Dec 2, 2011

Why can't women do it?

If women really are talented and can do anything that men can, why are there few famous women philosophers, scientists, writers, musicians, and politicians? Why have women been unable to achieve anything notable in history? Are women really oppressed or are they making much ado about nothing? Underlying these questions continuously thrown at women is the assumption that opportunities are available equally to men and women, but women are just not capable enough to utilize them. This issue of women’s inability to break the glass ceiling seems striking to education in general and ELT in particular, because growing up I have heard these limitations resonate in the experience of every female teacher in Nepal (my mother and several aunts being among them). Though teaching is a popular occupation with women, very few women are found in positions of leadership. The widely adopted explanation for this phenomenon is that women can only do women’s work: housekeeping, cooking and raising babies. In this post, I first share a review of the book “The Madam Curie Complex” by Julie Jardines, who completely overturns this traditional view. I then ask readers to consider how the situation compares to the field of Nepalese academia.

Jardines has researched and listed a number of limitations faced by women in science. Interestingly, those limitations sound eerily familiar to any woman in higher education, and even more so in societies like Nepal. Jardines begins the book by tracing the image of science right from the foundations of Western thought. The earliest philosophers like Aristotle and Plato declared that men are objective and analytical, while women are feelers and sentimental beings. Other rational thinkers also Descartes followed in the tradition and perfected this image. The field of science, as a result, has come to be seen as very virile and physical. In the post- World War II era, following the success of atom bomb, scientific victories were treated like military or sports victories. Male scientists, including Albert Einstein, became a prominent part of art and culture, featuring in superhero movies. Already, the well was poisoned against women who wanted to become scientists. How did the definition of science as male affect women scientist?

Madame Curie is probably the most famous woman scientist of all. After radium was discovered, the French academia lobbied to have the prize given only to her husband, just because Marie curie was a woman. Even though she had started the work on radium before her husband Pierre joined the team, and she was the team leader even after her husband joined. Her husband insisted to the Committee that his wife was the driving force in the research before the committee relented and awarded the prize to the couple. Even so, at the award ceremony the prize giver quoted the biblical story of Adam and Eve “God saw that man was alone and sent him a helpmeet.”

Such condescending attitudes awaited all women who wanted to pursue a career in science. Jardines lists the case of a woman whose examiner did not come to take her oral exam and said he had been sleeping, though it was 2 pm. Women who graduated in the traditionally male fields did not find employment. Like many other women, Ellen Swallow Richards took on menial job as a janitor and sweepers just to be a fly on the wall and learn about her subject anyhow. A talented woman like Rosalyn Yalow who later went on to win the Nobel prize in physiology had to take stenography courses because no one would employ her.Due to anti nepotism policies active in those days, only one of the spouses was employed by an organization. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly the male half of the couple who was employed, even if he was less qualified than his wife. Marie Curie’s husband was appointed a professor at university while she was not. And after the death of Pierre, she was allowed to take over his post, but not as a full professor that he was, only as an assistant professor. Laura Fermi, the wife of Enrico Fermi was herself a fully qualified scientist before she gave up her career to pave the way for her illustrious husband.

Besides the sneering attitudes of the top people in the field, women also faced many practical day to day problems. There were no often no women’s bathrooms in the buildings. Women were often barred from attending public lectures because there were no female seats. Men bonded over nights out at bars and made work related decisions while socializing, which women were not allowed to attend.
And what was happening to these women’s home lives as they struggled inthe professional arena? Today, Madame Curie is remembered as a motherly figure who had nothing on her mind but to discover a cure for cancer through radium. But the reality was far from it, Madam Curie had no interest in curing cancer, but instead was a very passionate scientist. This image of a motherly, caring woman was created for the sake of publicity so that more women could identify with her and fund her to get more radium. The slightest departure from this image could be disastrous: when Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize, it did not make much news because the newspapers were busy writing about her alleged affairs. These allegations destroyed her reputation; in contrast, the affairs of Albert Einstein were treated indulgently by the press.

