Read how I was discouraged from going into a STEM field as a women and how female students in meteorology had not the free choice and same opportunities as their male classmates and lab mates.
- My first day in college
- Studying meteorology
- Being an MS student
- Being an international exchange student in Clermont-Ferrand, France
- Jobs during the breaks
- The MS thesis
- Being a doctoral student
- 250th Top of the World Style linkup party
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My first day in college
We had been informed that all meteorology majors would meet at 0915 in the institute’s lecture room. When the professors entered the room, there were more than 60 students in the room sitting on the window seals, on the floor standing along the walls and 30 seats were taken. Most of the students were male. It turned out that there were 29 students who were in the first semester, five of which were women. The class schedules were announced.
In the first two years, it was mostly mathematics (algebra, analysis numerical math, differential equations, theoretical physics, experimental physics, and about one meteorology class a semester. I can’t recall when exactly our class went down to just eight, three women and five men. While we were undergrads there seemed to be no issue among peers of being a woman. We valued each others abilities.
One day during class, a professor said that who hadn’t done the military service will not get anything better than a C from him. I was pretty upset as were many of the few female students. We were forbidden to serve in the military at that time. Would it mean that we wouldn’t get a B or A when we would deserve it? What about the disabled guy in our class who couldn’t serve? What about the international students? What about the male students who had decided to serve as civil servants? They had the legal choice between military or civil service!
So what? Shouldn’t he give the grade a student deserves upon their classwork, homework and exam? When we talked to our male classmates about it they just raised their shoulders. “Don’t worry, he doesn’t do the grading. He only teaches the first half of this class. Just don’t chose him as the oral examiner or your thesis adviser.” I rolled my eyes. I felt it wasn’t right that things that weren’t class material relevant were supposed to be grade relevant.
Being an MS student
At this time, we had to do a field campaign as part of our education. We had meteorological equipment out in the field with PCs for recording in a tent. This equipment was very expensive. PCs were very expensive in the 80s as well. Thus, night watchmen were set up to stay with the equipment. We were supposed to sign up in groups of two for the watches. My girlfriend and I signed up for a watch together, while the other woman signed up for a watch with a male classmate. My girlfriend and I were told that it is unacceptable for two women to be alone in a tent at night in an open pit mine on a waste hill about 5 km away from the next community. I was like What?
“All what we are supposed to do is to sit in the tent, watch the computers. The light in the tent and shadows of our bodies thru the fabric would be enough to hold thieves away. From outside you can’t even see that we are women with these big anoraks. Moreover, it’s illegal to be in the area without permit anyway.”
My protest was ignored. The professor himself was doing the watch with us. The watch had just started and the other students were about to leave, when he hit some weird combinations on the PC. Boom! It crashed. We wanted to fix it, but he didn’t allow us to touch the PC. Instead he called the institute’s IT guy back. The damage was so large that the IT guy was busy all night fixing the problem. A problem that wouldn’t had occurred when we had been allowed to be on our watch alone. However, there is a long history of women being thought to be unsuitable for sciences.
Being an international exchange student in Clermont-Ferrand, France
I only had three years of French in high school. Nevertheless, I applied for a scholarship to spend a semester at Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand. I won the scholarship and I was the only woman in my class of eleven atmospheric physics students. There were three Chinese guys, two from Ivory Coast, a Syrian, a Moroccan, and a French guy in class. Classes were from Monday thru Saturday. We had several field and lab experiments on Saturday. I did everything that the male classmates did with respect to the experiments. One day in the lunch hall, three classmates and I had lunch together. Suddenly, one of them said to me
“You aren’t a women. You drive a car, you fly a glider, you do the field experiment like a man. You don’t wear nail polish or makeup. You always wear the same clothes. Look at the French girls. They are real women.”
“Really?” I took my plate and went to another table. I wondered whether they had the perception that fashion and science doesn’t work together.
One day, some of us were sitting on a table waiting for the professor to open the classroom. One of my classmates was standing in front of me talking to me. He had the habit to talk with his hands like an Italian despite he wasn’t. He hit my breast with his hand when talking. First, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. To avoid to be hit again, I moved back closer to the wall. Nevertheless, he hit me again. Then I moved as far back as I could. He did it again and I hit him in the face. It was so heavy that you could see all my fingers on his face. He wanted to hit me, but one of my classmates took his arm and said
“Don’t dare to do that.”
The harasser left and came back later, late for class. A day later, in the afternoon, I was called to the director. I was interviewed about the incident. A week later, I was told that the classmate who hit me had complained about me, but the investigation had found that I was in self-defense mode and not to blame. The guy got a warning. Interestingly, the classmate, who had protected me, and his friends, always ensured that the harasser had no chance to come anywhere near me.
Jobs during the breaks
I worked as a student employee in several field campaigns of the Nuclear Power Research Center in Jülich. Being a woman I was assigned a desk job. Depending on the weather situation I had to design the sampling network, drawing the maps and site locations, make the plans which team had to set out which sampling pumps at which sites, and make sure that the technicians equipped the cars accordingly. Sometimes when they were short on men, I helped with placing the sampler in the field or collecting them. But most the time, I spent at the gas chromatograph analyzing the sampled air in the lab and evacuating the sampling bag until late in the night. They all had to be analyzed and evacuated before they could be used the next day. Interestingly, being a woman alone at night in a lab doing a tediously boring job was no problem at all.
The MS thesis
“Women are too weak to do field work. You have to schlep heavy equipment, climb a mast, drive thru unpaved terrain.”
None of us women were allowed to do field or any experimental work for our thesis research. Thus, I chose to program a cloud retrieval algorithm that automatically detected clouds in NOAA Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) satellite data over the Arctic region. The retrieval was also able to distinguish between water, mixed phase and ice clouds, land, ocean and sea-ice.
Being a doctoral student
While I was close to finishing my MS degree, I heard that a professor in geophysics had received a grant on air quality modeling. He was looking for a cloud modeler. Since modeling was what I wanted to do, and I was interested in clouds, I applied and got the job. On the research team, there were 11 people, four of them were women. One was the administrative assistant, one was a programmer, and the other was a PhD student like myself. She left after one-and-a-half year. The programmer left after a year. I didn’t understand why they left because I never had the feeling that in the team women were treated differently.
What were your experiences in college? Did you study a traditionally male or female field? Did you study in a STEM field? Were you treated differently as a woman than your male classmates?
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