Disparities in the aftermath of sexism

4 minute read


I’ve been listening to a great podcast called Unladylike on my hikes, which has me angry and reflective (as good feminist content should). I’ve also been recounting stories on the phone while driving, and I’m noticing some commonalities. In my experiences, big disparities in sexism have come not in the actual sexist events themselves, but in their remnants, the emotions and impact after-the-fact.

In my personal life, I realized this after telling a few stories which I ended the story with a statement along the lines of: “but the worst part was, this <ruined my whole day/stayed with me to this day/etc> while I’m sure he just moved on and totally forgot about it.” This happened most acutely at my only stereotypical Thanksgiving fight a couple of years ago, where a friend-of-a-friend (who has a STEM PhD) said he believes women are biologically less interested in science than men. The worst part of the story was that my entire next day was ruined, while I’m sure he had a great time nonchalantly hiking through the Greek countryside. There was another time more recently, when a man I was hooking up with did something non-consensual, and which soured the three days between it and when I could tell him off. I remember barely being able to focus at work those days, while he had no idea what he did was completely wrong until I told him that next Tuesday. (To be fair, he recognized the disparate impact immediately, and wished he’d been made aware earlier. That’s a whole other story though). And I have more examples, where the thing that felt shittiest wasn’t the thing itself, but the fact that I would still be upset at the thing days – or, in some cases, years – later while I knew he had probably forgotten immediately.

This disparity also exists professionally, and perhaps even more so. I felt it most acutely when my department emailed out an all-male semester seminar series, and one of my friends and a great student leader replied to my outraged email with: “how am I supposed to get work done now.” I felt the same way, and dropped my paper reviews (even though I was also working full-time) to help the current students write a response letter to our department leadership. I distinctly remember another time when I was compiling short-answer responses to our diversity survey for an upcoming faculty meeting, and I realized that so many of the comments were about gender and could easily have been written by any of my women friends. I went to bed so sad and heavy with this realization: there was no way I was going to do any work that night even if I had intended to. A third time in a machine learning class when I realized that I’ll finish my PhD without having ever had a woman professor, and I was too angry to pay attention to any of the rest of the lecture. (This is true, btw – I did an entire PhD without having a single woman professor. 7 courses, each with at least 2 professors…)

You know, the sexism many of us (privileged, likely white) women experience these days may often not be as acutely outrageous as in the past, but the impact still widens the disparities between us and men. It’s the mental energy we put into replaying the event over and over: “did that really happen? Was I asking for it? Is it really that big of a deal?” It’s the mental energy we put into crafting a productive, positive response: “do I sound too angry to be taken seriously? What alternative explanations could there be for this mistake?” It’s the mental energy we put into nursing the wounds we know could be ours or our close ones’: “This could have been written by any of my friends. Why are things this way?”

We’re scientists. Mental energy is literally our currency for success. When we use ours to process experiences of sexism, not matter how slight the actual experience may have been, we lose ground with respect to men. Tell me, when was the last time you were so upset you couldn’t work?