Monday, June 6, 2022

The Reality of Graduate School

Graduate school is many things.   It is an opportunity to become an expert in a particular field. In engineering, it's a chance to become a meaningful contributor to the knowledge economy.  It's a place to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  It's a time to dive deep into a specialized topic of research and discover something new ... to invent and innovate.  It's a unique time to immerse oneself without interruption in underlying scientific principles and devise new ways to apply these principles to the betterment of society.  

Graduate school can also be a time of building community.  Of networking among peers and among a wide range of professionals from professors to industry leaders.  It should be a time to build confidence and conviction in pursuing the career that lies ahead, whether it be in academia, in the corporate sector, or in the non-profit world.   Graduate school should be a time of not only learning and skill building but also a time of finding one's place in the vast landscape of science, technology, and engineering.   

Regardless of how graduate school varies by individual experience, once the PhD is stamped next to a person's name, the individual who earned it should feel nothing less than welcome, invited, appreciated, and capable in their respective research community.  

Unfortunately, a recent study of 913 doctoral students across 112 universities and 23 engineering disciplines suggests that for too many women, this is not at all what happens for them as they enter and progress through their graduate programs in engineering.   16% of women said that they had been treated unfairly by their primary research advisor and 20% reported unfair treatment from graduate student peers. These numbers rose to 20% and 22% for women from marginalized race or ethnicity including  American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Hispanic, Latino/Latina/Latinx, or Spanish origin, Middle Eastern or North African, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or another race or ethnicity that was not Asian or White.  

When these graduate student women were asked more specifically about the negative experiences that they had been exposed to during their graduate programs, many reported that their ideas were not given a fair shake at the research table.   43% of women overall and 20% of women from marginalized groups said that it was quite common to see a female graduate student present an idea and get no response while a male student presenting the same idea would be acknowledged.  36% of women and 30% of women from marginalized groups also reported that their peers attempted to exert authority over them because of their gender.  In terms of positive experiences in their graduate programs, only 22% of all women and 23% of women from marginalized groups thought that their research advisor treated students of different race and ethnicity the same.  

Unfair treatment of graduate students can increase feelings of isolation, decrease sense of belonging, and impair motivation at a time in professional and intellectual growth where these are most needed to empower the student to reach their full potential.  Psychologically, loss of belonging can reduce the likelihood that students will seek help for both intellectual and emotional concerns, thereby exacerbating the ongoing mental health crisis among graduate students.   

Even more so than in the undergraduate years, marginalization, discrimination, and other forms of inequitable or unfair treatment need to be eradicated from graduate school laboratories and programs. Nothing less will do when it comes to training and preparing bright, talented PhD candidates to become meaningful and significant contributors to a society and world that needs solutions to tough and complex problems.   

This blog reports data from the following study:
Bahnson, M., Hope, E.C., Satterfield, D.J., Alexander, A.R., Allam, L., and Kirn, A. (2022). Students’ Experiences of Discrimination in Engineering Doctoral Education. Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN, United States.

Denise Wilson is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research interests in engineering education focus on belonging, engagement, and instructional support in the undergraduate engineering classroom.   

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

What's a Guy to Do When a Woman Is Being Harassed?

The following vignette is based on true accounts of what happens when women are exposed to repeated romantic or sexual overtures in the workplace.  It also incorporates proven bystander intervention strategies that don't require direct confrontation of the perpetrator but can nevertheless be very effective at reducing or eliminating the offensive and harassing behavior.  

I’m an engineer. I’ve been out of school for seven years and I love my job. I’ve had no trouble moving up the ladder at work and am headed toward a senior engineering position after I finish up my current project. I like my boss. I like the hours. I even like the traveling. For the most part, I like and respect all of my coworkers...except Mark.  

Mark is at least a decade older than me and much older than the new engineers that roll in the door every summer, fresh graduates eager to make a good impression. The guys have to put up with his raunchy jokes and the porn pic of the day that he insists on showing us when we need to stop by his cubicle. It’s irritating.  But for Molly, it's worse. She has to put up with Mark's repeated overtures. I have overheard Mark pressuring Molly to go out with him about once every week, and I am sure what I overheard is only the tip of the iceberg. But, I had a job to do and it kept me busy. So, for the most part, I put up with Mark and let Molly deal with Mark's repeated and unwanted overtures.  

