Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fitting the mold

Math Man is giving a talk today.  As we walked into the beautiful new building where he is scheduled to speak, I felt for a moment  like one of the wives of the scientists and mathematicians of the 1960s, whose biographies I've read on this leave.  Their kids grown, they accompanied their husbands to conferences (where there were special activities organized for them), and to give talks.

Maybe it was the fact that I'd ironed Math Man's shirt for him this morning (to give him more time to spend with a visiting cousin), or maybe it's that I'm not wearing the sort of clothes I'd wear to give a talk in.  Or maybe it's because I don't quite fit in the physical space.

A dean at Claremont McKenna College resigned last week, after sending an email characterizing minority students  as not "fit[ting] into our CMC mold"; a student at Princeton noted that the protests there are steps toward "creating a campus environment that will eventually allow people like me to feel more comfortable on this campus.”

All this has me musing again about fit and comfort in the physical spaces we construct, particularly in science.  I wrote an essay four years ago for Nature Chemistry (Sex and the Citadel of Science) women and science and the various ways in which we do and don't see women fitting into science, including the physical spaces we create to do science in. In it I noted that when I arrived at Princeton, it wasn't an entirely comfortable campus:
"When I pushed open the door to the ladies', I encountered a wall of urinals. I quickly ducked back out and checked the door. ‘Women’. In more than a decade [since they began admitting women,] the only thing this highly regarded research university with a large endowment had managed to change was the sign on the door. "
When I returned to give a departmental seminar many years later, the urinals were gone, so at least in this way, Princeton is no longer sending the message that they are so unsure women will major in science that it's not worth renovating a bathroom for them, but progress toward a campus where all the students can feel comfortable is clearly slow.  (And while I'm fully in favor of bathrooms that accommodate all users, in 1983, I'm pretty sure that's not why Princeton left the urinals there.)

While waiting for Math Man to return from visiting colleagues, I sat down in one of the chairs scattered about for students on the first floor here.  And immediately got the message.  Women aren't to sit here.  My feet dangle a full 4 inches from the floor.  I physically don't fit.

A bit of trivia. The standard chair seat is 17 inches from the floor; the natural seated position for the average male is 17.1 inches from the floor. Chairs are built to accommodate the majority of men, and a minority of women (less than 5% in fact).  It's a subtle statement, and I suspect an unintentional one, but a statement nonetheless.  This is men's space.  Women don't fit the mold.

The good news is that I've discovered there are a variety of seating options around the building, for the long and the short legged among us, and that the seat heights of the chairs in the classroom nicely adjust to accommodate a variety of body sizes and shapes.

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