Saturday, August 3, 2019

Early Years as a female geochemist

Ed Hare, John Hunt (Woods Hole), Tom Hoering, Marilyn 1981

In graduate school, I paid no attention to the relative proportions of women to men. I was engaged in my studies and ignored the fact that all of the faculty were men, and most of the fellow graduate students were men. As long as there were undergraduates around, it never seemed like an overwhelming number of male cohorts.
         Not until I arrived at the Geophysical Laboratory, a rarefied environment on a hilltop in Northwest Washington, DC, was I aware of how rare I was at that time.
There were no other women postdoctoral fellows or staff scientists in 1977-1979. Every summer, a few women from other universities would arrive and work as interns. The Director of the Lab addressed memos to Dr. Hoering, Dr. Hare, and Mrs. Estep (my married name at the time). The only other woman scientist, on staff in the 1960s briefly, was referred to as Mrs. Donnay, who was married to Dr. Donnay, both of them crystallographers. Of course, “Mrs.” Donnay was in her own right Dr. Gabriel Donnay. A senior woman professor from France, who visited frequently and had been a postdoc in the 1960s, was called Mrs. Velde, since she married another postdoc, Dr. Velde. “Mrs.” Dr. Professor Danielle Velde was by far the more prominent scientist, with a long productive career as a petrologist at the University of Paris.
         At this time, visiting speakers at the Geophysical Lab during the 1970s and 80s, were used to addressing a male audience. I was often the only woman attending the seminar. Male speakers took full advantage of the sex-biased audience. One prominent male professor from a California university punctuated the sections of his seminar with photos of naked women. Thinking back to the 1990s, one of my colleagues tells this story:
“I was recently talking with a couple colleagues about how there were postcards of women in skimpy bathing suits taped up on a wall in the laboratory where I did my graduate work.  Now, this was a laboratory of someone who has high respect for all the women in his life – however, it did not dawn on him to take these postcards down until a comment by a new woman postdoc prompted him to. I suspect this being his first woman postdoc and his noting her attitude may have jarred his understanding from simply a joke amongst male colleagues and students to the reality of what it meant to all the rest of his colleagues and students. “

         Off-color jokes and swearing were not common at the Carnegie, because in general I worked with gentlemen. However, in attending conferences and interacting with outside scientists, it was clear that women in the earth sciences were not taken seriously. When I started to look for a full-time position as an Assistant Professor in 1979, I am fairly certain that my applications were not reviewed as fairly as those of my male colleagues. For example, two men in the stable isotope biogeochemistry field, all of us recent Ph.D.s, were interviewed at the Geophysical Lab, before I was even considered to be a viable candidate for a permanent position.
         After my divorce, I was stuck with the chore of changing my name from Marilyn L. F. Estep back to Marilyn L. Fogel. In 1974, before I’d published any papers, it was a simple thing to change your name to your husband’s name. When I married Chris Swarth, a name change was out of the question. Personally, some people call me Marilyn Swarth, including my own mother, who could not fathom not having her husband’s last name. In the science world, I am often just known as “Marilyn”—a distinctive first name in the biogeochemistry field. Young scientists often ask me if they should change their name. I usually advise them to keep their own name, unless they really despise their given name, which is rare. Nowadays, most people are familiar with husbands and wives having different names.

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