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Teaching chemistry while female: when my very existence was a problem.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Not quite 20 years ago, I was between graduate programs.

I had earned my Ph.D in chemistry and filed my applications to seven Ph.D. programs in philosophy. (There were some surreal moments on the way to this, including retaking the GRE two weekends after defending my chemistry dissertation — because, apparently, the GRE is a better predictor of success in graduate school than is success in graduate school.) In the interval between the graduate stipend from the chemistry program from which I was now a proud graduate and the (hypothetical) graduate stipend from the philosophy graduate program on the horizon, I needed to earn some money so I could continue to pay my rent.

I pieced together something approximating enough earnings. I spent a few hours a week as a research assistant to a visiting scholar studying scientific creativity. I spent many hours a week as an out-call SAT-prep tutor (which involved almost as many hours on San Francisco Bay Area freeways as it did working one-on-one with my pupils). I even landed a teaching gig at the local community college, although that wouldn’t start until the summer session. And, I taught the general chemistry segment of a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep course.

Teaching the MCAT prep course involved four meetings (each four hours long, with three ten-minute breaks interspersed so people could stretch their legs, use the bathroom, find a vending machine, or what have you) with a large number of students planning to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. The time was divided between providing a refresher on general chemistry concepts and laying out problem-solving strategies for the “passage problems” to which the MCAT had recently shifted. I was working with old-school overhead transparencies (since this was 1994), with key points and the problems themselves in permanent ink and the working-out of the problems in transparency markers that erased with a damp cloth. The screen onto which the transparencies projected was very large, so I’d have to make use of the long rubber-tipped wooden pointer that was resting on the ledge of the chalkboard behind the screen.

During hour two of the very first meeting of the very first session I taught this MCAT prep course, as I retrieved the pointer from the chalk-ledge, I noticed that a single word had been written on the chalkboard:


I was pretty sure it hadn’t been on the board at the beginning of the session. But I still had three hours worth of concepts to explain and problems to work before we could call it a day. So I ignored it and got down to business.

The second meeting with this group, I made a point of checking the chalkboard before I pulled down the projections screen, fired up the overhead projector, and commencing the preparation of the students for the MCAT.

Before the four hour session began, the chalkboard was blank. By the end of the four hours, again, there was a single word written on it:


The same thing happened in our third session. By then it had started to really bug me, so, at the beginning of our fourth and final meeting together, I resolved at least to flush out whoever was doing the writing on the chalkboard. I collected all the chalk from the ledges and put it in the sink of the lab counter at the front of the room (for I was lecturing in a proper laboratory lecture hall, with sink, gas jets, and such). And, I brought a water bottle with me so I wouldn’t have to leave the lecture hall during the ten minute breaks to find a water fountain.

At the very first break, one of the young men in the prep course followed a path between the projection screen and the chalkboard, paused as if lost (or in search of chalk?), and then exited the room looking only a tiny bit sheepish.

On the board, appearing like a film negative against the light residue of chalk dust, he had written (I presume with a moistened finger):


I still have no idea at all what provoked this hostility. The structure of the MCAT prep course was such that all I was doing was giving the students help in preparing for the MCAT. I was not grading them or otherwise evaluating them. Heck, I wasn’t even taking attendance!

What on earth about 25-year-old me, at the front of a lecture hall trying to make the essentials of general chemistry easy to remember and easy to apply to problem-solving — something these students presumably wanted, since they paid a significant amount of money to take the course — what made me a “bitch” to this young man? Why was it so important to him that not a single meeting we had passed without my knowing that someone in attendance (even if I didn’t know exactly who) thought I was a bitch?

When it happened, this incident was so minor, against the more overt hostility toward me as a woman in a male-dominated scientific field (soon to be followed, though I didn’t anticipate it at the time, by overt hostility toward me as a woman in male-dominated academic philosophy), that I almost didn’t remember it.

But then, upon reading this account of teaching while female, I did.

I remembered it so vividly that my cheeks were burning as they did the first time I saw that chalk-scrawled “bitch” and then had to immediately shake it off so that we could cover what needed to be covered in the time we had left for that meeting.

And I ask myself again, what was I doing, except a job that I was good at, a job that I did well, a job that I needed — what was I doing to that particular young man, paying for the service I was providing — that made me a bitch?

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rkipling 7:43 am 09/4/2013

    I’m going to venture a guess it was because you were already successful, and the guy feared he never would be. It seems unlikely it had anything to do with you personally, unless of course you were channeling Gny. Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. But I’m guessing you didn’t refer to your students as “maggots” even once.

