Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Feminist Awakening

I have never really aligned myself with any particular feminist cause. But a number of subjects in the news of late have me thinking that perhaps this normally objective scientist has some activist tendencies after all.

Undoubtedly, the current U.S. election cycle has been a contributing factor. The attacks on one candidate, due in part to her gender, disparaging comments about women, calls to repeal the 19th amendment, and recent allegations of sexual harassment (and perhaps assault) by the other leading candidate all remind us that we (women) have a few more ceilings to crash through.

I have been particularly disturbed by the campaign news of the past week. When I turned on the local news last weekend, the coverage was not as much about the Bernie Sanders event in northeastern Pennsylvania as it was about the Trump supporters who showed up outside of the venue the day after the release of the infamous 2005 video. The reporter asked a woman holding pro-Trump/anti-Hillary signs if the latest news about Trump’s comments caused her any concern. After an adamant “Not at all,” she went on to say that “Boys will be boys.” Ah yes, and Trump wrote off his comments as “locker room" talk.

This led me to rant a bit on Facebook citing some statistics and a headline:
More Than Half of College Athletes Surveyed at One University Admit Coercing Partner into Sex. Nutt, Amy Ellis. The Washington Post. June 6, 2016.
  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. 
  • One in 5 women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault. 
  • Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. 
  • Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities.
As Michelle Obama said yesterday “Enough is enough.”

We are all tired of campaign ads, but one in particular that is sponsored by the NRA really annoys me. A woman claims that one candidate is trying to take her guns away – the very guns that saved her from assault by a male in a dark parking lot. Do we not see the irony in the fact that the candidate she supports is battling accusations of sexual assault? Should she not also be concerned about what other rights legislators in this country (which, are still mainly male) are trying to take away?

Perhaps the numerous assaults on the reproductive rights of women in the U.S. over the past few years has ignited a bit of this activism.
Although Roe v. Wade legalized abortion more than 40 years ago, far too many women still effectively live in a pre-Roe era. There [were] 282 abortion restrictions enacted in the United States since 2010, 51 of them in the first half of 2015 alone. [Source]
I am amazed at how unaware many of my female students are about this trend. They don’t seem to realize that their right to make decisions based on their personal life situation (financial status, values, health conditions, etc.) is being eroded.


Early in my career, I was repeatedly asked to participate on panels where the prevailing theme was to lament the fact that too few women were in the STEM fields, that there were too few female mentors for students in their formative years. I dreaded these sessions, mainly because I felt like I was being prodded to speak poorly of male mentors, when, in fact, even though coming up through a male-dominated system at the time, I had experienced strong encouragement and sound advising. In contrast, the one female scientist I worked for was perhaps the most challenging mentoring situation I had throughout my training.

That is not to say I haven’t experienced discrimination, offensive comments and actions, or sexual harassment. I left a job once because of the hostile workplace environment created by a group of “good ol’ boys” who treated female students as sex objects and female colleagues, well….not as colleagues.

As a faculty member in the sciences, I have always felt it important to be a mentor/role model to all students. Gosh knows that we have enough anti-science sentiment in our society as it is; we need all the support on the side of science we can get -- regardless of gender. Yes, there are still many inequities.
While women took home 57% of bachelor's degrees in all fields in 2013, women earned just 43% of the degrees in math and just 19% and 18% of the degrees in engineering and computer science respectively, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
It isn’t just because of discriminatory attitude of males. We have a “boys are better at math mindset” pervasive in our society. Yes, such thinking was partially to blame for a Harvard president losing his position about a decade ago. But I have heard plenty of mothers who are to blame as well. And I am not alone.
A child comes home from school and has a question about the math homework. She asks her mom, and the response is, "I don’t know, I was never good at math, ask your Dad."
This week, CNN aired the documentary "We Will Rise" about the challenges girls face worldwide to achieve educational goals. It featured Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto and Isha Sesay, and is both a part of the Let Girls Learn initiative launched by President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama and aligned with the #62MillionGirls movement. Given the need to focus on women for a sustainable future and for global public health and welfare (the UN Sustainable Development Goals), and considering the well-documented disparate impacts of climate change and other environmental and geopolitical threats on women and children globally, I sincerely believe that capacity building through universal access to education for women and girls is a key part of addressing the global challenges facing humanity. There are varied and complex reasons for the unequal access to education globally. Obtaining education for all girls worldwide will be tough.

