to their gender. Fortunately, #ripplesofhope is being used to discuss ways to improve the STEM fields for women - and to share stories of how things are improving.

I wrote about my experiences as a state environmental site assessor during the 1990's. As part of my job when I went to the field, I had to wear a hard hat (infrequently) and steel-toed boots (always). Well, guess what? The stores in my area didn't offer regular steel-toed boots in my size (remember, this was before ordering on the Internet). I had to buy blue boots with a tiny red and pink rose bud on each heel. It was so embarrassing. The stupid boots weren't even waterproof and every time they got wet, they stained my toes blue.

I felt the difference keenly because I already felt inadequate in the field.. I was in my early 20s, straight out of college, and frankly, I was a girly girl. The lab guys I worked with regularly were around my age and we got along well. But the representatives of the companies that I had to meet - companies that were liable for the cost of remediating whatever contamination we were sampling -  were another story. I always felt like these guys were trying to throw me off of my game. Over time, I learned to dress down in the field - no make-up, no jewelry, my hair in a ponytail - because it gained me credibility with the men I had to meet. (Also, because wearing jewelry on a potentially hazardous waste site is a really stupid idea because if it gets contaminated, you have to leave it there, but I digress.) Interestingly enough, by the time I left my job in 1999, roughly half of the new hires with jobs similar to mine were women. But when I started, the skew was largely toward men. By the time I left, I felt confident of myself in the field.

There was still gender bias in the office, though, and I never felt it more deeply than the time I overheard two of my older male co-workers insinuating that I was having a sexual encounter with a young male co-worker, simply because we were going out to lunch together. I was appalled on so many levels. How do you forgive a comment like that? My mouth dropped open and they caught me looking at them. And they laughed. They laughed, so I did too. But I never forgot. And I never forgave.

The man making the comments was a creepy, touchy-feely sort of guy. The girls on my floor used to joke about how he always leered at the new girls in their skirts and we couldn't wait until a new girl was hired so that he would stop looking at us. But no one ever thought to report him. It was sexual harassment, but it wasn't like it was rape or assault. Where do you draw the line? When do you report the behavior? I wonder now, since I didn't report it, was I complicit with the result? I'd like to think that today, I'd be able to stand up to such sexual bullying. But I wouldn't be a target now. I'm older, married with children, and simply not on anyone's radar. It's more important for me to look out for and protect younger women, especially those who might be as insecure as I was.

Reading #ripplesofdoubt was eye-opening for me because I never realized how many other women had experienced these same things. When we share our experiences, it can be very powerful. And when we turn our newfound knowledge toward action, we can create #ripplesofhope.

[Author's note:Twitter is a dynamic, ever changing online conversation, so I can't guarantee that these hashtags will still convey the same message if you search them now on Twitter.]

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