Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Keep out! – part 1

keep-out-restricted-area-sign-s-2455Do you find yourself wondering why there aren’t more women, black, Latino, etc… students in science? I don’t wonder. I know why. They are constantly and systematically being removed from science at every level every day. I knew this. I have felt this, but this year it has hit me in the face over and over, and I am really just sick of it. Literally sick to my stomach.

Over the next few posts, I am going to outline some of the behaviors I have observed that keep women and minorities out of STEM fields. My first story just happened this week – yes, it is only Tuesday!

Like many other faculty, I have undergraduate and graduate students in my lab. I love them, as I have posted previously (here). One of the things that often happens is that the undergraduates have fun in the lab, and want to share their experiences with their friends. They invite their friends to the lab to see their experiments and meet their lab-mates. Often they meet me, and I get another undergraduate application (I have an application to work in my lab, detailed here). Many times they are also in science, and they appreciate the lab space and equipment we have.

This week, I was told that I can’t have other students hanging out in my lab. I have been at my institution for 11 years. I have never had an issue with students visiting and hanging out in the lab or nearby offices. I was wondering why all of the sudden I was getting crap for this. Then it hit me, I have a lot of students of color in my lab – black, Latino, African decent, etc… Many of these students also have friends who are black, Latino, African, etc… Now, all of the sudden, these extra students hanging around the lab have become very, very visible.

I guess I can’t say for sure if it is outright racism, but I can’t help but feel that they were “noticed” not just because they were black but because there is an assumption that they “didn’t belong there.” The excuse I was given was that they didn’t have safety training, and it would be a liability to have them in the lab. I asked if they could sit in the office space next to the lab, and was told it would disturb the other students.

Stupidly, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. At lab meeting that afternoon, we talked about it. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I could tell my students were also bummed. As we discussed, I said, “if the problem is that they don’t have safety training, we should just have all our friends get safety training.” But, this solution didn’t sit well with me.

The next day, when the friends came by, my student asked them to leave. Of course, they wanted to know why. Luckily, I was there shortly to discuss. The visiting student came by my office, and we chatted. I knew this student was also a science student. It turns out he already had lab safety training because he had worked in labs before. We also talked about his background. Turns out he is a veteran, at university on the G.I. bill after serving his country for 6 years. I told him he was more than welcome in the lab, and if anyone had a problem, they could talk to me.

That evening, I was still upset. I was upset that I let someone tell me how to run my lab. I was upset that my students of color were being made to feel bad about having their friends around. I was mad that this happened because of systemic racism and the thought that people of color “shouldn’t be in a science lab.” I called my department head to ask what the “official policy” of the department was. He said, that probably we are not allowed to have untrained people in labs, but that he (not speaking as chair, but as a colleague) always allowed and encouraged students to bring their friends into the lab. I said that I felt the same way, but that my students were being unfairly singled out because they were black. I told him that I planned to allow these students to continue to be in the lab, and that if someone from the department reported them or me, that now he had a heads up about what was happening. He agreed but said he would stop by to make sure they were not being too disruptive to others. (This irked me, too, but I didn’t want to push my luck – I had already called his personal line in the evening to discuss this.) I promised him they were not loud or disruptive. In fact, the loudest person in the lab is often ME! (Anyone who knows me will not doubt this.) To the contrary, they are amazing and smart kids. They kinds of students anyone would want dating their own children – not to mention in the lab. Further, I know all of them personally and have had several mentoring conversations with each of them. I consider them my own students, and I don’t appreciate being told that they cannot be in the lab.

During this conversation with my department head, I remembered a story of when I was a graduate student. I was in a university that had an institute that held workshops with visitors from around the world. This was one of the benefits of being a graduate student at this school. There was a policy that graduate students could attend lectures but not meals unless they paid for the meeting. The graduate students argued that we wanted to be apart of meals because that was when a lot of networking and important scientific conversations happened. We promised to bring our own food, and the scientific leadership agreed. The information didn’t make it to the administrative assistants (all women) right away, so the first time we went in, they tried to stop the local graduate students. Well, to be clear – they only tried to stop ME. That was because I was the most conspicuous. All the local graduate student men mixed in and looked like all the visiting scholars and visiting students. Only I was conspicuously “wrong” and looked like I “didn’t belong there,” so I was told to leave while all my male colleagues went in… Of course I complained. I made it clear that I was singled out because I was a woman – a blonde woman – and “didn’t look right.” The science leadership allowed me to pass and made the new policy clear to the staff. I am sad to feel that almost 15 years later the same thing is still happening to students at my current institution. But, I won’t stop fighting. I might not always get it right at first, but I try. I hope my students don’t hold it against me that it took me a day to figure it out.

A lot of times my posts are meant to have some sort of follow-up with ideas for how to solve problems, but this post and the next few posts will be to open people’s eyes about the things that happen to under-represented groups in STEM and why they might not exactly want to stay to work in these environments.

Comments on: "Keep out! – part 1" (4)

  1. I think we have something similar going on at our institution, but it is more general and not limited to just science. We have a downtown campus that serves non-traditional students. It has a vibrant community development program that is expanding to offer a master’s program. However, many of the people at the “main” (read:beautiful, seaside New England private college) campus have tried to stop it from happening. They argued that people shouldn’t be allowed to get a Master’s degree if all they did was come in on the weekends and evenings, and that the people teaching in the program don’t have the right qualifications. It was even said that “all you had to do was look at them” to tell. Literally, those words. Of course it is a program staffed predominantly by minoritized people meant to help people learn how to revitalize and reinvigorate their communities. Luckily our faculty senate approved the program. But the discussion was disgusting.

  2. M. Arsenault said:

    If others complain I think it is really important that you share your facts, that no one has complained for 11 years, until the make up of the students visiting changed

  3. My lab has an annual field trip where 50-60 first grade students come through and visit. It occurs to me that I haven’t checked to make sure all of those students (and parent chaperones) have received safety training. Maybe I’ll have to tell NSF that my outreach efforts can’t happen. Oh, and sometimes we have theoretical physicists come to our department to give a colloquium and I show them my lab. My guess is that they aren’t adequately trained either. Oh no, I just realized I’ve let my daughter into my lab before — I can vouch for her lack of safety sense! I guess I’m a bad PI *and* a bad parent.

    Or perhaps one could say that the important thing is that visitors to the lab, such as the field trip students, are supervised by lab personnel who have been adequately trained regarding safety. That in fact the lab visitors aren’t doing lab activities with safety concerns, rather they are hanging out with lab personnel who will ensure their safety. I wonder if that argument would work for the friends-of-lab-personnel situation. Have a vigorous chat with folks in the lab about how they have to be responsible for the safety of all visitors. Would that satisfy the supposed safety concerns?

  4. Thank you for going above and beyond to keep your lab inclusive. It is these little things (like feeling welcome — or maybe that’s not so little?!) that make students want to go on in physics. We can’t get more female or minority faculty if we are turning them away at the gate.

    I have a post doc fellowship at an ivy league institution and this semester I am teaching a reading course on mathematical physics for nine advanced physics undergrads…. all of whom are men. They are a very impressive group and frequently their presentations exceed my own knowledge of the subject. They are also friendly and respectful. But it is a little sad to me that there are no women are the group. I doubt that there are no women here at their level, but I wonder if the women weren’t asked to join 😦

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