Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dear Kate - February 2014 Edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

Dear Kate,
How best should I respond to obvious sexist remarks from people outside of MIT? Two occasions in recent memory come to mind--once when I was shadowing physicians, considering going to medical school after graduating with my master's, I was asked did I wanted to leave engineering "because the math was too hard"? Also, at a holiday party I was told point-blank that the only reason I got into MIT was because I was female. Usually I'm too stunned to respond but then I'm left feeling angry and discouraged.
Female Engineer

Dear FE:

It never ceases to amaze me how many people feel compelled to offer gender-specific, offensive insults (or any insult for that matter)!   You can't control other people, but you can manage your own responses.  The first step in dealing with this type of interaction is taking a moment to breathe before you choose how to respond.  I use the word respond very specifically.  Responding rather than reacting allows you to take the "high road".  Little or nothing is achieved by becoming defensive or combative and you will not change anyone's mind.

In the first instance, a response such as, "As much as I love math, the idea of helping humanity through medicine appeals to me greatly.  Is that why you went into medicine?" The first sentence leans on a positive aspect, while the second is a question which deflects negative energy from you.  If we wanted to verge on the snarky (which may be more satisfying but ultimately not positive for you), you could simply ask, "Is that why you went into medicine?"  However, it is important to know your audience and if you have to remain respectful, the first response is probably the better one.

In the second example, you could choose to respond directly with, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting or insensitive. Isn't this weather/food/house incredible?"  Since this is a social occasion, most likely with no career implications, you can be a bit more imaginative and "off the wall".  By following your initial straight-forward statement with a non-sequitur question, you can deflect the negative energy.  

The following is crucial: you must employ a half-smile.  Easy and confident. You can practice.  Imagine the sling of an insult coming at you.  Breathe in slowly, exhale slowly, inhale again.  All the while with a half smile. On the 2nd exhalation, practice saying, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting and/or insensitive.", with a gracious smile on your face.  

Kate W.
Kate W. has been a senior administrator for MIT for more than 25 years.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

1 comment:

  1. Please see the below comment for some additional helpful comments from Riva Poor, one of the GWAMIT mentors. Please feel free to add to the discussion yourself by commenting on the post!

    "I don't believe in letting anyone get away with gratuitous insults, no matter how social the situation. After all, someone in this social setting has deliberately smashed an egg on our sister's face. To Kate W's lovely answer "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting and/or insensitive.", with a gracious smile on your face.", I would add, "But, my goodness, how well you succeeded!"
    - Riva Poor