Glencora Borradaile






         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

January 19, 2012

It won't change

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 11:34 am
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It was in the week before Christmas. An older friend of mine dropped by, as he does so every few weeks. He is a university employee, not faculty, with whom I struck up a passing friendship shortly after starting at Oregon State.

We chatted for a while. He asked me how a recent work trip went. I told him that it was okay – not wonderful – it was a little tiring. He asked why. I explained that while I knew many people at the workshop, I didn’t feel at ease with many. I rambled mildly and idly about how I thought that it was a side effect of there being few women in the field, that I may feel more at ease if I had more female companionship on such work trips.

Well, he says, it won’t change.

Well, I counter, I hope it will.

No, he continues, it shouldn’t. You [points at me] should be at home, raising children. That is what women are good at.

My jaw drops. I pause. Hoping for him to chuckle. That it’s all a joke. It’s not a joke though. He went on to say that he’s old fashioned, but he thinks that engineering is for men. That women shouldn’t be doing this work.

I was caught off guard. What I expected to be an uplifting social visit, of the type that I had quite enjoyed in the past, resulted in my being on the defensive. My stunned state prevented me from making a commanding speech about equality and sexism. I did manage to say a few things along these lines. But I hardly made an impact. In the desire to not deal with this at present, I made it clear that he needed to leave.

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5 Comments

  1.   JacobM — January 19, 2012 @ 12:21 pm    

    That’s really kind of appalling. It’s pretty easy for me to forget, sometimes, that there are lots of cultures existing side-by-side in this country, and that ideas that are really unthinkable in one culture may be common currency in another.

    I do think that time is on the side of progressive thinking, but it is taking far too long.

    It sounds like you handled a difficult situation well, though. I wouldn’t expect you to change his mind in that situation, but just making it clear that you disagree may get him to start thinking about his assumptions.

  2.   D. Eppstein — January 19, 2012 @ 12:26 pm    

    Ugh. I don’t have a lot to add, except for some reassurance that not all men think this way, and my hope that it can and will change.

  3.   Claire Mathieu — January 19, 2012 @ 1:02 pm    

    Look at the second picture on

    http://archipeldessciences.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/il-y-a-100-ans-marie-curie-recevait-le-prix-nobel-de-chimie/

    I saw several other pictures of international conferences in physics in the early 20th century, and they’re all the same: Marie Curie is the only women on the pictures.

    Things have changed and they will change further.

  4.   JeffE — January 19, 2012 @ 1:40 pm    

    [facepalm]

  5.   CAB — January 21, 2012 @ 9:44 pm    

    My first thought is that there will always be these errant freaks in the world that find a reason to discriminate, and changing their individual minds and hearts doesn’t change a thing. Yes, it is in this one person. Yes, it is probably in others in the work environment. But the larger problem is the institutionalized patterns of racism and sexism in the system. It may feel useless to challenge the errant sexist, but how to we challenge the institutionalized sexism?

    Conversely, it is we individual women that are the victims of the individual AND institutional sexism. But we do not have our own institution to counter it, so we feel alone. The weight of the problem is on each of us. Is the only solution that each of us put our shoulder into it and batter in that glass ceiling? Will it take a million tiny cracks to finally do it in? Can we finally shatter it, as long as these errant sexist individuals remain?

    Your experience raises questions that none of us have the answer to. Keep your shoulder down, sister. We are all taking our own cracks at it too. You are not alone. Other comments are right: things have changed, and will continue to change.

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