When the time came for another round of sexual harassment training, I was ticked. I was in the middle of a key turning point in my current project and I didn’t have time for another round of perfunctory PowerPoint. I was even more aggravated by the fact that all this PowerPoint wasn’t doing a single thing to stop Mark from his obnoxious behavior. As I sat down for the training, I was fuming. What a waste. 

But this year, the training folks had added another module to the sexual harassment training program, focused on bystander intervention. An hour into the new module, I was practicing the five D’s (delay, delegate, distract, document, direct) - and feeling totally uncomfortable with direct and distract. I just didn’t feel confident about intervening in the moment. But there was something there with the delay and document skills. I could definitely see myself doing that. I thought about Molly and felt guilty that I had just left the problem on her plate because I thought myself to be too busy and important to deal with what was "her problem."  

I had walked into the training frustrated and annoyed. I walked out feeling badly about my own inaction but determined to do something about the Mark and Molly situation.   

I didn't have to wait long for my opportunity.  The next day, I came across Mark doing his thing with Molly. As I suspected, I chickened out on confronting the situation directly, but later, after Mark had gone home for the day, I stopped by Molly’s cube and asked her about how she felt about the encounter Molly. At first, she said it was no big deal, but I chatted a little while longer and she started to open up.  She used the word creepy over and over again.  

In the following months, I talked to Molly a lot, learning more and more about what she had to put up with Mark. I still couldn't bring myself to confront Mark, but I started taking lots of notes in my conversations with Molly and with her permission, I did what I should have done months, if not years, before. I gathered my notes and sat down with my manager. I started the meeting by telling him flat out that Molly could be contributing a lot more to the organization if we just addressed the Mark part of her equation.  Given how desperate we were for more engineering person-power, I had hoped that would pique my manager's interest - and it did. 

The conversation went on for over an hour. We strategized how to address the behavior without alienating Mark or Molly. In the end, however, we accepted that despite our best efforts, Mark might have to leave our group, if not the organization. My manager followed up by talking to Mark. When Mark jumped on the defensive or tried to minimize what he was doing to Molly, my manager was able to insert into the exchange many of the specifics I had given him. Mark stayed defensive and angry after that meeting.  After a couple of months of an angry and sulky version of Mark, we were told that Mark had left the company and we needed to find a way to fill his shoes. 

Fill his shoes. Yeah. Right. No thank you. 

What surprised me the most was Molly. She had been doing okay in her job before Mark left, but still, I had often felt my patience running thin with some of her mistakes, particularly the technical ones. I had thought she would work through it as she settled into her first job, but I was starting to wonder if she had what it takes to be an engineer. After Mark left, though, her performance shot way up. She was already easy to work with, but without the harassment hanging over her head, her technical skills quickly ramped up so much so that I quickly forgot why I was ever impatient with her.

When someone is harassed in the workplace they cannot produce, contribute, or work up to their potential.  Working to eliminate the harassment is well within the reach of coworkers and does not have to involve direct confrontation to the harasser. Want to know more about bystander intervention? Check out these resources:

Want to do more about the workplace climate?
Harassing behavior can push people to leave their jobs and even their careers. It creates workplaces that are less productive and less welcoming. 

But of course, the climate of a workplace depends on much more than harassment. Would you like to participate in the ongoing research study about the workplace climate for engineers and computer scientists? You can help us understand what the workplace feels like to individuals - and you can help illuminate how to change things for the better for everyone. (This research is sponsored by the University of Washington and Calvin University.)
The survey must be completed before you close your browser. 
Please allow 20 to 30 minutes to complete the survey.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Dressing for Success as an Engineer

 A Story from the Engineering Workplace

There is a hidden tax for women in the engineering workplace...extra tasks or an extra mental load that arise simply because of their gender. Over time, these place an extra mental or emotional load that can cause wear and tear on an engineer's ability to stay fully focused on their work. Here is one such might seem trivial, but added to many other such examples, it can become a signficantly differential burden.

