Monday, October 5, 2009

Women at UW in Science and Engineering: An Insider’s View of an Oral History Project

Submitted by Laura Balzano, graduate student in Electrical Engineering at the UW—Madison and volunteer at the UW—Madison Oral History Program.

As a woman in engineering, I have met people with various attitudes about the changes women bring to a traditionally male discipline. The different perspectives on this issue are brought by people young and old, male and female, and with various types of personalities that may or may not be typical among those who choose to pursue work in science and technology.

I still remember the first time I was ever asked about what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated discipline. I honestly hadn't been aware of it until then. Immediately I thought of my main engineering class of about 75 students, and I realized that I could name all 8 female students and even point out exactly where they sat in the classroom.

Since then, in many discussions with my female colleagues, we try our best to embrace diverse perspectives and to carve out our own place in the discipline. The difficulty here is that integrating oneself becomes a personalized and anecdotal issue. Every woman I have met in math, physics, and engineering tells stories where they were clearly treated badly because they were women, stories where the discrimination is less clear, and stories where they misinterpreted well-intentioned behaviors of others. Each of these stories has its own context, its own characters, its own resolution. Because of the few women in the field in the first place, each story is so different that it is hard for us to piece together what general conclusions may help us in our career.

I and other women I've met just can't get enough of these stories. We want to hear how things went down, how people handled the situation, what words exactly were exchanged, which transgressions were ignored by colleagues, and which ones were finally acknowledged. We want to know how other women dealt with the separation of emotions and work, the balance of family and tenure, and the consolidation of a desire to make a difference and a need to support oneself financially.

At some point I began to wonder how we could make more women's stories accessible to a larger audience, since it didn't seem that we should wait around for an increased number of women to serve as mentors and to create the oral tradition we craved.

It was at this point that I decided I wanted to do recorded interviews of women in engineering. How hard can it be? All I need is a mic and a recorder, right? Well I applied for a WISELI yearly grant for money, and instead they suggested instead I start by volunteering with the oral history group on campus.

I started by meeting with Troy Reeves, head of the program, and once I read A Field Notebook for Oral History, I was glad that I had not jumped in head first.

At the UW-Madison Oral History Program, there is an interview series dedicated to women who spent time at the UW in science, math and engineering. This is truly a collection of gems for female graduate students and young faculty—an opportunity to hear about the experiences of their colleagues in various disciplines. I have spoken with older female faculty, and they reminded me that they had few or no mentors. An archive of stories would enlighten even these experienced women professors as to what changes are really happening in the attitudes of their colleagues over time.

My first interest was to listen to the interviews that the oral history program already had in this special series called Women at UW in Science and Engineering. While I listened to interviews, I digitized them as well to earn my keep. I heard stories of women who had earned tenure and women who had been denied it. I heard of women who never had children and women who did at various times in their career. Also, I heard of women who had very supportive spouses with flexible career ambitions.

Some women came to the UW because it was really a great opportunity for them, others came as a compromise with their spouses, and still others came as a temporary option on their way to build a career and ended up staying. The women in the interviews I heard were from the departments of electrical engineering, mathematics, biology, medicine, agriculture, and zoology. This kind of vast diversity is exactly what I craved—a window into the wisdom that comes with experience, something that is difficult to find when I have gotten to know only three female professors in the nearly ten years I have spent at institutions of higher education.

This past summer I did my first oral history interview with a female engineering professor. I think of myself as a friendly, warm person who loves stories and is especially passionate about stories of women in science and engineering. What else could an interviewer have to establish a good relationship with their interviewee?

When it came to actually doing the interview, though, I found myself very willing to stall when the scheduling seemed complicated. The thought of actually sitting down and trying to extract all the potential wonderful stories out of this professor was daunting. Some people don't believe that their stories would be interesting to anyone.

So I wondered: How do you convince someone that you basically just met that you are actually fascinated without seeming superficial?

This especially worried me because I felt I was finally delivering on my dream of helping to make these stories more available to other women. What if when it came down to it, my interviews weren't interesting enough to make any difference anyway? Also what if I brought up a topic that made my interviewee uncomfortable? Should I push her a bit or should I let go right away? What if I am not good at asking questions in a concise yet clear way? What if I make a fool of myself and it is all on tape?

In a lot of ways, I was right to be concerned. The professor's stories were really interesting, and there were many wonderful tidbits throughout her interview. Convincing her that it would be interesting to others wasn't easy, though. She wasn't interested in speaking about awards or contributions to her field. I didn't push her on that, and I'm still not sure if I should have. More importantly, though, I believe I could have asked her a bit about each topic in the pre-interview to get a feel for her reactions to different portions of the interview. I was also right that asking questions clearly and concisely is a hard thing to do simultaneously. Hopefully this is something that becomes easier over time.

There were also other things that I hadn't considered seriously enough—I ended up not speaking loud enough so that you could only barely hear me on the recording. Thankfully you could hear the professor's answers clearly!

When I listened to parts of the interview, though, I realized that these interesting stories had finally been recorded and were available for other women to hear. So though my concerns were actually founded in some ways, I realized that I have at the very least done what I had been hoping to do—I made more stories available for others to listen and learn.

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