Why Would I Know Where the Sugar is?

“Do you really hope to get hired here? We will never hire a woman physicist.” This was my friend’s job interview here in the US, though many years ago.

Another friend had an adviser who insisted that to recommend her for a PhD he needed to get into her pant first.

I heard more stories over the years, but my personal experience with gender bias was not so dramatic. Or, it could be that I didn’t pay attention. Let me start with my most memorable story.

Why did I get an NSF postdoc? Thirty years ago, I had recently arrived in the US, and just had a baby. A friend suggested that I apply for an NSF postdoc. I applied, and I got it. I was elated, but my happiness didn’t last long. It lasted until some bitter guy, who didn’t get into a postdoc, told me I got the position only because I was a woman. This was the first time I heard that gender might play a role in such decisions. I was devastated. To this day, I still do not know whether it was my talents or my gender that got me the postdoc. For many years after, I had impostor syndrome.

I wrote a blog essay, Polite Gender Bias, about some of my other stories. Each individual case might not seem gender-related, but they were repeated too many times, so I became sensitive. I call these stories:

  • An unbelievably amazing proof.
  • Simple versus elegant.
  • Saying “I am dumb” as a defense.
  • Who generates ideas for Tanya Khovanova’s math blog?

Here is a more recent story. I do not know whether I should be proud, angry, or embarrassed.

Where is the sugar? From time to time, in the MIT math department tea room, I am asked where is the sugar, or some similar things. This often happens when there are several males in the room. Why was I chosen? It could be that I look friendly and have a great smile, and this is why people approach me. Or people might assume that, being a woman, I am a secretary who knows everything about the kitchen. Or, they might assume that, being overweight, I love sugar and know about every secret sugar stash in any kitchen.

Here is a story where I know exactly how I felt: I was angry.

Can I say a word? I was invited to a lunch discussion on gender issues at our MIT math department. I am not faculty, so I was sure the only reason I was there was because they wanted more female participants. People around me enthusiastically praised our department’s handling of gender issues. I tried to speak many times, but some guy would always interrupt me. I was about to start laughing very loudly at the irony of the situation when our department head finally noticed what was going on and gave me a chance to say a word. The situation was resolved then, but I regret that I didn’t start laughing.

As stories pile up, I become more vocal. I am tired of being nice at my own expense. Now people think I am a bitch. So be it.


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