On the first day at my new job with a civil engineering firm, I felt more than a little bit anxious. I wanted to make a good first impression. I had spent much of the night before agonizing over my wardrobe. I knew from my interview that office wear was generally business casual. But what did that mean for me?

There were times when I really wished I could be a man. Engineering work uniform? Cotton dress slacks, long-sleeve dress shirt. Add a tie if meeting with a client. Replace loafers with sturdier work boots on days with a site visit. In fact, I knew one guy I went to school with who literally had a closet lined up with 8 of these identical outfits. Getting dressed in the morning was not a mental chore at all. 

But there was no easy equivalent to this outfit for me, and I frankly didn’t want to adopt his model of dress anyway – the style was not at all flattering to my body shape. Plus, the slacks and dress shirt somehow managed to look far more casual on a woman than a man. I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional, so too casual was not an option.  So, I did my best to choose slacks and a blouse that were cut for a woman’s figure, but not too fussy or delicate. But I still felt anxious about my choices.  I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't hitting the mark.   

Unfortunately, I didn’t find choosing what to wear any easier after a few weeks at work. There were no other women engineers in my workgroup from whom I could even take a hint. The administrative assistants were mostly female, but their short, tight pencil skirts with silky blouses and spike heels didn’t seem like a good choice for the variety of tasks in my job. And frankly, I didn’t want to attend a meeting again where I would be mistaken for the secretary coming to take the meeting minutes, like had happened to me the first week. The manager who had done so was certainly apologetic…but he also wouldn’t meet my eye or directly address me during that meeting, I think out of embarrassment. Which certainly didn’t serve my career very well.

I experimented with slightly different clothing at first, trying to figure out what would work. But just as I was starting to feel like I was narrowing in on a style, I started picking up on office chatter that sent my anxiety soaring again. 

First it was the two guys chatting in the cubicle across from me. “Yeah, Julie was the only one who spent enough time on that part of the project to really know what the hold-up could be now. I would sure like to pick her brain now. But, well, it couldn’t be helped. I mean, we really couldn’t keep her on…”

I knew Julie was the engineer who I had replaced, but I hadn’t realized she had been fired. Not the sort of news that instilled peace and calm in me in the new job...

Then it was the awkward moment in the team meeting, when we were trying to figure out how to mollify a client who was being particularly difficult. My colleague Jack casually tossed out, “Well, too bad we don’t have Julie anymore. Here is a situation where we really could have made use of those low-cut blouses she liked to wear.” Some of the other guys chuckled, and some glanced my way and looked a bit uncomfortable. But no more was said, and the meeting moved on.

The final blow was when I had my regular one-on-one with my supervisor. He made some comment about transition challenges in the project I was taking over from Julie. In what I assumed was an unguarded moment, he explained to me that they hadn’t had the usual time to go through exit procedures and project transfer because the split had been awkward. 

“Julie was a good engineer, but we had to let her go because she just wasn’t fitting in. I mean, she wore these shirts that were just unprofessional. Some had these wild, bright patterns and I just didn’t know if our clients would be confident in her ability as an engineer. I had talked to her about it, but she didn’t really change how she dressed. And then some of her blouses were a bit too sheer. They were really distracting to the guys….” He paused and cleared his throat, as if realizing he had overshared. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, you know what I mean. Of course, it wasn’t just about that. We just needed someone who could be more of a team player. And we’re so glad to have you here. Your work is solid, and we are so glad to have a woman engineer in the group. I mean, I know how important that is.  I keep hiring women, but we have really had trouble keeping them here.” And then he quickly changed the subject.

Well, if I had been nervous about my work wardrobe before, now I was petrified. It seemed that if I missed the mark, I was in danger of being fired. Maybe it was time to go get those khaki slacks after all and forget about bringing my personality to work with me? 

 Have you had a similar experience to Dressing for Success as an Engineer, or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Our Words Do Matter

by Jennifer VanAntwerp, February 16, 2022

Women and their work are valued less in our society. This cultural bias can be measured in the very way that we use, and change our use of, language in describing the types of work we do in STEM.

