Science and Sexism in the South

My hiatus from the inter-webs can be contributed to several things; the main reason being my temporary, part-time job. As I have mentioned, I am starting a PhD program at Tulane in the fall. Though I am receiving a generous stipend package, moving and paying a rent deposit cost money. So, alas, I had to take a part-time job to fill in the months before I head off into the second phase of my life: graduate-school-induced-melt-down.

I have several qualms with this job. Well, not several, a better description would be “thousands.” I should not explicitly state where I work, so I’ll just say that we sell books. The topic of today’s post isn’t necessarily about books, the store where I work, or even the customers (though, let’s be candid, I could write volumes on each aforementioned subject), it is about science and sexism in the South. Broad, huh? I try to avoid going on too many tirades and being completely biased to a place that enjoys its way of life without being told what to do…but I can’t let this rest. It’s exhausting.

I have written about the misconceptions, mistrust, and general issues the South has with the sciences and sexism. Once I wrote about it during the local museum’s Darwin Day celebration back in 2013. I’ve posted on Facebook and Twitter about failing science standards and the general dislike some people have towards science. I wrote a post about the sexist comments I received when I told people I was starting my Phd in the fall.  I attribute it to age: older people are products of their time and are set in their ways. Understandable. Not ideal, but I get it: you grew up in a small community devoted to your religion and enrolled in a school system that taught you…well…it taught you what it taught you. Boys had to be strong, silent, and play football. Girls had to be pretty and think about marrying their high school sweethearts. You are a product of your time and place.

I feel less sympathetic towards my peers. Other men and women my age, who have innumerable resources that could answer all their science questions, and proudly state “I don’t believe in evolution.” You don’t “believing” or “not believing;” you accept it, or don’t.  I encounter these people at work. We are allowed to check out books from the store, and I decided to read “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert. I liked the book generally, sometimes I wish it was less a narrative about her trudging out to the field to hunt for fossil and more fact- and research-based treatise, but I understand that she wanted to give the reader a picture of what natural scientists actually do. One chapter is about how climate change is impacting coral reef systems by increasing the acidity in the ocean. When one of my co-workers asked me how I liked my book, I reiterated what the author wrote about the endangered coral reefs. His response, “I don’t think global warming is an issue. I don’t think people are the ones who have altered it. What would recycling even do?” I thought he was kidding at first, but alas, he was not.

Our store also participated in a book drive for a local elementary school. I was super pumped for this philanthropic endeavor, especially since we could pick the books to display for customers to donate. The day of, when I arrivedI saw that they shelves were covered with kids fiction, familiar and unfamiliar titles. What didn’t I see? Any science, history, or educational books. So I went to the kids education section and grabbed books on rain forests, mammals, snakes, US history, Ancient Egypt, algebra, mummies, anything and everything educational. As I was setting up the books, one of my co-workers exclaimed; “great idea Rachel! There are too many girly books up here, I’d glad you grabbed some books boys would like.” I wasn’t aware that science and history had a gender.  I wasn’t aware that it was “girly” to like fiction and “boyish” to like math. I was shocked by her comment, and said, “These aren’t subjects for boys, girls can be scientists and historians too.” And my co-worker didn’t even understand that what she said was sexist.

These men and women, additionally, are given the same opportunities, but I still see many females wearing teeshirts saying, “I’m too pretty to do math.” One co-worker outright stated to me, “I don’t understand why we waste space with a Women Studies or African-American Studies sections.”  I can’t even get into that comment right now. (Actually I can, if she could have articulated why she didn’t think those groups deserved sections, then I would have been willing to listen. But she didn’t. She just thought they were given special treatment. I’ll remember that when I am honored with the special treatment of begin cat called.) I digress.

So the store has special displays for Mother’s and Father’s day. For Mother’s Day, the store had tables with books on gardening, cooking, style, with a few romance novels thrown in. For Father’s Day, tables were filled with titles about hiking, home-brewing, and raunchy comedians. I mentioned it to my coworkers, and no one seemed to think that this blatant gender divide was shocking. Personally, I liked the Father’s Day books more! What if moms wanted to make beer at home and dads wanted to learn more about gardening? Why can’t men be stylish and women learn more about the species of trout in Tennessee?

So there you have it. 31 Days until I move and begin my new life, but just for good measure, this town is making sure that I get one taste of narrow-mindedness before I leave. Fantastic.  I wonder how everyone will react when I tell them I’m leaving to start my PhD in a social science. Probably call me a boy and say my career path is a lie.

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