Why does it matter? (Women in Undergraduate Chemistry)

Background: I wrote this post with intention to publish on my personal blog. When I was done, I found it pretty relevant to the atmosphere of the Chemistry Blog. Also, I thought it would be unfortunate to leave this topic unattended.

As the end of the semester approaches, I find that there is a direct correlation between the closeness to finals and the deterioration of my physical appearance. Although I consider myself lucky for being pretty decent looking, I unfortunately repay this gift by livin’ it up like a real chemist-in-training.

My GRE is in two days. I’ve been hiding out in my cave and studying all day. I need a shower. My hair is oily and tangly. My glasses are dirty and I haven’t changed out of these clothes since Friday. Last night, I was intrigued by this train wreck in my bathroom mirror when I realized something that I should have brought up long ago: it wasn’t very long after I started college when I realize looking a little sloppy actually gives me an edge in school.

My mother always nags at me for wearing the same darn thing everyday: hooded sweater, t-shirt, acid-burned jeans and flip flops (sneakers if attempting synthetic methods). I wasn’t like this in high school. I was put-together, moderately sociable, generally happy, and was presented with several prom date candidates as situation arose. Those days are long gone now. Now I look more like an emo little boy getting lost in a fancy college.

My first day in freshman chemistry lab wasn’t what I imagined it to be. It gave me some sad preview on breaking into this community as a female student: the condescending way my male classmates talked to me, the way they hogged all the work in a collaborative procedure because “you don’t know what you’re doing,” the way they bossed me around for the trivial chores… Even my (male) graduate instructors treats me differently.

Sometime I wondered if there was anything I could do, anyone I could talk to. But no. Instead, I put my long hair in a ponytail and put on my oversized t-shirt. Somehow when you look like one of the guys, everything is OK.

I wondered if any other girl in class felt the same way.

The situation did get a bit better as I move up the food chain. I started to know quite a few graduate students and departmental staff. I even began to mentor my own little group of 1st/2nd-year minions. But even now, walking into my final year as an undergraduate, I get odd stares if I run errands around the lab facility with a fitted shirt and my long hair flowing on a sunny afternoon.

Hello, am I the only girl in this whole freaken building?

The answer is obviously no. But the few female staff that manage to get by without getting funny looks all strangely managed to morph themselves into the stereotype of a successful female scientist: unrefined, quiet, and invisible.

Now don’t even get me started on the number of times I get hit on by my graduate instructors during class and the many “hey, my face is UP HERE” moments during academic discussions. Do you know that you are whistling at a girl who is too young for you to buy a drink for? It’s so not fair. I work as hard as you are, I do just as well in everything that you do, why can’t you show some respect?

So please, stop acting like a sleazy pig. Because of the things you say and do, I feel obligated to look frumpy and completely covered up. I feel self-conscious for looking and acting feminine. I feel embarrassed to participate in an academic discussion or show any signs of comparable intelligence. I even feel a little inadequate on performing tasks that I am perfectly capable of doing. It’s the type of workplace discrimination that nobody would ever acknowledge or address.

Also, one day, I would like my dignity back. I’m just a 20-year-old who’s trying to make something out of herself.


  1. These types of gender issues are always rather complicated. For instance, I am generally moderately-polite and will hold a door open for a stranger. However, if its a female colleague, I’ll just shove my way through the door; the threat of appearing to have differential sexual precognitions is enough to modify my behavior.

    I will also throw myself through a door if a male colleague is around. Everyone gets the same asshole treatment, apparently…

    GSIs disrespecting you is an other matter, and they likely deserve a swift kick in the balls.

  2. Well, good or bad, at least you know what your getting into. there’s a lot wrong with chemistry. not to late to change

  3. The reasoning described above may explain why many of the females at Cornell in the 80s (where my son went) looked like lab rats.

    You ladies need to talk to Michelle Francl (head of the chemistry department at Bryn Mawr) about these issues. She runs the Culture of Chemistry blog. I’ve talked to her about blogging issues and for help with the interface between the classical and the quantum worlds as they apply to chemistry (she’s a computational chemist) and found her quite helpful and accessible. Whether or not she’d have the time to do so for you, I don’t know. It’s always easy to volunteer the services of someone else.