It's no secret that pushing STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) participation is a hot topic in the U.S. What might be less well-recognized is that not all STEM is considered to be equal – and this has real (and negative) consequences for women.

New research by psychologists Alysson Light, Tessa Benson-Greenwald, and Amanda Diekman has revealed biases in how we describe, perceive, and value the various STEM fields. Study participants from all walks of life were presented with brief (and true) descriptions of different STEM fields (including some physical sciences, some social sciences, and some engineering). However, none of the descriptions were identified by name. In addition, a gender composition for the unnamed field was provided – but participants were randomly assigned to groups that were either told the field just described included mostly males or told that that same field was majority female. They were then asked to categorize each field as a “soft science” or a “hard science.”

It turned out that the exact same description was significantly more likely to be labeled by participants as a soft science if the respondent believed the field to include more women than men. The opposite was true for majority men and the hard science label – regardless of which discipline was actually being described. In other words, there is a strong cultural bias that women do something called soft science and men do something called hard science.

Image by Gerd Altmann (
Image by Gerd Altmann (

Wikipedia tells us that "hard and soft science are colloquial terms used to compare scientific fields on the bases of perceived methodological rigor, exactitude, and objectivity." This naturally sets up soft sciences as being inferior to hard sciences; it implies a societal judgement that soft science is pseudoscience – less difficult, less reliable, less valuable. In fact, additional results from this same research study make it quite clear how these perceived soft/hard sciences differences are valued. When Light and colleagues asked participants to evaluate the value of a discipline based only on its label as a hard or soft science, the soft sciences lost on every single measure. As the study authors conclude, “the general category of soft sciences is perceived as less rigorous, less trustworthy, and less worthy of funding than hard sciences.”

But why does the lower valuation of soft sciences matter to engineers? Clearly engineering disciplines are firmly in the hard sciences camp, right? Well, it matters because at a subconscious level, women are associated with these less respected and less valued fields of work. The spillover from this is that at a subconscious level, all women suffer a blow to their credibility, status, and contribution as members of STEM fields – including those women in engineering.

So perhaps it is no surprise, then, that women engineers are 2.9 times as likely as men engineers to report “I have to repeatedly prove myself to get the same level of respect and recognition as my colleagues” and 2.8 times more likely than men to agree that “After moving from an engineering role to a project management/business role, people assume I do not have technical skill.”  (And unfortunately, research also has demonstrated that engineers place more value on technical skills than communication, planning, managerial, or similar essential skills.) No surprise that women working in STEM are less likely than men to have their ideas endorsed by leadership or green-lighted for development.

They are judged, whether explicitly or implicitly, to be less of a “fit” for more “rigorous” or “hard science” work. And in some ways, it might not matter even if women do manage to get assigned to these more valued job assignments. Simply because more women are doing a job, it can come to be less valued. Yet one more example of women engineers facing the “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” barrier. 

Have you had a similar experience to Our Words do Matter or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 



Jennifer J. VanAntwerp is a professor of chemical engineering at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She researches how engineers learn, work, and thrive, beginning in college and extending throughout their professional careers. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching

by Denise Wilson, November 10, 2021

Student evaluations of teaching (SET) were originally designed to be formative by providing  valuable input to instructors in higher education. When used as a tool for improving teaching, student responses to close-ended and short-answer answer questions on SETs can provide helpful feedback to instructors as well as those who mentor or otherwise work with instructors on professional development. 

Since their initial introduction, however, SET  have continued to shift from formative to summative.  In many institutions, the ratings provide by students on a just a small subset of items far overshadow the short answers and other items that in total, provide a more comprehensive picture of college teaching.  The numbers within this subset of ratings are often used in key decisions for promotion , tenure, hiring, and firing. 

Using this shorter list of SET numbers is convenient and quick. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that these ratings are biased and are not consistent or adequate measures of student learning (a short review of the literature can be found here). Gender bias, where female instructors consistently receive lower ratings than their male peers for the same courses or for different sections within the same course, is especially well documented. Such bias generates concern about how SET ratings are used by higher education institutions to evaluate women instructors and how these ratings impact the future morale and effectiveness of the women who read them and take them to heart.     

