Home > Why There Are No Women in Science > Supporting Women Physicists the Fermilab Way

Supporting Women Physicists the Fermilab Way

September 18, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

This seems as good a time as any to reprint this entry from my blog’s previous incarnation. The original title was “Zuska Recommends a Dose of Absinthe”.

After some preliminary stuff introducing Absinthe’s blog and referring to the then-current Ben Barrres news story (Ben is a neurobiologist who used to be Barbara Barres, and thus has some unique insights on the situation of women in science), the entry deconstructs Fermilab’s discourse in a propaganda rag. Fermilab presents the story of Elizabeth Freeland, who overcame Fermilab’s considerable barriers to restart her physics career, as if it is something positive Fermilab could take credit for. Not surprisingly, I read the whole thing quite differently. Enjoy.

Zuska Recommends a Dose of Absinthe

Like the drink itself, Absinthe’s blog is a strong distilled spirit, the effect of which is to heighten your sense of the truly screwed-up world that is U.S. academic and national lab physics. Also like the spirit, Absinthe-the-blogger has been treated as if she were a source of insanity and banned – booted out of the world of physics. And finally, like the spirit, you may find Absinthe’s blog to be somewhat bitter. Yet I think that is part of its virtue. Absinthe has certainly discovered the planet Zorn, and is wearing her tiara there quite comfortably.

If you are a woman scientist or engineer considering suing your present or former employer, then Absinthe’s blog is most definitely for you!

I must modestly confess (ahem) that I seem to have inspired Absinthe to release her Inner Pissed-Off Woman and share her with the world. I am so proud!

Yesterday I said a little thanks to Ben Barres for remembering the ladies. To the sorry-ass portion of the science and engineering establishment: If particular care and attention is not paid from now on to us Pissed-Off Women, we are determined, along with all our allies including people like Debra Rolison and Ron Wyden and Barbara Boxer, to foment a rebellion. We will not offer ourselves up to any laboratories, university or national, in which we would have to call your sorry asses “boss”. We will not give you the fruits of our labor and let you call it “your” RO1 grant proposal, or “your” Science or Nature paper, or “your” newly discovered particle, or “your” computer program. We will not work for free and let you pretend you are doing us a big giant favor out of the goodness of your heart because you feel so sorry for us because we are not good enough to get a real job. (Hmm, I think I am going to have to work this up into a pledge for woman who decide to boycott toxic labs…now all we need, as Debra Rolison suggested at WEPAN 2006, is a guerilla website that lists and tracks the toxic labs. I think I know someone who might be interested in doing that…)

It’s a crappy world for women in engineering, but geez, I’m starting to think those physicists are putting the engineers to shame. I want to make sure you get the details of that Fermilab propaganda piece straight.

Elizabeth Freeland earned a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins, foolishly took five years off to have a family while unfortunately married to a physicist whose career blossomed while hers languished (he didn’t take any time off to have a family; they didn’t share child-rearing duties while both scaling back career aspirations; they didn’t both work slavish hours while farming out their children). Clearly he must be more serious about his career and/or a better physicist, no? Anyway, poor benighted Elizabeth tried to ressurect her career. The article says

A full-time job demanded research experience [uh, like she didn’t already have any from those Johns Hopkins years? Zuska carpingly interjects. Do newly minted PhDs arrive somehow differently qualified?], so after sending out numerous letters looking to help labs on “small projects,” she came to Fermilab hoping to collaborate on summer research. Although Freeland said the lab’s staff was encouraging, she needed a grant to support her research. And the grants required her to have a full-time affiliation with less than a five-year break after graduate school. [Zuska is sure these requirements are not meant to be discriminatory. Sure.]

She claims the lab’s staff was “encouraging”. Say, can anybody there at Fermilab tell me how physicists define the word “encouraging”? I’m thinking hindering, unfavorable, untimely, and negative might be part of their definition.

So, to summarize:

  • She wanted a job, but they said she needed a grant.
  • She needed data to get a grant.
  • She needed daycare to have time to get data.
  • She needed money to pay for daycare.

This system of equations cannot be solved – 4 equations, 5 variables. Or wait, it can! Freeland worked part-time as a physics teacher at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. That allowed her to pay for daycare to have time to get the data to apply for a grant. And she got one!

Now, here is the interesting part.

  • When Freeland was covering her expenses with Art Institute money, she was working for Fermilab “for free”.
  • Once she had a grant – she was working “for Fermilab”.
  • The grant source? An American Association of University Women American Fellowship that “did not require full-time affiliation with an institution, and did not exclude those out of graduate school for longer than five years”.

    See, that fits MY definition of encouraging. However, it does NOT fit my definition of working “for Fermilab”. Because those pinheads were not actually paying her, were they? No more than they were when she was working “for free”.

    I think Fermilab owes the School of Art Institute of Chicago a big, fat thank you. If she’s working “for Fermilab” when the AAUW pays her, then I say she’s working “for Fermilab” when the Art Institute pays her. What’s the difference, really? Well, you and I and Fermilab know what the difference is, don’t we. Some penised pompous ass in a white coat says there’s a difference and so there just is.

    “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities – a natural defectiveness.” Good old Aristotle – he’s just timeless, isn’t he? The female working for free is working for free by virtue of lack of a certain kind of money. The male working right next to her, whether he’s as smart or as good as her or not, is working for Fermilab by virtue of his GRANT. Which, no doubt, is quite large.