The United Nations recognized the need for gender equity and equitable quality education in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the platform Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. From the declaration:
Realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels. We will work for a significant increase in investments to close the gender gap and strengthen support for institutions in relation to gender equality and the empowerment of women at the global, regional and national levels. All forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls will be eliminated, including through the engagement of men and boys. The systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Agenda is crucial.
I am peripherally involved with the U.N. process for implementing the 17 SDGs. Although most of my work is in the area of climate change, I participate in the list serve discussions of the Women’s Major Group that is focused on not only gender equity in the process, but also the gender impacts of policy and actions. It is a hard-core feminist group and sometimes I cringe a little at the angry comments that are made. I do understand the statements represent raw and powerful emotion. I have just typically made my arguments on the basis of data, leaving the subjective feelings out.

This week, however, I had to share their outrage. It started with the naming of the new U.N. Secretary General (Antonio Guterres) – another male who opposes the right to abortion, despite some extremely qualified women in the mix. The United Nations, in existence since 1945, has some glass ceilings. But the clincher came with this announcement: Wonder Woman Named Honorary U.N. Ambassador For Gender Equality. I kid you not.

According to an article in the Guardian, the comics site the Mary Sue “hailed the character’s new UN role, saying that she is ‘a great, easily recognisable symbol of what women can become once freed from a patriarchal society.’ ” Seriously? Have you taken a look at how this “symbol of what women can become” is depicted in the media be it comic books or t.v. shows? The objectification of women continues and is now celebrated at the highest levels from U.S. presidential candidates to the United Nations.

Even the U.S. Postal service got in on the action releasing four Forever stamps that commemorate the 75th anniversary of “one of the most iconic Super Heroes of all time.”
Wonder Woman was one of the first female Super Heroes that inspired countless young girls over the past three quarters of a century, said U.S. Postal Service Chief Information Officer and Executive Vice President Kristin Seaver. We salute this heroic role model and her legacy that is sure to continue to span another 75 years.

This week a less familiar symbol for women was quietly celebrated: October 12th was Ada Lovelace Day. I admit, I had never heard about her before. But by a chance moment of diversion on Facebook, I learned that Ada was "obsessed with math and science and the idea of flight.” The tribute went on to say
In those days though, those interests weren't considered proper for a girl. But there is one thing that can never be caged, one that always has wings: an idea...An idea doesn't care about gender or circumstance, about time or space. An idea only wants one thing: to grow. To become.
Personally, I think Ada is a better role model than Wonder Woman.


  1. I was disappointed in the Secretary General pick as well; it was rumored that this would finally be the year a woman was selected, and there were indeed many top-notch women leaders to choose from. Wonder Woman...just take a look at her image and you see what women are up against in terms of the impossible standards we're held to. Sigh is right.

    If Hillary Clinton is elected president, it will be a great step forward for women, a major glass ceiling shattered. The First Lady who refused to stay in the kitchen baking cookies will become the most powerful person in the land, and the ripples that come from this will touch us all--even if, as is so likely, she faces the same kind of obstructionism and scorn that Barack Obama had to deal with as the country's first Black president.

    More and more, I am looking for sources of change not in these big public figures, but in the margins of power and the inner shifts of ethical individuals. For example, what is happening at Standing Rock, with the water protectors who will not be deterred from their sacred task. Or what happened for Jessica Leeds, when at 74 she decided she'd had enough of standing by silently, and was willing to speak truth to power in telling the world how Donald Trump treated her 30 years ago. If enough of us can get in touch with our inner ethical compass and can strengthen each other, through social media and in-person communication, to stand up for what we believe--well then, the world will be a totally different place. And like you, I believe women have an extraordinarily important role to play, as we are the ones who have been subordinated and silenced these past, oh, 2500 years at least.

    It's time to right the balance and move our civilization past the dangerous Anthropocene into what I call the Androgynocene, as I envision in my forthcoming memoir ( and on my blog, Transition Times (

    We CAN make it happen. And we must.

  2. Jennifer - I too believe that meaningful change will come from the margins, not the large, traditional organizations of power (our government, the UN, etc.). I hope to play a small role and I know you are.

  3. I have seen (and continue to see) many cases of that 'boys are better at math' mindset you mentioned, even in people who should know better.

    I never heard of Ava Lovelace until I read your post, so I don't know much about her. Another good role model would be Joan Clarke, the woman who helped Alan Turing break the Nazi's 'Enigma' code machine — a wonderful example of a woman who made brilliant contributions in a field where women weren't even considered to be qualified.)

  4. Thanks for mentioning Joan Clarke. Indeed a good role model.