Recently, our research team compared student perceptions of how well faculty supported them in their courses with how those same students rated those faculty on student evaluations of teaching in engineering courses at one large public university. We compared a pair of median scores:  Instructor Effectiveness in the Course (SET) and Students' Sense of Faculty Support (our survey).

Instructor Effectiveness was measured using the median score from one item on the university SET form:  "The instructor's effectiveness in teaching the subject matter was:" Students had the option of selecting Excellent (5), Very Good (4), Good (3), Fair (2), Poor (1).  

Students' Sense of Faculty Support was measured in a research-based survey that was not affiliated with the university's educational assessment office.   Faculty support contained eleven items that had been validated in multiple previous studies in higher education and had a high internal consistency (reliability) of 0.92:

  • The professor in this class is willing to spend time outside of class to discuss issues that are of interest and importance to me.
  • The professor in this class is available when I need help.
  • The professor in this class is interested in helping me learn.
  • The professor in this class cares about how much I learn.
  • The professor in this class treats me with respect.
  • The professor has clearly explained course goals and requirements.
  • The professor teaches in an organized way
  • The professor often uses real-world examples or illustrations to explain difficult points.
  • The professor often stays after class to answer questions.
  • The professor often stops to ask questions during class.
  • The professor is often funny or interesting.

All of the above items were rated on a scale from Strongly Agree (5) to Strongly Disagree (1).  

When we compared SET Instructor Effectiveness to Students' Sense of Faculty Support, we found that when asked a general question about instructor effectiveness, students exhibited negative bias toward women relative to more specific (and objective) questions about faculty support behaviors.  Students completed both the instructional support surveys (that contained the Faculty Support items described previously) and SET in the last 2-3 weeks of the term associated with the course being evaluated.   Four of the five female instructors (80%) in the study received higher Faculty Support ratings than their SET ratings would suggest while only three of the nine (33%) of the male instructors did so (female instructors are shown in red; male instructors in blue):

These results also show that students rated women lower in instructor effectiveness than men while still reporting that these same women offered them levels of support that were above the trendline for the entire dataset.    

What does this data really tell us?  First, it tells us that the correlation between general impressions of instructor effectiveness and more specific reports of faculty support is not particularly good.   Our data also reinforce the idea that women often receive lower SET scores than men for similar levels of instructional support and teaching quality.   Alongside other related research that demonstrates this type of negative bias against women, these results reinforce the call to rethink how we evaluate teaching among engineering faculty and instructors.  In a time when equity is central to the radar of many colleges of engineering around the country, gender bias in SET underscores the need to transform the conversation we have about student evaluations of teaching -- both those held in meetings with other faculty and administrators and those held inside one's head when SET reports deliver negative and deflating messages after a semester of long hours and hard work.  

As a country, we need excellence in teaching too much to compromise it by demoralizing good teachers with faulty rating systems. We can do better.

Have you had a similar experience to Our Words do Matter or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 

Denise Wilson is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research interests in engineering education focus on belonging, engagement, and instructional support in the undergraduate engineering classroom.   

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Sexual Harassment Starts Early in Engineering

Sexual harassment doesn't always look like the obvious and egregious cases we read about in the the newspaper. But even "milder" forms of harassment can have lasting and serious effects. The first step to improving the culture is recognizing that nobody should have to "grow a thicker skin" or accept that "boys will be boys" in order to participate in engineering. Both women and men need to stop excusing the behavior.

When my daughter was in 9th grade, she wanted to take her high school’s Introduction to Technology course. I was of course supportive of her interest and encouraged her to sign up, thinking nothing more of it. A few weeks into the fall, she mentioned to me that she was the only girl in the class. I expressed surprise that this was still the case in this day and age. I recalled how thirty years earlier, I had been the only girl in an accelerated middle school math class, but that was a generation ago! Of course, I know that there is still a significant gender imbalance in engineering and technology, but surely not to such a degree, and not so early in the pipeline as 9th grade! I told her I was proud of her for being there and that I knew she was self-confident enough to manage that strange situation just fine. Which she would have been if it had only been a slightly awkward classroom context.

