Young, political, uncomfortable

A woman's thoughts on men's thoughts about women in the sciences

Young, political, uncomfortable
President Obama gave the commencement address at Barnard College on Monday [Image credit: Beverly & Pack on Flickr]

It’s graduation season again. The days are hot and muggy, and so much worse when wearing a long polyester robe and flat cardboard square suction-cupped to your forehead. Processing, recessing and sitting, standing and sitting some more, cheering sometimes, stretched out over several hours in the sun. Add interminable speeches from deans and presidents and speakers and provosts, some unknown to you, all trying to make their moment at the mic the most significant of the day. It’s meant to mark a turning point on your life, but as with most turning points, you will be anxious, won’t know how you should feel or do feel, or if you are scared, excited or sad. The sweat on your forehead is more immediate than the ache in your heart.

Get ready to be shocked – I did not enjoy my own graduation. My ceremony was a year ago, in Worcester, Massachusetts (Holy Cross ’11, represent! Blah), and when I walked out of the Crusader football stadium I thought the whole tradition was behind me for good. But just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

This week I started attending the commencement ceremonies for my boyfriend, a sprightly young engineering student at Columbia University in the City of New York. And at a school with pomp the likes of Columbia University in the City of New York, they land some bangin’ keynote speakers. President Obama gave the address for Barnard on Monday. On the same day, Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, spoke to the graduating engineering students of Columbia. I watched the President on TV, then took the 1 train uptown and sat in the audience for Ms. Burns.

Here are my thoughts.

Mr. President and Ms. Burns both gave perfectly functional speeches, and they overlapped on one point in particular, aside from the expected “go out, do good work, help your country and the world, we need you” sentiments. They both lamented that American pop culture celebrates the wrong things, things like beauty, fashion and sports, instead of scientific achievements.

The President spoke of the lack of celebrated female role models in technology and industry. From his speech: “So think about what that means to a young Latina girl when she sees a Cabinet secretary that looks like her. (Applause.) Think about what it means to a young girl in Iowa when she sees a presidential candidate who looks like her. Think about what it means to a young girl walking in Harlem right down the street when she sees a U.N. ambassador who looks like her.” Ms. Burns spoke of women and people of color in the same situation.

So here are some women scientists worth celebrating:

Rosalind Franklin, helped out Watson and Crick quite a bit with the whole DNA thing.

Marie Carmichael Stopes, a paleobotanist who set up the first birth control clinic in the British empire. A woman of diverse interests.

Grace Hopper, a computer scientists and Naval rear admiral born in 1906.

Here’s something else you might not see coming: President Obama’s speech made me uncomfortable.

It made me uncomfortable because I am not a construction worker or engineer or computer programmer, and he was very insistent that women should do more of these things. “If you earned your degree in areas where we need more women — like computer science or engineering — (applause) — reach back and persuade another student to study it, too. If you’re going into fields where we need more women, like construction or computer engineering — reach back, hire someone new. Be a mentor. Be a role model.”

Make no mistake, this is a fine sentiment. But he also jabbed at the media, “Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn’t possible; that you can’t make a difference; that you won’t be able to close that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be.” So I wonder how happy he would be that I, a young woman just graduated with a degree in biology, did not pursue a career in biomedical sciences, and instead applied to journalism school.

“Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one. Until there are women who tell her, ignore our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion — (applause) — and focus instead on studying and inventing and competing and leading, she’ll think those are the only things that girls are supposed to care about. Now, Michelle will say, nothing wrong with caring about it a little bit. (Laughter.) You can be stylish and powerful, too. (Applause.) That’s Michelle’s advice. (Applause.)”

I like President Obama, I’m very fond of him. But in speaking to graduates of a private women’s liberal arts college like Barnard, where the theme of his speech was so staunchly pro-female, I wish that Michelle had been the one giving the address, instead of being confined to a few asides and gentle punchlines. After all, she is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law.

She gave the keynote at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black school, in Greensboro last Saturday. She spoke at Virginia Tech a day earlier, and is booked for Oregon State on June 17th. One of her 2011 commencement speeches was addressed to Spelman College, a historically black women’s school. Barnard would have been another great place to hear from a woman with a respected advanced degree like she has.

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  1. This post instigated a lot of thinking about women in science and what our ‘role’ is – see my thoughts on a blog post at http://snowhydro.blogspot.ca/2012/05/women-in-science-must-we-all-be.html

    Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro), May 19, 2012 at 11:01 pm
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