    Maybe it WAS specifically your gender that triggered the animosity? You have encountered plenty of unambiguous gender bias as you say. I speculate that most of the students were glad you were there. Let’s hope that the emotionally disturbed young man either got effective help or didn’t become a doctor.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Without examples like this, males are probably oblivious to many environments hostile to women. I’ve been the focus of the occasional personal, surreptitious taunt in the workplace, but I can only recall one specifically because that involved destruction of property. I hope it’s gotten better for you.

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  2. 2. drafter 11:04 am 09/4/2013

    More than likely it was a female student writing that, I’ve seen woman treat fellow women far worse then any sexist male ever has.

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  3. 3. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:08 am 09/4/2013

    @ drafter, did you miss the part of the story when I saw the male student walk behind the screen to the blank chalkboard and walk away from it leaving the same word as before on it?

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  4. 4. kienhua68 11:42 am 09/4/2013

    A student can show great potential and still be mentally ill. Psychological evaluation should be required to help individuals with social issues early on. What kind of doctor might that person become?

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  5. 5. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:48 am 09/4/2013

    If this sort of behavior is taken to be a sign of mental illness, my experience suggests that more men in STEM fields (and in society at large) are mentally ill than not. That’s how prevalent the microaggressions are. This one was different mostly by virtue of being rendered in chalk rather than soundwaves.

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  6. 6. rkipling 11:59 am 09/4/2013


    Let me help you out of this. Theoretically the person could have been a cross-dressing, self-hating feminist.

    But unless you have personal knowledge to the contrary, it was most likely a guy.

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  7. 7. dusheck 12:48 pm 09/4/2013

    Studies of the mental health of men who abuse women indicate that most pass tests for mental health with flying colors–at about the same rate as other people. Abusive men tend to harbor strong feelings about sex roles–i.e., that women should present in a certain way and should be subservient. They may treat women with respect in public situations where they feel required to behave in a “pc” manner, but in private they express a lot of hostility. I don’t know if this young man would treat a girlfriend abusively, but I think this secret aggression toward a woman in a position of authority suggests that he would. And to return to my point, it’s unlikely a psychological test would reveal anything wrong with him. He’s not crazy; he just doesn’t like women to have power.

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  8. 8. M Tucker 1:01 pm 09/4/2013

    Janet, I do not understand the overt hostility you have experienced in your pursuit of your science degree or in your philosophy studies. I think it is something that needs to be examined and openly discussed. I have no easy answers. As a male it is very shocking to me and I am more troubled by your experiences with adult males more than the incident with the student.

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  9. 9. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 1:14 pm 09/4/2013

    For the record, the student in question appeared to be in his twenties. I imagine he considered himself to be an adult. Is there any reason we shouldn’t consider him one?

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  10. 10. drafter 1:48 pm 09/4/2013

    @ Janet
    Sorry, of all the things, I didn’t read the last paragraph, However what I stated is true that woman are mean to woman and I’ve had several other woman tell me so also. BTW I had several female professors in the early 80′s at least none of the classes I was in did anyone pull such a stunt. But then we would not have tolerated such an action either since we were there to learn.

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  11. 11. M Tucker 3:10 pm 09/4/2013

    Janet, my thinking was that younger folks have not developed enough socially to fully understand the implications of their actions. Age does not guaranty that one will become more socially adept but young folks seem to make more mistakes and act out in ways that they later regret. I was also influenced by your comments on your experiences in the academic environment. They seemed to suggest a much more severe and systemic form of hostility and disrespect. I am not giving the student a pass on his behavior but I am also not surprised by it. I think you handled it correctly and I do completely understand that it still troubles you.

    What does surprise me is that in academia these sorts of abuses toward women persist and might even be growing today. I would think that those in the profession of teaching and mentoring would not harbor antagonism toward women. I am 60 and when I was a much younger man I had plenty of female professors. Females have been a part of the work force and in academia for a long time now. It is a distinct disappointment that male aggression and disrespect toward women does not seem to be going away.

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  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 3:19 pm 09/4/2013

    @ M Tucker,

    I think it’s actually hard to tell whether there’s an increase in hostility (or behavior that seems to reflect hostility), or whether people are less inclined to let such behavior go now without correction or comment than used to be the case. It could also be a matter of particularly male precincts in academia and other workforces that held out longer and thus are timeshifted on these responses. It could even be a function of how much tighter the job market seems to be now (at least in academia, and certainly in STEM fields and philosophy) than it looks like it was back in the ’60s and ’70s.

    There’s a lot of complexity we’d need to sort through to make apples-to-apples comparisons here.