    Now, go back and look at that Fermilab propaganda with all its happy happy pictures of mom with kids. Fermilab just has no shame, do they? Trotting out their exploited women to make it look like they are all supportive of women scientists; we’re supposed to get the warm fuzzies from Freeland and her kids. Makes. Me. Want. To. Puke. On. Fermilab’s Shoes.

    1. September 18, 2006 at 5:09 pm

      I know I spat at you over a previous post, but I’m completely with you on this one.
      The hypocracy of saying that you want to support people being able to have families while making it practically impossible to maintain a career if you make any sacrificies to do so is huge. This can in principle affect men as much as women, although practically speaking in today’s culture it affects women *way* more than men.

    2. September 18, 2006 at 5:36 pm

      And now a National Academy of Sciences panel has recognized that it’s hard out here for a female physicist:

    3. Adam
      September 21, 2006 at 12:58 am

      This is more indicative of the nature of having a career in academia than gender bias. Although there are more stay at home moms, theres a growing trend of men staying at home to raise children while the women go work. If a man took five years off from academia to raise children, he’d probably have the same issue trying to get back in.

    4. September 26, 2006 at 9:33 am

      “This is more indicative of the nature of having a career in academia than gender bias.”
      How in the hell would you know anything about the working climate for mothers in academia Adam? Until you have walked in the shoes of a female scientist with children, don’t just dismiss our very valid complaints about the hostile environment for women with children in academia (especially the sciences). Regarding Elizabeth Freeman working for free at Fermilab…I know her personally, and I know various other women who have worked for free after having children in particle physics because they were essentially fired from their jobs (ie; their contract wasn’t renewed, or they were just simply fired) and they were desparate to remain in a field where noone would employ them (because “obviously” they weren’t committed to being a physicist because they chose to be mothers). I have an absolutely outstanding research record that includes a particle discovery, and I am currently unemployable as a physicist because I chose to have a child (if you want the full story on that, go read my blog; maybe my story and the stories of other women posted there might do something to change your views about lack of maternal status bias in academia). Friends who meant well even suggested to me that I should hang around Fermilab for a couple of years and work for free because someone would surely hire me after a while.
      Meanwhile, I know a lot more male physicists than female ones, and I have never once seen a male physicist being asked to work for free for any reason. All those male members of the theory group at Fermilab, who were just as qualified as Elizabeth Freeman (if you look at the ones at the junior level) were getting paid. And many had children.
      Until you walk a mile or two in our shoes, don’t just dismiss us as bitching about gender/maternal-status bias that you claim is obviously non-existent.

    5. Mustafa Mond, FCD
      October 18, 2006 at 12:59 pm

      Do smart girls finish last in love?

      Where did you go to school?” a gentleman would inquire at a party.
      “Oh, in New Jersey.” We’d smile and try to change the subject. No luck.
      “Where in New Jersey?”
      “Um, Princeton?”
      We’d grip our drinks and wait. Would he scurry away? That’s what we expected – especially as we began collecting graduate degrees and serious paychecks.

    6. Greg
      October 18, 2006 at 1:35 pm

      “Whelan’s survey found that 90% of high-achieving men want a spouse who is as smart as they are”
      Obviously, we need more, smarter men.
      The author seems to be far more concerned, that smart women are shirking their duty to contribute their genes to the American Genetic Commons, than that the economy is so screwed up that successful women and men find themselves continually pressured to choose employer ahead of family.

    7. October 18, 2006 at 6:29 pm

      I can’t even began to say how tired I am of stories that describe the supposed marriage crisis for women with college educations. It goes all the way back to the late 1800’s and Dr. Clarke’s admonishments that education would make a young lady’s uterus wither away and thus make her unfit for marriage. (He was Harvard educated of course.) Our biological clocks are ticking, there aren’t enough men, they don’t want to marry us, they don’t want to marry us if we’re too smart, blah blah blah blah. Scare story of the week, it’s always something.
      Men have always wanted to marry intelligent women. What they want the women to do after they marry them is another story. Which is why women need to be very, very picky about partners.
      Another good question to ask is why all the writers of these news stories think women are so obsessed with the subject of marriage and whether men will want us. I don’t know anybody who wanted to get married who had any trouble finding someone to marry. What we have trouble finding are decent men to marry. Let’s see some news stories about whether there are enough decent men for educated women to marry, since the number of educated women in the U.S. keeps increasing, while I am not entirely sure that the number of enlightened and decent men has kept pace. I’d be a rich lady if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a straight woman say, “If I could choose to be gay, sometimes I think I would…relationships with women are so much easier…”. Which is probably part of the reason why the Christian right is so hellbent (hee) on maintaining the pariah status of homosexuality. They think everyone would be doing it if it were really a choice.

    8. Jennie
      November 12, 2007 at 11:07 am

      I’ve just recently been directed here by Science Women and wanted to make a comment about Adam’s post, since my husband and I just had an interested conversation about the problem with our society and lack of quality maternity leave, and the lack of respect for women who take this leave. Needless to say my husband is oblivous the the problems women face and was ignorant enough to say that if a women is smart enough it won’t matter how much time she takes off. Argh. I had to educate him a lot!
      So Adam said “If a man took five years off from academia to raise children, he’d probably have the same issue trying to get back in.”
      Adam you are most likely correct, however, in our society this rarely happens but I must say that if this was the case and men, more than women, commonly took five years off to raise children the policy of how easy it is to return back to work would be very different than it is today.
      We need change and we need it soon.

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