Why women can’t just ‘get over it’
During the contentious political climate of 2016 and 2017, I heard men asking some form of “Why don’t women just ‘get over it’?” — referring to women who complain about their state in the world. Although few men explicitly expressed this sentiment out loud, many men — even those outwardly supportive of women — seem to have similar sentiments: “Aren’t women overreacting?” “What is the big deal?” Despite the many studies demonstrating the prevalence of sexism — such as resumes with a woman’s name getting consistently ranked much lower than the same resumes with a man’s name, or medical staff taking women’s pain less seriously and spending less time treating them compared to men — many people still believe all is well for the vast majority of women. Yet, objective data show that women consistently receive lower pay than men, and reports indicate that women scientists’ contributions are consistently ignored. In spite of these reports, a lack of understanding of women’s challenges persists. Because stories create powerful new understandings and empathy, we need more stories to convey women’s perspectives and to help people answer the question of why women can’t just ‘get over it’. Thus, I decided to tell the story of my career in the technology world.
When I was an 18-year-old woman, I was excited to receive much-needed scholarships to help me pay for attending college to pursue a degree in engineering. Although initially proud, I was repeatedly told by teachers, other students, and adults how lucky I was to be a woman because it is much easier for women to get scholarships in engineering. Then in my 100+ student classes, I noticed only a few women around me, and I began to wonder whether I really belonged or whether I was as good as the guys in my classes. I did start to feel more confident when many male students clamored to be my lab partner, but then they repeatedly attempted to touch me inappropriately and to use the educational setting to solicit a romantic relationship. In addition, they tried to take over and do everything for me, implying that I wasn’t capable of contributing. Their unwillingness to let me do my fair share of the work fueled self-doubts.
Near the end of my first year of college, I applied for and obtained a job as computer programmer for a professor in the engineering lab. At first, I was proud of this accomplishment and was excited to use my newfound knowledge, but then I heard a secretary laugh and say that “this professor always hires the cute girls.” As added evidence of where my value lay, my photo was used in every engineering-school brochure and article, although no reference was made to my work. The men working in the same lab perceived the situation differently and expressed clear resentment that I received all the attention, making my working relationship with them even more challenging. Then, I discovered that I was the only member of the otherwise all-male team who was getting paid only minimum wage — everyone else earned much more. When I complained, I was promised a bonus when the software shipped, but I never received this bonus, despite the successful launch of a spinoff company based on that software.
On the social side, when I went out in the evenings with friends, guys came up to me and asked about my major. When I said, “electrical engineering”, they would laugh and say, “no, really”. When my seriousness became clear, they would move on. Eventually, I started dating someone, but when I visited his parents during school break, his dad asked about my major. Upon hearing engineering, he scowled and said “Oh, you are one of those girls taking jobs away from the men who really need them!” These actions and statements made me feel that my intellectual abilities were not recognized, valued, or even wanted.
Introduction to the Professional World
Fast forward a few years; I obtained my first job after receiving my undergraduate engineering degree. I quickly learned to hide my name tag on the company bus because too many men looked up my name in the company directory to solicit a romantic relationship, often repeatedly calling me at work even after being spurned. I loved the projects I was working on, but my boss often came up behind me giving me shoulder rubs, commenting on my “perky but asymmetrical breasts”, and patting his lap for me to sit on during office parties and casual work times. Everyone else on the technical work team was male, and my coworkers showered me with attention. These men expressed their delight that I was part of their team, but I always wondered if my physical appearance played a bigger role than the quality of my work.
After 5 years working as a software engineer and getting a master’s degree in computer science, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in health informatics — a field connecting my new passion for health care with my background in computer science and engineering. I was accepted to a top-tier school and employed as a research assistant for a male professor in computer science. That professor also served as my advisor. I loved my new job as well as classes and worked exceptionally hard, but I started to worry that my advisor and boss was becoming attracted to me. I hesitantly expressed my worry to a male colleague who laughed and dismissed my concern, pointing out that the advisor was 20 years older than me, was married, and was too nice of a guy to mess with his students. A few weeks later, my advisor took me out to lunch, brought me a small present, and confessed that he fantasized about running away with me. I sat numbly through the rest of lunch not saying much of anything, knowing that I could not continue to work for him. I wondered how I could afford school without that job. I wondered whether I would even be able to find another advisor. I wondered what others would think. I wanted to talk to a female professor, but not only were there none in my department, I realized that I never had a female professor at any point in my college education. I instead turned to a woman research scientist in the department and explained the situation. The research scientist grilled me on my behavior leading up to the incident and scolded me for not acting to prevent my advisor from becoming attracted to me in the first place. After that conversation, I worried I had done something wrong. I did report the problem to the university’s ombudsperson, but I decided not to tell the other faculty why I needed a new advisor. Before this incident, I had no sense of how vulnerable I or other students could feel, nor did I have any sense that over 20 years later, I would be reading about a professor fired for sexual harassment on my own campus or headlines of women experiencing far worse sexual harassment and assault by professors.