    The women in chemistry graduate school in the 60s didn’t look this way, and were treated pretty much the same as far as I could see. I even dated one of them. Of course, just by being in graduate school they were past the traumas described above. On further thought 3 of them (out of 7 or so) had gone to one of the 7 sisters.


  4. Apart from one sexist prof (who never targeted me directly but still made me angry), I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid any gender discrimination. At least 50% of the undergrads in my department are women, though. I guess I’m a little more lazy with my appearance year-round, though–doing synthetic chemistry will eventually beat into you that you can’t wear anything you don’t mind seeing tiny little holes in. (Also helps that I value sleep more than anything else.) I only bother dressing up/wearing makeup/doing anything with my hair when I have to present something.
    But I don’t think I’d have had any problems with the guys at my school anyway. It’s hard to be an asshole to the girl who corrects your ignorance right before the exam, I guess.
    If all else fails, remember: a lot of women are compulsively nice. This means people take advantage of them, and they don’t get the respect they deserve. Learn how to be a bitch. It works wonders when nothing else does.

  5. At UALR, there are more women in undergraduate chemistry then men. Graduate is ~50:50.

    With regards to attire.
    It is typically silly to dress super nice and such when working in a chemistry, though. Where I work (UAMS) in a biochem lab, one of the girls in the lab next door is very attractive, but always dressed so nice and clean and “made-up”. It is quite creepy, actually. How does someone working in a lab environment stay that well “made-up” and dressed nice and never seem to get dirty?

    That said, at school all the girls in undergraduate chemistry are typically much more well dressed then I would be for chemistry. Female graduate students tend to be less “fancy”; but they are also probably much poorer then out undergrads, heh.

    While I am a male, I have never seen or talked with a female student that felt she was being discriminated in anyway; thought I can also see why they would not talk about it.

    I am just super polite to everybody. And I learned a long time ago to stop staring and womens breasts talking to them. Who knew women have different colored eyes?

    • A friend of my wife’s sent her the folllowing: Enjoy and don’t be insulted.

      Apple Computers announced today that it has developed a computer chip that can store and play music in women’s breast implants.
      The iBoob will cost between $499 and $599…
      This is considered to be a major breakthrough, because women are always complaining about amn staring at their breasts and not listening to them.
      Thanks to Apple, everyone is now happy!

  6. Most of the female chemistry majors i’ve known seem to sport the same frumpy, just got out of bed look that most male chemistry majors do. One thing I have noticed, not sure why though, is that we all tend to try and look nicer when going to the lab. Maybe the pseudo-professionalism of the lab makes us feel the need to dress better. I even shave. Whatever.

    If you feel your getting treated differently, and you don’t think it’s fair, then don’t subtly change your ways over 2 years to look like a sorry little emo kid. Get out there and call out what you see or what happens to you right away. Don’t let people get away with it. Ruminating about it with people who generally agree with you isn’t going to solve a damn thing. You have to be loud, and unafraid to fight over it. If it bothers you enough to complain to your friends or family, or if you mull over it alone days before your GRE, then don’t tolerate it. You can’t just let people walk on you.

    If you’re afraid of a fight, then hurry up and get tough. The world isn’t perfect, and you have to fight for what you believe. That’s just the way it is, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

    • I wish the problem was as clear cut as your comment implies. But, dealing with sexual harassment from superiors is a very thorny and treacherous position to find oneself in.

  7. Guess I am luckier (?) than most. Our ratio is 5:1. 5 girls to 1 boy. Yup. Most girls dressed up nicely, flowerly skirt, nice blouse, heels. I can’t do it. Too difficult to work in fancy clothes. I am a T-shirt, Jeans, sportshoes girl. I am sorry you have a bad experience in the lab. Most of the guys here are very nice & helpful. Of course, there will be one or two who will act like a pig, we just ignore him. Afterall, there are more girls!

  8. Hey, baby. Wanna go out sometime? Then we can get married while I bring home the bacon and you stay at home popping out babies!

    Just kidding.

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