This Is for My Daughter

Relax. I don’t have a baby; I’m not even pregnant. But I do hope to have a daughter some day. It might seem silly, but sometimes I daydream about what it would be like to have one. I’d buy her Legos and Barbies; pink, frilly dresses and superhero t-shirts. We’d watch princess movies and Star Wars; and I’d teach her how to bake and to use a miter saw.

I would tell her that as long as she tries to do right by herself and others, she will always be beautiful; that respect is based on character, not appearance; and that as long as she tries her best at whatever she sets her mind to, she should be proud of what she accomplishes. I would want her to understand that failure is a part of life and that it’s okay to make mistakes and take risks.

I would want her to know that she should always speak up for herself and for others; that she should never be afraid to ask questions or speak her mind; and that she is unique and amazing. There’s never been anyone like her and there never will be, and she should always strive to be the best version of herself.

But then I look around at what’s happening in our society. Don’t get me wrong; I LOVE the Women’s March and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and everything they are accomplishing. But it devastates me that these are necessary. Why has it been so ingrained in our society that women are liars and/or attention seekers? Why are laws made about women’s bodies and those same bodies are constantly being objectified in advertisements? Why do so many people get away with sexual assault and harassment because it can’t always be proven? Why has birth control been the subject of intense scrutiny as far as passing laws regulating if companies should provide it, but there’s no hype around the access to erectile dysfunction medications?

Because of the Women’s March, #MeToo, and #TimesUp, I believe things will start to get better. But will these problems ever really go away? One of my biggest fears is that they won’t, and my daughter (should I have one) will face the same issues that I and my female friends and colleagues have had to face.

Will she be catcalled in the street like I was at 15 when some guy yelled out the window, “Show us your boobs!” and at 23 when another guy yelled, “I like your shirt, and someday I’ll take it off!” Will people obsess over her looks like they did with me and then told me after I gained weight from medication that I “used to be gorgeous” and I’ll have to lower my standards when it comes to dating? Will she face the same verbal, emotional, and mental abuse I faced at a past job? Will someone try to steal her work like someone tried to do to me?

I worry about the future of women and girls. While it’s true that we have made progress over the last hundred years, it breaks my heart that everything we’ve been fighting for is basic rights: the right to vote, to be paid the same amount as a man for the same job, to serve our country, to have access to necessary medical care, to be in control of our own bodies and finances, to have the same opportunities, recognition, and benefits as men. To not be seen as weak, overly-emotional, illogical second-class citizens incapable of the same mental capacity, drive, and ambition as a man.

Growing up, I also had a negative view of feminism because in the religious environment in which I grew up it was seen as one of the evils that tore apart the moral fabric of society. Women, especially when they had children, were supposed to spend their time fully devoted to taking care of their homes, husbands, and kids. I also had a negative view of my own sex, that we were just a bag of emotions and couldn’t be trusted to make important and logical decisions. I also thought that women in leadership roles, especially the ones that served in the military, were just “trying to be like men.” I also placed blame on rape and harassment victims and bought into the idea that women should be modest to “protect” men and boys.

I was talking to a friend of the family during that time who had grown up in the 60s and 70s; she was telling me that when she was in school boys used to snap the girls’ bra straps. She followed up that story with, “Back then we didn’t make a big deal out of those things.”

Right. Because we shouldn’t be “attention seekers” or “stir up trouble” (instead of blaming the boys for being the cause of the trouble).

I remember a religious youth leader telling a group of girls (myself included) that “Girls give sex to get love; boys give love to get sex.”

During my teenage years, I slowly started seeing these things for what they were: a misogynistic power struggle. And as I grew older and became more ambitious (not to mention more vocal) and started breaking some of these stereotypes, the attitudes of the people around me also started to change.

People love to criticize the feminist movement, and many don’t seem to understand what its purpose is. I heard someone ask, “If they’re all about equality, why is it called the feminist movement and not the egalitarianist movement?”

Because if we are looking at the issues related to gender (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. considered separately for the sake of argument), men don’t usually need an advocate.

Before you start screaming at your computer, let me make a few things perfectly clear:

  1. I love dudes. They are awesome, and many of them are so supportive of the current movements.
  2. Many men are sexually assaulted and harassed and that is not to be belittled. I can’t say this for certain because I’m not a man who’s experienced that, but I would imagine it is just as difficult for him to come forward as it is for a woman because society has negative stereotypes about men as well.
  3. Following up on those stereotypes, men are not as encouraged as women to be in touch with their emotions. I don’t think anyone should be controlled by their emotions, but just like we are physical and intellectual and sexual beings (and I personally believe we are spiritual beings), we are also emotional beings. I think to deny any of those is unhealthy.

But men’s careers, healthcare, and compensations are not under threat. I do believe though that because feminism’s main goal is to improve the lives and images of women, men will indirectly benefit from this.

Why?

Because many women find it atrocious that men are criticized for being sensitive. As angry as we are that we are held accountable for men’s sexuality and are taught to be embarrassed of our own, we also think it’s unfair that this attitude paints a picture of men as wild animals who can’t control themselves. We hate the saying, “Boys will be boys,” not only because it excuses boys’ bad behavior while girls are held to higher standards, but also it gives the impression that boys aren’t capable of accountability and responsibility.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up in an environment that enforces gender stereotypes by the time they’re in elementary school or to live her life believing that sexual assault and harassment are just part of the norm. I don’t want anyone to be able to get away with taking away a piece of her dignity. I want her to believe that being a girl is awesome and empowering, not that it’s a liability.

