This semester I am again teaching a class with zero girls (as I wrote before, I feel silly calling 19 or 20-year old girls women; based on the fact that I didn’t consider myself a woman well until after kid No 2 and past the age of 30, I am sticking to calling them girls). Lecturing to a 100% male audience happens occasionally, once every couple of years, and while you’d think it’s not that different from teaching a class with 1 or 2 women, it actually is different. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable, but it’s not entirely comfortable either. I am a middle-aged, female, dog-and-pony show with vector calculus, waving colored markers in front of a whole sea of mostly half-asleep young dudes. Being that I am the mom of multiple young dudes, my general feelings towards my students are warm and motherly — mostly, I realize they are just oversize kids. But the whole experience is ever so slightly more weird with zero girls in the classroom than with at least some.
Another interesting thing is the relationship that I end up having with the occasional young woman in my class. Either they really like me and we develop a nice connection, or they are squarely at the “this professor sucks” end of the spectrum. Here’s an example. Last semester I had 2 girls in an undergrad class of about 30. I had a great rapport with that class, one of the top 2 or 3 experiences overall, and I received really high teaching evaluations overall. I had a lot of students in my office during office hours, the whole class was very upbeat. Of the two women, one did great, was very active and I got to know her through office hours, we talked about the follow-on courses, graduate school, etc. The other didn’t particularly care for me or the class . When I got the student evaluations back, most of the student scores and comments were glowing, but among the unenthused ones, one mentioned that I was sometimes 1-2 minutes late to class. What I thought to myself as I read it was “Wow, how petty. And not even true.” While I cannot be certain, I am pretty sure the comment came from the second female student, because she has very distinctive hand writing.
Unfortunately, I think that it’s not very uncommon for women in the fields where they are underrepresented to develop one of the polar opposites of relationships (this may also be true of other underrepresented minorities, I don’t know), with the relationship where other women are kept at an arm’s length or are being looked down upon actually being the more common variant. I know that, when you are a young woman in a field dominated by young men, and you are competent and confindent, you can often seemingly blend in by becoming an Honorary Dude — HD for short (I thought I had first heard this term from Zuska, but upon further digging it turns out she used Almost D00d; I remember a little light bulb go on in my head as I first read her articulation of this concept and it felt so familiar). I spent much of my youth in this mode, cherishing my HD status, because I was smart and meritorious and not like those other women. So I can see that competent young women often do come with their own small group of dude friends (who are usually either comparably or less competent than the girl) with whom they work and study. I have yet to see two young women in the same circle/study group in any of my classes — it’s like no one wants to work with girls, not even other girls, and certainly not the HD’s who are “smart and cool, not like other girls.”
It’s a stereotype that women are often weird to other women, the “mean girls” syndrome and all that. Perhaps geeky women and their relationship to other geeky women are no exception. What I know is that I took me a long time, which I presume entails growing up, to understand that being an Honorary Dude is bullshit, that I am a girl/woman, and that no one ever forgets that for one second regardless of how much we all pretend. I also realized that other women really don’t need me to crap on their parade and that I should instead help them if I can. Unless another woman has really done something bad to me, I should get over myself and whatever insecurities I have and not demonize her for being successful or having different priorities than me. I am now that woman of whom I used to make fun, who is counting the female speakers at conferences and female participants on grant review panels and female interviewees during faculty searches. Why? Because I grew up and took off my HD badge and realized how disheartening it is to see to what degree my male colleagues — especially the good guys — really believe that 100% men is the norm, and that any women present are really either veritable superstars (even if most men are far from it) or are believed to be a token used to satisfy some political correctness requirement. This pisses me off, and it’s exhausting, but unless I bring it up nobody else does.
We often talk about female students needing female role models and mentors. But I think we need to be aware that we can’t a priori count on a female student establishing good rapport with a female teacher. Maybe that female teacher being lame or fat or having an accent or being a minute late to class or however else unworthy of the female student’s admiration will actually do less to retain that student than the all-male professorial cast that the young woman expects. For young women, wearing the HD badge and placing even female instructors with all the other women may well be a necessary survival adaptation. I am established and fairly secure in who and where I am, and I am also older, so I have the luxury of consciously dismantling my Honorary Dude status among my colleagues or my male students, because I know the status is fake and it hurts other women. So as easy as it would be to continue wearing my HD badge, I keep electing to wear the potentially lame female prof one instead, and I keep trying to be nicer, more open, and more helpful to other women than even my gut tells me to be, and in spite of some young (or not so young) women looking down on me, as they think they know better or that I am weak or silly or matronly for being all female. But the benefit has been that I have also managed to establish better, deeper connections with other women than I have generally had in the past, and I have hopefully become more attuned to and more helpful with the struggles that women in STEM face.
If you are a young woman in STEM, ask yourself how your view your scientific elders. Do you have different, perhaps unreasonable expectations of your female instructors? InBetween had a really nice summary of how students view male and female TAs. Are there some female instructors you just don’t like without being able to point out what it is that you dislike? Do you feel the same way towards your male instructors? What about your peers — are there other girls/young women with whom you study? Ask yourself if you judge your female peers more harshly because they are girls.