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“Girls in Engineering aren’t real girls”

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Think for a moment about the University of Michigan. What are the first things that come to mind?

Diversity. Opportunity. Equality.

Those used to be the three words that I thought of and heard most often. On the 29th of October, 2013, all three of those words were shaken. At the beginning of November, it came to the attention of all students attending the University that a former Material Science Engineering PhD candidate was suing the University on grounds of unresolved cases of sexual harassment. At first, I shook my head, believing that the girl was likely crying wolf against a male faculty member that had so much as looked at her chest, her likely overly exposed chest. A few paragraphs into her story, I was sickened by not only my own discrimination as a woman against Jennifer Dibbern, but by the University’s academic response to her blatant suffering.

Dibbern was enrolled as a graduate student from 2007-2011. In that short time, she experienced verbal harassment, dismissal of her intelligence, accusations of lying, and multiple accounts of promised sexual assault and actual physical abuse. Starting from the very day of her program, she was accosted by a hostile environment of gender-based discrimination. One of the first things her predominantly male classmates said to her was,

“Let’s be honest, the girls in engineering aren’t real girls—no guy would look at them that way so we need more real girls to study with, date—something to look at in class. Real girls. There’s something wrong with the engineering girls.”

This academic-social belief that women in engineering were not ‘real girls’ would color her entire experience at UofM, from classmate to faculty. The unchecked propagation that the reason so few women were enrolled in engineering stemmed from something distinctly wrong with either their femininity or their intellect created an environment which allowed Jennifer to not only be verbally, but physically harassed. The belief that she was not a ‘real woman’ allowed male cohorts to treat her with harassment that would incur legal retribution in any other setting. Here are but a few of the verbal lashings she suffered daily:

  • “Engineering women are different—they’re not normal. They aren’t like real girls. Not normal at all. Even if they are around, no one considers them women.”
  • “We need more cute girls in engineering to study with and more options for dates. It’d be great because if we let them in—you know real girls who were honestly, probably not smart enough to hack it—it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t cut it. If we let them in and helped them study, skim by in classes, maybe there would be girls in engineering who were pretty.”
  • “You are a walking cliché. Everything you do is because you are a woman. Just learn and admit it.”
  • “Suck up . . . Or did you just suck to get a better grade.”
  • “You know you were let into MIT because you’re a woman. I applied several times and got rejected because less qualified—come on, be honest–less qualified women like you were let in to meet their quota.”

Looking at these comments, it is clear that Jennifer was either viewed as a woman admitted because she lacked femininity, or admitted because she had used her femininity to ‘overcome’ a lacking in intelligence. Regardless of which view was predominant, the absolute danger of this social conception was realized in the terrifying sexual harassment Jennifer experienced.

Jennifer experienced physical assault from her male classmates when she refused a sexist demand for a cup of coffee she had just purchased. The classmate slapped her, with no interjection from other classmates standing by, and continued to do so when she stood her ground. Following this, two male students approached Jennifer in the study lounge and graphically explained how they were going to rape her, discussing who would go first, and how easy it would be as they knew where she lived. After all, she wasn’t a ‘real girl,’ so how could their actions be wrong? Finally, a fellow student attempted to make good on his threats, cornering Jennifer in her own lab and attempting to force himself on her three times before she pushed him away successfully.

As if this was not sickening enough, the response from the University faculty was downright appalling. Faculty advisors told Jennifer that “these things happen” and that she needed to “get over it” and “not let it happen again” or interfere with her course and lab work. Jennifer’s attempts at preventing her own assault were then held against her academically. SAPAC authorized alternate examinations, suspension of late night work schedules, and notices to change her address were disregarded and used as reasons to dismiss Jennifer from her program. She was charged for “lack of commitment” to her degree per the following:

  • (1) the two week leave Ms. Dibbern took in April 2008 (immediately following the attempted rape)
  • (2) her incompletes in coursework (as a result of rescheduling following the attempted rape)
  • (3) coursework outside of MSE (arranged so to avoid her sexual harassers)
  • (4) a 10 hour per week research job in the School of Natural Resources and Environment (appointment with Professor Edward Parson who also teaches at the University of Michigan Law School; Ms. Dibbern met Prof. Parson while taking a law course outside of her department so to avoid her sexual harassers).

Jennifer Dibbern is a casualty of an extreme result of improper social conceptions of sexuality vs. scholastic achievement in women. No matter who was wrong or right in this story, the entire travesty could have been avoided had proper resources for the awareness and repercussions of gender discrimination been made available. Jennifer was accused of false reporting on the basis that “some women can’t take a joke” and report on inconsequential basis, a reality that does unfortunately exist beyond this case. If the many divides within Feminism have contributed to this ideology at all, it is the duty of all Feminists to take a second glance at the beliefs they propagate and to remember Jennifer as a victim of a nonexistent binary distinction of women as sexual or scholastic in nature.

-BV

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