A few weeks later, she dropped some oblique comments about how a couple of the guys at her table grouping were being obnoxious – making some crude comments; teasing her; tugging on her hair. She didn’t seem particularly upset by it; just annoyed. So, I basically dismissed it. I agreed with her that it was obnoxious, then I told her to just ignore them. Told her that some high school boys can be real jerks before they manage to “grow up.”  I didn’t think much more of it, until the day she broke out in tears after school. This was out of character, and I suddenly realized something was really wrong.

It turned out that my daughter had just been following my lead. I had signaled to her that “boys will be boys,” and we just have to ignore it and get on with our own work. But I had failed to really listen to my daughter when she spoke up before. Perhaps she sensed from me that I have personally have more of a tendency to put up with bad behavior with only annoyance and dismissal. Or perhaps she was really embarrassed to relate the details. Whatever her thinking, she had been downplaying to me what had really been happening, until she just couldn’t anymore. 

I was horrified as she finally was able to share more of the details with me. It turned out that she was a target of really serious sexual harassment. There were not only dirty jokes intended to embarrass her – she found obscene images left on her desktop. The boys had progressed from touching her hair to bumping into her “accidentally.” There were two boys in the seating group of the four of them who were the active offenders, but the third boy knew what was going on and never made any effort to intervene.

Once I understood the scope and seriousness of the problem, I went immediately to her school. The response sounded right – the administrator promised swift discipline. The teacher expressed shock that this had been happening in his classroom; I confess I was a bit dubious about this and wondered how much deliberate obliviousness was involved to avoid dealing with a difficult classroom management issue. He offered to assign another student in the class to essentially be a chaperone – to be another set of eyes to watch out for my daughter and intervene when needed. Of course, this only served to set her apart even further, and reinforced her “victim” image with the class, as someone who needed extra support to handle the class. And I confess that in my ignorance, I overlooked subsequent situations in which I should have intervened on her behalf. I failed to anticipate all the ways the school would continue to fail her, including not protecting her from being scheduled in future semesters for class sections that included the offenders.   

I am proud that my daughter was mature and emotionally strong enough to be able to channel this devastating experience into positive outcomes. She educated herself by volunteering at the local shelter for victims of domestic abuse and she relentlessly advocated throughout the next four years to try to convince the administration to implement sexual harassment training for all students and teachers. And she has gone on to study engineering in college. But I am still devastated that the profession to which I have given my life had already failed her so miserably, and I am still devastated that I, who certainly should have known better, acted too slowly to be part of the solution. I had never personally suffered under behaviors this extreme. But it wasn’t just a case of not really recognizing what was happening – because I should have been stopping this even if things were a lot less severe. I think after my decades being “one of the guys” in so many settings, I had learned to go along to get along, and just ignore a lot. But it shouldn’t be that way – and if I am not speaking up, then I am part of the problem.

Now, a few years later, I have some perspective on the situation. I wish sexual harassment would have gone the way of the dinosaurs by now. But it hasn’t. And it occurs more often in engineering and technology settings than it does in general. So, regardless of my own experiences or observations of harassment, I hope that I now better recognize what I need to be doing. I need to recognize that just going along with it – the locker room behavior, the “just joking” moments – is unacceptable in any school or work setting. And my personal threshold for tolerance is not necessarily a good marker for what crosses the line. It is not too much to ask for civil and professional behavior from everyone in the engineering sphere: the managers, the engineering colleagues (men and women), the technicians and operators and tradespeople, the clients, the instructors (university and K-12), and the other students. In fact, it is the law. And we each have an obligation to protect, and even demand, that. For the sake of my colleagues. For the sake of the next generation of engineers. For the sake of the profession of engineering. We can all do better.

 Have you had a similar experience to Sexual Harassment in Engineering, or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Three Beers and a Rape Myth

 A Story from the Engineering Research World

Some topics should remain off limits at professional events.  But when no one is looking and alcohol is flowing, conversations can easily spin out of control. The following is a typical story of how quickly a conversation can shift from professional business talk to topics that are not only inappropriate but trigger fear and anxiety for the women at the table.  