More Bumps in the Road: Motherhood
Despite these challenges, I earned my Ph.D., married a man who applauds my successes, and landed a tenure-track faculty position at a top university. For years, I worked long hours establishing my career as a researcher and educator, and I felt like there was no time to consider having a family. Only after I submitted all my materials to support tenure and promotion, did I feel that I had the time or energy to consider having a baby. Fortunately, it was not too late for me, and the day after my tenure and promotion was official, I gave birth to a baby girl. I was delighted — filled with love for my daughter and excitement about motherhood — but I struggled to balance my many professional commitments with the new demands of motherhood. When my daughter was just a few months old, I flew to D.C. to participate in a thrice-per-year grant-review panel for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I had been on this panel for a year, so I knew that first meeting day would last nearly 10 hours with no breaks. My new baby was being cared for by my husband, who travelled with me, but I needed to feed my baby or at least pump breastmilk several times during the day. I approached the man leading the meeting to request a couple breaks during the day or at least a regrouping of the work, so that I could step out several times during the day when I was not needed. The man announced to the entire group of about thirty, mostly male, colleagues that the schedule would be rearranged so that I could breastfeed my baby. I was mortified about this disclosure, but I continued my work in the meeting as if such personal information hadn’t been shared. Later that day, the leader of the institute questioned me directly about why I was still even participating on this grant-review panel instead of staying home with my baby, implying that I was neither a good mother nor a good review panelist.
Later in the week, I headed to the main conference for my field, which also happens to be a main conference for my husband’s field. We carefully arranged our schedule to trade off baby duty so that we both could attend this important meeting for both our careers. As I carried my baby through the conference break area, I met a senior male leader of the conference. He questioned why I brought my baby to the conference instead of leaving her home — clearly disapproving of my choice. I realized more than ever before how challenging it would be to continue my career while still being a good mother.
Over the next decade, I witnessed many instances of sexism in my professional life. A few were pervasive but subtle, such as outstanding women repeatedly being talked over in meetings, skipped over for speaking engagements, ignored for panel presentations, neglected as potential co-investigators for grant proposals, and passed over for awards. Many were overt, such as when one of my recently graduated male students received a salary more than 25% higher for the same job at the same company as my more senior female graduate. Whenever I pointed out such injustices, the men I addressed offered excuses, rather than solutions; they were unwilling even to acknowledge the problem.
By 2015, I had been promoted to full professor with many publications and awards. I was asked to chair the main conference for my field — that same conference that I have been attending and actively participating in for over 20 years — the same one where 11 years ago I was shamed for bringing my baby. I knew being chair would be a tremendous amount of work, particularly because I agreed to take the position only if I could make substantial changes to fix problems that I perceived as limiting the conference’s full potential. Nonetheless, I dove in, working to institute many of my ideas — e.g., setting up processes to determine who would be selected to join the highly respected review committee based on both data about content areas from previous submissions as well as on diversity, to create more opportunities for the patient-focused areas where many women do research, and to use diversity as explicit criteria in choosing among the many highly rated panel submissions. I was proud of what I had accomplished, including securing onsite childcare sponsored by the organization. My family prepared to travel with me to the conference, and I told them of the opulent hotel suites I had seen the conference provide for the previous years’ chairs.
On the week before the conference in November of 2016, I was on top of the world, excited about the upcoming conference and believing that my country was about to elect its first woman president. Both my pre-teen daughter and I were eagerly anticipating the election, but when the results poured in, the male candidate won — the one who bragged about his sexual assaults, openly expressed and promoted disrespect for women, and vehemently opposed women receiving equal pay for equal work. Everyone around me was upset — my daughter asked if she would be safe, students came crying in my office worried about their safety, people were crying on the bus. I felt devastated, depressed, and hopeless — it felt like people were more threatened by having a woman as a president than by having an inexperienced male who has numerous conflicts of interests and repeatedly insults anyone who disagrees with or criticizes him. I pulled myself together, however, because the conference was about to start in just a few days. When my family arrived at the conference hotel, I opened the door to our suite and found two small adjoining rooms with windows looking out onto the brick walls of the next building over, in stark contrast to the opulent suites with city vistas that I had seen for all the previous chairs’ rooms. The lack of a suite was an inconvenience and embarrassment because I had invited a large group of my prior students to lunch in what turned out to be a too small room, but the message that room choice conveyed about my lack of value to the organization was devastating. After multiple comments from conference attendees referring to my assumed “kick ass suite”, I complained to the organization’s leadership that I had expected a different type of room and requested at least the use of another room for my gathering of students. Although my request for use of an alternative room to gather with my students was granted, no explanation or remedy was provided for my unexpected room assignment.