    In some ways, that makes it easier to second-guess one’s own experiences. But my hunch is that the first step to changing some of this behavior (and the cultural forces that enable it) is to be able to notice it and point it out so others can notice it, too.

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  13. 13. rkipling 3:34 pm 09/4/2013


    Yes, we each would have defended Dr.S in that situation.

    However, the rest of the class could not have been aware of the insult unless they walked behind the screen.

    Consider that the specific incident may not be the point. Her prose is is engaging though, isn’t it? Watch out Rowling.

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  14. 14. M Tucker 5:36 pm 09/4/2013

    Janet, we have no empirical data to go on but I base my suspicions on the alarming rate of abuse of females in the military, even among female officers, and the number of blog moments and posts by females. We have come a long way since Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown but in many ways it seems like we have made no progress. I have very fond memories from the 70’s of two strong, empathetic and very intelligent and talented women. One who taught my second semester of calculus and the other who taught my first semester of chemistry. Sure I encountered many more women in the English, Art, and History departments but they were there, in STEM fields, from the beginning of my university experience. Women were in the military in the 1970’s too. I encountered several officers, and the female basic training area was right across from my basic training company area. The job market has been tight in the past too. I lived through several long periods of high unemployment and very few job prospects. The Ferris Bueller generation learned about stagflation but I lived through it.

    I am not prepared to wave away my concerns as anecdotal and apples-oranges comparisons. I am shocked that at a time when young folks are driving the LBGT equality movement we still have a striking number of reports of abuse and disrespect and hostility toward women. Does anyone still celebrate Women’s Equality Day (August 26)? How did the violence against women act fair in Congress? I see and hear a lot of things that suggest many would like to go back to the days of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover instead of moving forward from the days of FDR and Rosie the Riveter.

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  15. 15. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 6:26 pm 09/4/2013

    Oh, I share your concerns — and I think the frequency of the problem isn’t even central to the issue (until we get that frequency to zero). But I think what’s visible in the aggregate has changed at least somewhat, given what strikes me an an increasing willingness to make note of things to others that one used to keep to oneself.

    (Also, there are concrete ways employment in STEM fields has improved for women since the ’70s — my mom was a computer programmer then, paid less than the men she trained who then got put in promotion tracks for which she was never considered, having to hide pregnancies to avoid termination despite the fact that she was ready and able to be working with babies at home — like me.)

    It could be that things are getting worse (in which case I hope it’s the death-rattle of a dying regime). Or it could just be that we’ve gotten better at noticing the bad stuff that happens to women (and people of color, and LBGT folk, and disabled people, etc.) than we used to be.

    So, I dunno. I hold out hope, but I also recognize that it’s going to take work to get to the world for which I’m holding out hope from where we are now.

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  16. 16. rkipling 9:29 pm 09/4/2013

    “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
    There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
    Where the handouts grow on bushes
    And you sleep out every night.
    Where the boxcars all are empty
    And the sun shines every day
    And the birds and the bees
    And the cigarette trees
    The lemonade springs
    Where the bluebird sings
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

    That’s essentially what you are asking. Zero is not possible except in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I’m all for treating everyone with respect. We can strive for meritocracy. Perfection with human beings is aspirational.

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  17. 17. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 9:37 pm 09/4/2013

    @ rkipling

    Perfection with human beings is aspirational.

    Yep. But we need to keep reaching for it. And I daresay we could make a great deal more progress with it from where we are right now.

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  18. 18. rkipling 9:43 pm 09/4/2013

    All we can do is keep trying.

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  19. 19. rkipling 9:47 pm 09/4/2013

    And try not to despair on the journey. Lots of people are on your side.

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  20. 20. rkipling 12:43 pm 09/5/2013

    Think about how you can get a bigger megaphone.

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  21. 21. Alison Cummins 10:26 am 09/9/2013

    I suspect that male rejection of female autonomy, power and authority is a normal part of the range of human personality and temperament. This is something that people do.

    I also believe it can be moderated or encouraged by teaching and social structures. Some people will be hardcore misogynists no matter what and others will never be able to grasp the concept, but the majority of people in the middle can be swayed either way.

    I try to think of it as an atavism when I encounter it. When I can, I call it out, explain why I’m not standing for it and ask where the person learned that this was ok. I’m in a milieu where I rarely have to do this (except at home, and there we have a routine going). Still, it gets really tiring having to do it. And having folks like drafter and M Tucker (and my father, my boss and my husband) deny or minimize my experience so that I have to repeatedly stand up for myself *alone* is saddening and isolating and gets me called dogmatic.

    Women in the blogosphere talking about these microagressions are affirming and give me a needed boost. Thanks, Janet.

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