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What does it mean that you think I need help?

09/11/2009

It’s been suggested to me that I do a post on my experiences dating someone in the same field as me. And while I’d like to, it’ll have to wait. Because when I began writing with that theme in mind, my post quickly morphed into another topic entirely.

The background is as follows: my boyfriend and I are in the same field and doing fairly similar research, and we have both been asked by our advisors to apply for an NSF fellowship this year. This initially caused me a great deal of angst, as I’m not terribly keen on competing with him directly for a limited resource like that. But that’s not today’s key theme. Today’s key theme arises from what he pointed out when I expressed my anxiety about competing with him: that the NSF believes in affirmative action.

I’ll admit that this well-intended attempt to make me feel better didn’t have the desired effect. The question is: why not? Why is it that the words “affirmative action” always leave a sour taste in my mouth?

I should be glad that I’ve got an increased chance of getting an NSF compared to your average white male, right? Yet I’m left thinking, “Well, great. Now if I get one, I’ll assume that it only happened because I’m female. And if I don’t get one … well then, I’ll feel like I must really suck.”

Shortly after this conversation, I went to talk with my advisor about my NSF application. I asked his advice about reporting my physics GRE score, which isn’t particularly exemplary. He responded by pointing out quite seriously that women systematically score 20% lower on the physics GRE, and in light of that, my score was perfectly good.

I was again torn on how to react. I should be glad that my score is worth reporting, sure. But can I really be overjoyed that it’s common knowledge that women should be held to a lower standard than men?

Affirmative action is supposed to be the great equalizer — yet it frequently only serves to segregate further. All of my accomplishments in the field of physics have been tainted by the nagging question of, “Did I get this because I earned it? Or because I’m a woman?” And I know that some of my male peers, while too polite to say it to my face, have wondered the same thing.

So what does that mean? Should affirmative action be abolished? Does it need reform? Or is it fine in its current condition?

Should those of us who benefit from it be grateful for the attempt to level the playing field? Or do we have an obligation to hate it for exacerbating the problem?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa permalink
    09/18/2009 4:52 pm

    In today’s society affirmative action seems to be the lesser of two evils. In a perfect world there would be equal numbers of men and women in science, and we wouldn’t have to ask ourselves if our gender was factored in when we receive an award, grant, job, etc. Sadly we are far from living in that world. But how would we reform affirmative action? The whole idea is that society thinks women less capable, more whiny (i.e. hormonal), and in general less successful. We have seen ample examples disputing this idea – yet it still persist. Until the perceptions change the problem will continue and women will be discriminated against (recent studies confirm that this still happens today though in smaller numbers than previously).

    There is a connotation that affirmative action means they’re giving something to a woman or minority that they don’t deserve. On the whole I don’t think this is true. (Of course there will be outlying cases, but equally how many times do people get a job because their parents are rich and have connections?) Women are just as deserving and are more likely to be overlooked because of societies prejudices. I think of affirmative action as a way to get a foot in the door. What we with the opportunity if we’re lucky enough to get it is up to us. If we can prove that, yes, we did deserve the award, grant, job, etc. regardless of our gender, everybody wins! And we go on to be successful scientist! Yay!

    This perhaps is the greatest thing that affirmative action does; it propagates the success of women. Woman are given a chance; they become successful and role models/mentors to other women, who will encourage and support the successive generations in their endeavors. If the last generation of women hadn’t fought to break down barriers in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s do you think we’d have the representation we have today?

  2. 09/11/2009 9:59 pm

    I believe what affirmative action is SUPPOSED to do is to increase the number of people from minority groups who are participating in science (in this case). It utterly fails at that; who cares about their increased chances of getting, say, a physics grant, if they have no interest in science?

    It also does little to actually make it easier for those minority people – which it really SHOULD do – once they’re in the system. Why do women leave science? It seems because the pressure is too great and too incompatible with the desired lifestyle of, you know… normal people, who don’t want to live in their offices. It has nothing to do with some apparently increased chances of getting funded or recognized. And, as you mentioned, it seems to be making the already questionable atmosphere worse.

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