As a member of the organization’s board of directors, I attended their meeting the next day when the next chair of the board was announced — another man, making 8 straight years of a man as chair of the board while the CEO remained a man as it has for the entirety of the organization’s history, even though the board consists of more women than men, and the organization as a whole includes nearly equal gender representation. When the current chair of the board asked for members to raise issues for the upcoming year, I — speaking in my role as conference chair — brought up the issue of diversity as a stated core value in the organization’s new strategic plan, and urged more actions to support conference diversity — explicitly and very broadly defined as areas of expertise, geographic location, educational background, gender, and racial diversity. I expressed frustration that my choice to use diversity as a criterion in choosing panels from a pile of too many highly-rated panels was discouraged. I pointed out that, for many of that year’s and past year’s panels, all five panelists were men. A male board member complained that pursuing diversity would lower the quality, despite numerous studies stating diversity increases quality. Women around the room were visibly upset. Another man chimed in to question whether half of the conference attendees were even women anyway — seemingly trying to justify the lack of gender diversity in things like conference panels — because he thought that considerably fewer than half of the attendees are women. He then said, with a chuckle that he isn’t so old that he doesn’t like to look at these women, so he would definitely notice. The women in the room were stunned by this blatant sexual objectification of women during a professional meeting, but most people laughed off the comment.
Later that night, as I lay awake at 3am the night before my opening speech to kick off the conference, I fought off despair by determining to do something to fight this persistent sexism in my discipline. In my short speech later that day to the few thousand conference attendees, I explained the many, carefully considered changes I made both to improve the scientific quality of the conference and to increase diversity. I went on to call on women and all under-represented people to step up, to make themselves visible, to participate in the organization, and to introduce themselves to others. I then called on all attendees to make room for the underrepresented, to encourage and nudge them, and to consider explicitly all forms of diversity in choosing panelists and other participants. I expressed hope for no more manels — all male panels — at the conference, to great applause from the women in the audience.
Over the course of the conference, many women, most of whom I did not know, came up to me, offered their thanks and praise, and expressed how welcomed and inspired they now felt. Many stated that they previously felt that they did not belong at the conference or even in the organization, but this year they felt a strong sense of belonging. A few men — who normally enthusiastically greet me — pointedly ignored me, looking away whenever I approached. I felt shunned by these men. Other men complained, arguing that other women were uncomfortable with highlighted or enforced diversity. A male leader of the organization repeatedly requested that I urge the men to step up now — completely missing the direct parallels to white people’s much-maligned urging for “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter”.
Although I wrote this story shortly after the 2016 election, I hesitated to make it public, worrying about repercussions. Yet, I feel bombarded by other sexist incidents. The sexist manifesto by the Google engineer claiming that women were biologically ill-suited for tech jobs was too much to ignore. In an undergraduate course that I recently taught, students made similarly misguided statements. They submitted an assignment to describe why they think women are underrepresented in the technology fields. Despite having their name attached to their responses that were graded by a woman professor, I received many horrifying responses, such as “tasks in tech seem too heavy for women to complete”, “women are usually not that good at math and computer science”, “women’s main task is to raise kids”, “men are better at logical thinking than women”, “engineers have to sit in the front of computers or even stay up very often, so males actually fit this job better since they are physically stronger”, etc. In my class, we discussed these comments explicitly, but I know these misconceptions and problems will persist until we are brave enough to speak out.
Beyond one woman’s story
My story conveys only a subset of the demoralizing situations I faced during my career, despite the many privileges I have. Clearly, every woman’s story is unique, but based on conversations with other women and public logs of misogynistic behavior — such as this timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities or the sexist statements by eight different presidential candidates in 2016 — many women have suffered through such situations, including verbal or physical assaults.
Women will not ‘get over it’ until stories of struggles like this one are rare and when incidents of harassment, exploitation, and violence toward women disappear. In the meantime, women need to know that they are not alone in their experiences and that they can succeed along a path of their choice despite the obstacles. For far too long, I and many other women have suppressed our reactions to these obstacles as a coping mechanism. Everyone who wants to be supportive must help create stories of success for women. We need to vigilantly watch for and call attention to inequities, to solicit women’s voices in all meetings, and to purposively seek out and support women as speakers in events, as investigators in grant proposals, as recipients of prestigious awards, as authors for influential publications, as strong leaders in organizations, and as vital contributors to our history. People need to ‘get over’ their assumption that all is well for women today.