Saturday, August 3, 2019

Standing out as a woman scientist

Marilyn, college student 1973

         When I first started my career as a young undergraduate at Penn State, we all took a test that would help us determine what we might be interested in and suited for in terms of a career. Recently, I unearthed the old results of that test taken nearly fifty years ago in 1970. Options for careers for women at that time--college educated women--included nun, secretary, and sewing machine operator, among other women-only type careers. My results indicated a suitability for Chemist, Entertainer, and Naval Officer. One of them was spot on; the other two describe me in some sense. As a leader of a scientific laboratory for 40 years, you’ve got to have some “military officer” personality to succeed. As a college professor for the past 6 years, I’ve also had to be an Entertainer on occasion.
         In 1970, there were quotas for how many men could be accepted to universities and colleges vs. how many women. Most of the “top” universities were just starting to accept female undergrads.  1969 was the watershed year for high-ranking places like Yale and Princeton to decide to accept women for the first time.  At Penn State, the ratio of men to women was 3:1; at Cornell University where I also applied, the ratio was 8:1. A male student from my high school with nearly identical test scores and grades was accepted to Cornell, but my woman friend and I were not. Luckily, I was accepted at Penn State; competition for women to get accepted to first-rate school was intense, probably because of the quotas. Owing to the fact that I was from out of state (New Jersey), I needed to start classes in the summer. At that time, we sensed the discrimination based on quotas was unfair, but no one did anything about that. In my science classes, there were about 20-30% women in biology, fewer in chemistry, geology, and physics classes. As a youngster, having more young men around than young women was fine with me.
Marilyn was a chambermaid at this motel in 1972
         During my high school and undergraduate years, I worked at many low-level jobs that helped reinforce my determination to build a more interesting life in science. Starting with babysitting in junior high school, a short run as a Howard Johnson’s waitress, I spent summers as a chambermaid in a hotel at the Jersey Shore and as a gardener and maid in Santa Barbara, California. I much preferred the quiet life of the maid or gardener rather than the time sensitive, outgoing requirements of a waitress. In my senior year of college, friends helped me get a coveted position as a Peanut Saleswoman at Penn State football games. This might sound like a menial job but it had great benefits---I could sell my football ticket and make ten bucks! Peanuts cost 40 cents, but if you went into the alumni stands, more often than not you got a whole dollar and “keep the change”. In the student sections, guys offered you a drink of whiskey from a flask they’d smuggled in. You could sit at the 50 yard line in the stadium if you needed a break. My parents came up for one of the games, but they were embarrassed that their daughter had to sell peanuts instead of dressing up and going to the game with a date, which was not my style. After that game, they upped my weekly allowance from $10 to $20, which I used for all of my food, entertainment, and incidentals.
         Working for bosses who were disorganized or even mean was a good learning experience. Showing up for work on time and prepared at an early age is a skill never to be forgotten. Today as I teach undergraduates at the University of California, I encourage them to sample as broadly as possible the jobs that people have that fall far below students’ expectations. Working along side people of all different walks of life provides education far beyond what is learned in school.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...