A Room Full of Women

This story happened at a colloquium that was conducted during the Women and Math program at Princeton last year. The room was full of women waiting for the colloquium to start. A young man appeared at the door. He looked around in complete surprise. I watched the fear fade from his face when he must have decided that he had the wrong room. He disappeared, but reappeared at the door very soon. He had obviously checked the schedule and had realized that, in fact, he had come to the right room in the first place. His face started changing colors. He was terrified. A few minutes later, he left.

I sat there thinking: women have to deal with this type of situation every week. He could afford to skip just one lecture, but if a girl wants to do math she has to be courageous almost every seminar. I mentally applauded the girls around me for being that courageous.

Wait a minute! I am a woman myself. I went to seminars where I was the only girl hundreds of times. How did I feel? Actually I think my mind never registered that I was the only girl. I never cared. The first time I really thought that the gender of people in a room might be an issue was during that colloquium last year.

I started wondering why it had never bothered me. Could it be that the Soviets did a good job of teaching me not to pay attention to people’s gender? Could be. But wondering back in time, I remembered something else too.

When I was a child I wasn’t a girly girl. I was not interested in dolls; I preferred cars. I didn’t play house or doctor; I played war. To tell the whole truth, I actually did have a doll that I loved, but I never played with it. I liked having it. The doll was a gift from my father’s second wife and it was way beyond my mother’s price range. I think I had an admiration for the quality and the beauty of this toy.

So, while appreciating the courage that the other girls might have needed to do math, I was sitting there pondering my own indifference to the gender of people at seminars and my relative comfort with large groups of men. But this comfort had its own price. I felt comfortable with the group I wasn’t a part of, while I felt different from the group I was a part of. My price of being comfortable at math seminars was loneliness.

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