As a graduate student, when I had my first paper accepted to a technical conference, I was both excited and nervous.  Would I pull off the presentation smoothly?  Or would I choke and forget any number of technical details regarding the circuit I was presenting?  Or worse, would I become suddenly unable to utter a single articulate sentence and go down in flames of embarrassment? 

I pondered all these possibilities while over-preparing for the three-day, regional conference where I would be presenting my research paper. In between making slides and re-rehearsing, I would think about the upcoming trip with some excitement. I was looking forward to entering into the world of technical conferences, presenting my research, and learning far more from others in a short few days than I could reading on my own or working solely with my lab mates.  And, while I was keenly aware that my intellectual credibility was on the line with a tough audience at the upcoming conference, it never occurred to me that my physical safety might be called into question. 

On the first day of the conference, several of my fellow graduate students (all male) and I drove the two hundred some odd miles to the conference venue. Funding was in short supply and driving was the least expensive of our options.  After arriving safely and checking in to our hotel, we headed out to dinner. It was hot and humid, so I dispensed with business casual clothing and wore the coolest options I could find in my suitcase. Consistent with graduate student budgets, we all headed to an inexpensive bar and grill. I slid into the booth first and perused the menu with great interest, looking for the most calories for the fewest number of dollars. The food was what you expect at a bar and grill.  Filling, not particularly healthy, but well priced. I was still working on my first beer when the rest of the guys were on their second or third. They spent most of the meal talking technical. I listened to their conversation at first but after a while, my mind wandered, and I drifted toward observing the other diners for a change of pace.

When my mind came back to planet Earth, the topic of conversation had shifted drastically.   One of the guys who was on his third beer had started talking about rape (exactly how anyone could go from talking about circuits to talking about rape in a matter of minutes was beyond me).  In the next few minutes, he rambled on about the many things women did that invited rape.  Short skirts. Tight dresses.  Cleavage on display. Big smiles.  The list was pretty long. I wondered what kind of women did not qualify for rape according to Mr. Three Beers' ongoing description of the many things that women did to invite and deserve it. 

At first, I felt like a detached observer of the conversation. Then, I wrote it off as a function of the three beers I'd watch this guy drink. I expected the conversation to shift. I expected someone to step in and redirect it. But, as the guy went on and on, I started to squirm in my seat. I was trapped in the booth and would have had to draw attention to myself to get out of the situation and leave (never mind that I had no way back to the hotel but with these guys and the one car we shared). I became more and more aware of the short summer skirt and tank top I'd worn to deal with the heat and humidity. I'd left my phone in the room and pondered my options for getting back to the hotel some other way. I tried to keep my facial expressions calm and unperturbed. I tried to keep my anger in check. I stayed quiet. It seemed like the safest option.  

And when the dinner finally and mercifully ended and I was back at the hotel and out of the car, it took all of my self-control not to run back to my room. But of course, then there was the other issue: my faculty PhD advisor had required us to double up in rooms "for budgetary reasons." I was the only female in the group and deserved no special considerations so there I was... in the same room as one of the guys who listened to what Mr. Three Beers had to say without saying a single word. Great.  

Surprise, surprise: I didn't sleep much that night. The dinner conversation rolled around in my head as I tossed and turned. I had never heard of normalizing rape or rape mythos or rape culture before. It was my first exposure to a man who seemed to genuinely believe that women often brought rape upon themselves. While I had no doubt that Mr. Three Beers deserved some damage to his private parts for his position on the subject, I certainly wasn't going to do anything or say anything considering the precarious position that limited research funds had left me in.  So, on guard, I tried to rest and didn't sleep. Tried to focus on technical matters, but thought about Mr. Three Beers instead.  

The next day was my paper presentation.  You'll never guess how it went.

Have you had a similar experience to this blog (Three Beers and a Rape Myth) or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 


The Reality of Graduate School

Graduate school is many things.   It is an opportunity to become an expert in a particular field. In engineering, it's a chance to becom...