Other women scientists also struggled to maintain such an image, without which they were shunned by the larger society. Even though they were scientists, they were expected to fulfill all the duties of a mother. Rosaline Gilbraith was said to sew buttons, make lunch, and attend all the school plays for her children, while Rosalyn Yalow lived only one mile away from her laboratory so that she could walk there after she had put her children to sleep. Even Marie Curie’s otherwise supportive husband left the childcare to Marie and his father. Jardines quotes Charlotte Whitton who famously said that “a woman has to work twice as hard to be thought half as good as a man.”

And if any woman, despite these hardships, managed to climb the ladders of her professional career, she would face the biggest roadblock of all: the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize is awarded to at most three people at a time. Rosalind Franklin unluckily happened to be the fourth partner in the team that won the prize for discovering the double helix structure of DNA . Naturally, she was the one axed from the team, even though it was her photograph that provided conclusive evidence of the structure.

For a woman, it was not enough to be talented to be recognized. They also had to be patronized by the men in the field. Exceptionally talented women like Lisa Meitner, whose work contributed to building the atom bomb, ended up losing out on the prize. Meitner’s partner of thirty years Otto Hahn received the prize alone. As a consequence, Jardines calls the life of Maria Mayer charmed, even though she had taught without pay for most of her life as no one would give her work. Mayer won the Nobel prize for her work. Her husband was a physicist and she socialized with other respected physicists like Enrico Fermi. In contrast, talented women like Eleanor Lamson, Florence Sabin and Williamina Fleming, who had no defending husbands like Pierre Curie, were employed in subordinate positions while the credit for their work was taken by their male superiors. Jardines acknowledges that Nobel Prize discrimination sometimes happens to men too. However, the ratio of discrimination towards deserving women is much higher than the same for their male counterparts.

Many of these problems do not exist any longer. We have laws in place that bar discrimination, and many people have begun to concede that women can be successful in scientific careers. Many (not all, but many) men are willing to help out in the house and coordinate double careers. Thankfully, women can usually find bathrooms at workplace. And yet, the ratio of women in science remains low. A typical engineering class contains about 10% of girls. Girls are even rarer to find in pure science subjects like pure math or physics.

Many of the social glitches that dogged these earlier women still continue to pester today’s women in all fields of career. Jardines writes that once at a conference, a humorous picture of a bikini clad woman was displayed, and the men present burst out in raunchy jokes. How is a woman to handle a misogynist joke? Should she laugh along and hurt her feelings? Or should she express her feelings and jeopardize her career?Most of the socializing takes place in the evenings over drinks. In Nepal, most women still do not stay out late and drink. Work ideas are shared and camaraderie is built over the socialization, out of which most women are shut off.

In conclusion, this book gives an insight into the systematic exclusion of women from science. Jardines explains why it was so hard for them to make inroads into science and proves that the absence of women in science is not a factor of their genetic makeup. In fact, these insights are helpful for women in any field to realize the limitations facing them, and to gradually face these challenges. Hopefully, as time passes and more and more women enter all kinds of subjects, the path will be easier for future women.

As stated above, teaching is a popular career for women, maybe because it falls in the traditionally feminine fields of caring and nurturing children. Today there may even be more female teachers than male teachers in Nepal. But it would be laughable to say that a Nepalese woman can move ahead in her career as well as her male counterparts just by the dint of her talent and hard work. First, the gender hierarchy that prevails in the Nepalese culture as a whole largely shapes the roles that men and women play within the academia: men are expected to, want to, and quite often have the privileges to take relatively superior roles like that of administrators and supervisors compared to women. Second, the burden of work that women have at home doesn’t allow them to invest nearly as much time, to gain as much academic/professional expertise, and to aspire as much as men at work. Third, women who do desire and get into leadership positions are not given the same respect by men simply because they are not men. Fourth, when women are elected or invited to take on roles with authority and leadership, men tend to see their very entry into the position as representation. It would be rare for men to see the entry of a woman into the scene as a privilege for the men to have a female colleague who can add new perspectives and strengths to the institution/organization and its mission. I could go on, but I will leave it there and ask you to add your own perspectives on the issue. I hope you will join the discussion and point out issues that you have observed or experienced in Nepal.

Which of the situations described in the review above have you seen happen in Nepal? Does a particular example resonate with your or one of your colleague’s professional experience in the academia? How far have we come from, say, 30 years ago in terms of women leading or shaping the field of education? I would be delighted to read comments from the NELTA community about this subject.


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