Dr X – My Misogynist Engineering Professor

Engineering: The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation or safety to life and property.  – Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

Recently, I received an email from a co-worker, Bob, about one of my engineering professors, Dr. X. While Bob did not attend the same university I did, his family had been close friends with Dr. X for almost 30 years, and wanted to let me know he had died from Alzheimer’s, coupled with scoliosis.

When I transferred to Texas Tech in 1978, and changed my major to engineering, Dr. X was randomly assigned as my adviser. I don’t know how old he was at the time, but he had a son who had graduated from the Air Force Academy and nine other children as well. A scrawny guy with a Brillo-pad goatee, he never wore anything but slacks, turtleneck shirts, and a large wooden cross on a leather string. A classmate of mine described him as a “charismatic Catholic.”

My first meeting was rather uneventful. Dr. X went through my transcript and laid out coursework for me to finish my engineering degree in a little over two years. He allowed me to claim my German classes and upper-level English classes as my humanities electives, and recommended what order to take my math electives.

The relationship went downhill from there. Dr. X had a reputation for believing that students who did not achieve a 4.0 were unlikely to succeed in industry; he was hard on students who belonged to extracurricular activities such as band, fraternities, or intramural sports; and thought we had no business working while attending school.  He was also known, at the time, for refusing to accept foreign nationals or women as grad students. I worked nearly full time, and struggled to make my A’s and B’s.  I was married in college, to a civil engineering student, and the professor made comments like those below:

“He’s just a civil engineer? Which one of you is the smartest?”

“I see you made an A on the take-home test.  Did your husband do it for you?”

“Do you know that you’ll get a job offer just because you’re a woman, and that you’ll be taking the job away from a man who will have a family to support?”

“Did you know that when you get pregnant, you won’t be allowed to work in a chemical plant?  You won’t be able to breastfeed safely?”

“Do you need me to give you a needle and thread so that you can sew up the slit in your skirt?”

And in my last semester, when I had only 9 hours left to complete my degree, when he signed off my schedule card: “You’re really going to go through with this?”

Dr. X lived next door to my differential equations professor, who told me that he had been ‘warned’ about me. Since I made a good grade in that class, I guess I managed to live down the predictions of failure.  I was 24 years old, naïve, and easily intimidated by authoritarian male figures, a holdover from growing up under an Air Force sergeant for a father. It didn’t occur to me for years that I had a right to ask for another adviser, or that I could have gone to the administration and complained about him.

Dr. X was one of the reasons I hated college, and contributed to the conflict I’ve had for years when working for or around men who are smug dictators or bullies. When I received Bob’s email, it brought back memories and emotions from over 30 years ago, coupled with bittersweet memories of youth, the happy times of my vanished marriage, of having dreams and goals, of being beautiful, slim, and eager to take on the world. I would not let anyone treat me that way, now, but no one taught me that I had a right, a DUTY to push back against this treatment.

I admit to being somewhat annoyed by the discussion of misogyny at the skepticism conferences. Yes, there are problems, and yes, some men are boors. I don’t think having less than 50% of the speakers being female indicates some sinister plot to keep women down, and I know that there are men, even men my age who grew up with women in their science and math classes, who still have serious problems with acknowledging women with independent thought and authority (such as the CFO at my company). I went to school with professors who didn’t believe I had a right to be in class.

Part of me thinks I should mention this professor by name, but he had been retired for more than a decade, and he’s dead, so it doesn’t matter. I wonder if he changed any in the last years.

Categories: Feminism, Women, Work and Jobs

Tags: , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Naomi — I find this one of your very best posts. The societal and psychological problems inherent with being a female in a male world explode from your experiences. Intimidation is a terrible pedagogic (is that a word?) trait.

  2. I bet he changed a lot, when his granddaughers and great- granddaughers went to engineering school.

    I had similar problems in Junior High school and did not combat it. I let them decide that cooking and sewing classes were what I was destined for, forget about drafting (I really wanted to take that). I never pushed back, can’t remember anyone saying “no, you can’t take that class” but it only had boys in the class and I wasn’t strong enough to defy them.

    this comment “I admit to being somewhat annoyed by the discussion of misogyny at the skepticism conferences.” I’m giving a five-five. Make that I high-ten.

    And GG, your still beautiful!

    • My mother made me take home ex in ninth grade! You had to take either periods 0-6 or 1-7, so I got permission to take 0-7 so I could still take the academic stuff I wanted, like physical science. She thought I needed to know how to sew. She also made me take typing. I guess so I would be able to get a job. 😛

      • So true. Part of the reason I didn’t take the drafting and science classes I wanted to take were because I had NO support at home, and no mentors. I took several sewing and cooking classes (I suck at both) but excelled with my teacher Miss Fonville. I stayed late and did all kinds of extra credit. Made my mom super happy.

        My mother’s goal for me was to get a full-time job at Safeway, work my way up to cashier and get great benefits. Get married, go to church and have children. Keep my husband happy.

        In Jr High, I remember boys could take home ec it was called bachelor cooking for the time BEFORE they got married. LOL

        I am super glad they made us take typing. I learned that in high school on manual typewriters (remember those?). Can’t sew, can’t cook… but I can type!

      • My engineer father indirectly recommended that I take typing in high school. By then I had 4 years of playing clarinet, so the requisite neurology was in place, so I did really well. And that got me out of guard duty in military college (Virginia Tech).

  3. It’s very impressive that you were able to put up with Professor X as an adviser. I can imagine there were fewer women pursuing engineering degrees at that time, and very few female professors. Did you feel isolated while getting your degree?

    • There were two other women in the department. No, I never felt isolated, but from the time I was a young teen, most of my classmates were men, because if the courses I chose. I guess I got used to not being around many women, in school or career.

  4. I went to medical school in Australia in the early 1980s and while I frequently describe my time there as ‘6 years of ritualistic humiliation’ generally it was applied evenly among all of us. Interestingly it was my broader family – and particularly the female members of it – who seemed to find my attendance at medical school the most confronting and be the most unpleasant about it……

    Fortunately for all of us living well is the best revenge, and I have made sure I have done that both personally and professionally. Bravo Naomi for a brave and defiantly confident post!

  5. Since I grew up during the time that women were supposed to take all those “domestic” courses so they could get married, have children, cook and clean all their lives I am proud of you! I always wanted to be an animal vet but was sure I couldn’t hack it academically so opted for a much lesser college degree.( You know the rest of the story of a miserable adult life.) But it helped me support myself and son for a lot of years. Today, I recommend that young women ‘GO FOR IT’. Nothing is out of reach.


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