Dear Kate – February 2016 (Stereotype Threat and Stereotype Tax)

Dear Kate,

How best should I respond to obvious sexist remarks from people outside of MIT? Two occasions in recent memory come to mind – once when I was shadowing physicians, considering going to medical school after graduating with my master’s, I was asked if I wanted to leave engineering “because the math was too hard”? Also, at a holiday party I was told point-blank that the only reason I got into MIT was because I was female. Usually I’m too stunned to respond but then I’m left feeling angry and discouraged.

-Female Engineer

Dear Engineer,

Right now you’re hearing negative comments based on your gender, but this, too, shall pass. If you enter the corporate world, no one is going to imply that you’ve gotten there because you’re a woman.  An MIT degree carries weight: your smarts won’t be questioned, your ability at math dismissed.  But for now, there are a couple of tactics you can use – pick one and practice it – because these comments say more about the men making them than they do you.

“Wow. You actually believe that.”

If you’re up for putting them on the spot: “Why would you say that?” Don’t defend yourself; they’re in the wrong and they need to realize it for themselves. Keep repeating versions of “why” to every response, like you’re a toddler, and let them back themselves into a corner.

Remember that you don’t need to convince them of your worthiness – they’re grown-ups, they’ve been exposed to the facts and repeating them won’t help – you just need to let them know how stupid they sound. If they were trying to make polite but thoughtless conversation, these responses are instructive on their failure.

Depending on what branch of engineering you’re in, and what company you end up at, the face of sexism will change. The field I went into is 90% male; it’s not uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room, or to be confused with clerical staff. Most of the men I’ve worked with are confident that it will remain a “man’s” industry; they’re not threatened by women and tend to treat women about the same as they would another man. But sometimes that means cracking crude sexual jokes, or belittling their wives and girlfriends. And more rarely, there’s intimidation and sexual harassment. I left a job because – among other reasons – I felt unsafe with a co-worker. I could have spoken up when he made sexist comments (which was the extent of it), could have documented him, could have reported him to more of management than I did. But I didn’t: it seemed more exhausting than finding a new job.

I don’t regret my silence in that case. You have to put yourself first. When you hear an obviously sexist comment, if you have the strength – and it’s safe to do so – speak up and let him know just how much of an idiot he’s making himself. And if you can’t, forgive yourself. Your time at MIT will open doors; you don’t need to fight every battle to walk through them.

– Kate A

(another female engineer)

Dear  Female Engineer,

My responses to these kinds of statements depend heavily on setting and context.  When people I’ve just met learn I am a mathematician, the most common response is usually a variant of “Math is so hard”.  Since so many people have mathematics baggage,  I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when their intention is not clear.

For example, in response to  the physician’s comment (which is in a context where they are doing you a professional favor and perhaps  they struggled with the subject), I might say, “I actually really enjoyed and excelled at the mathematics, but my interest in biomedical applications {or whatever}  led me to consider medical school”.  The phrasing is positive, but it also challenges stereotypical assumptions that may be behind the original comment.    Comments like the latter are harder for me since they are often purposefully provocative.  I don’t want to take the bait, but I also don’t want to let the comment stand (for my own sanity).  A level and confident “I disagree” often dissuades people from continuing with those kinds of comments (and encourages others to jump in against the stereotype).  If someone wants to argue further, I’d probably curtly suggest another topic of conversation (or excuse myself if at all possible) and vent elsewhere later.

– Kate L

(a mathematician)

Bonus recommendation: Stereotype Threat and Stereotype Tax

In addition to our mentor’s insights this month, we thought that we would share an interesting NPR podcast on the topic of stereotype threat and its counterpart, stereotype tax. Stereotype threat is a situation in which someone feels that they are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group.

In this podcast, the NPR team talk to Annie Duke, a professional poker player who often found herself the only woman at the poker table. She talks about how being in a male-dominated space influenced the way people saw her, and about how feeling like an outsider can bring both costs and advantages.

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate A., and Kate L.

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