If I should ever be so lucky to have a daughter, I hope the road for her is easier and that she’ll never be held back from realizing her dreams.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

The Student Became the Teacher…And Is Now a Student Again

I loved teaching. I’ve had many different roles over the past eleven years: undergraduate student, master’s student, research assistant. But my favorite was teacher.

My first job was more than eleven years ago; in fact, it was when I was thirteen. I used to ride horses and my parents decided to lease a beautiful thoroughbred for me, but part of the deal was I had to work at the stables in exchange for a lower lease rate. Honestly, I was more than thrilled, even though the work was far from glamorous. Have you ever taken care of sixty horses?! Just one horse to look after is a big job, especially considering the messes they make.

Tip: If you ever take care of a horse, one of the things you have to do is clean out their hooves with a pick. To do that, you have to squat down in a somewhat compromising position because if that horse decides to go to the bathroom (regardless of what it’s coming out of), it’ll get all over you if you don’t jump out of the way in time. If the horse starts to urinate, it’ll lean forward; jump FAR back. Horses have the water pressure of a fire hose and it will ricochet off the cement floor. If the horse has to do anything else, it will lift its tail. And if you’re cleaning the back hooves, you definitely need to keep an eye out for that.

My work included feeding and watering every horse, cleaning their buckets, sweeping the aisles, cleaning the tack and observation rooms, and overseeing students tacking up and cleaning their horses for lessons. It was grueling work, especially at thirteen, but I loved being around the horses. They were so beautiful to watch; it was almost like seeing a painting come to life. And I was lucky enough to spend my time with them and to learn how to ride competitively.

The point is that we all have to take jobs that aren’t the best paid or the most rewarding. In fact, after I finished my master’s degree, the job market was horrible; the only people hiring in industry were looking for engineers with at least 7-10 years of experience. I could only get a part-time teaching job, which meant I was getting paid less than what I was receiving as a graduate student; but it was even worse: I had no health insurance, something I desperately needed considering all the medical problems I was having. So I decided to do what I had always done before: I made myself invaluable.

Even though the job was part-time, I put in more than 40 hours a week. It was grueling and frustrating. I had just finished seven years of bachelor’s and master’s studies. I had been paying my dues and employing the whole “sweat now or bleed later” mentality. At that point in my life, I thought I would be reaping the rewards of my labor, not working even harder for lower pay. Then I received an offer to teach at the Naval Academy…and another offer to work at IBM. When my boss found out I might be leaving, he started working double time on creating a permanent position for me.

Within a few months of my graduating and taking the part-time job, I was a full-time lecturer with all the bells and whistles, something not normally heard of for someone my age (and without a Ph.D. to boot). But in spite of my newfound success, I still made myself invaluable. Eventually, I became the lead instructor for most of the courses in my department; developed the curriculum for said department; ran a program for at-risk students; taught, managed, and mentored over 200 students each term with a 20-person instructional staff; held a grant for a new pedagogy I implemented; and was second-in-command to my supervisor, a Ph.D.-holding, fully-tenured professor.

And now, I’m a student again. I’m back in the grad school game. To many, it might seem like a step backwards, and in a way, it is. When most people change jobs, it’s either a lateral or upward move; it doesn’t usually come with a demotion. But sometimes, taking a step back is a good thing. No, I don’t get to do the same things I used to. And as much as I loved my job and miss it, I’m really happy with where I am. At my old job, I was focusing on education, an area about which I am still passionate and in which I want to further develop my abilities. But I also felt like I was missing out on science. I was teaching it, but I didn’t feel as if I were a part of it.

Now, I get to focus on research and my own education. And I can develop more skills that will lead to many more opportunities.

One thing I try to keep in perspective is my mother’s Greek family. In the early twentieth century (and even into the 60s), Greeks were considered an undesirable group (just like the Italians and the Irish and, unfortunately, so many others). They had darker skin; their accents were strange; their native language was even more strange. They were loud and boisterous and very expressive, which ran against the grain of a typical socially-acceptable American family. My grandfather didn’t speak English until he started school; he didn’t finish high school and decided to join the Navy. He married young and started having a family right away; by the time he was my age, he had three children. Both he and my grandmother worked to make ends meet; in fact, many times he had to work three jobs. Eventually, though, he worked his way up and became a plant manager, one of the most respected in the company.

That’s how my mother was, too, when she was younger. She worked two jobs until she landed her dream career, and even then, she worked constantly. Both she and my grandfather believe that hard work is a blessing and that no honest work is beneath you when you need to take care of your family. That survivor mentality they carried over from their ancestors who immigrated here is what shaped us.

Sometimes you won’t be in the position you want. And it’s a horrible feeling to know that you’ve worked so hard for so long only to feel as if you’re not making any progress. But that’s where our minds can play tricks on us. By facing whatever challenges us and continuing to work as hard as we have been, eventually someone will take notice of how valuable we are. And anyone who applies her- or himself whole-heartedly to an honest job regardless of the circumstances is valuable indeed.

“The Devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.'” – Anonymous

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak