Woman vs. The Man

Donna Dean, PhD: Woman vs. The Man

Describes an incident of receiving a lower grade than a man for similar work.

Video Transcript

Dr. Donna Dean's Bio

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Transcript: Woman vs. The Man

Yes. I think the—while the climate in our own lab was very good. Not all of the professors in our department, I think were fully welcoming of women in pursuit of graduate degrees, in the department. There was one professor who made it very clear to all the women students in the department that he was certainly available for any extra curricular activity if the faculty—that the faculty didn't know about, but he was very open to that. Of course, if you weren't interested, he didn't bother you, but he was rather blatant about making it obvious that if you were interested, so was he. But everyone knew about him, so there was this kind of this underground among the female—and indeed the male graduate students—about, well you know so and so this way, so just FYI.

I had probably the thing that really shook me the most is my first year in graduate school. I actually failed the final in one of my major graduate school courses. I knew that I knew that subject really well. I didn't get a perfect score, but I knew that I did very well because a group of us graduate students had studied together, and we had teamed together to make sure we really understood these fundamental biochemical concepts. It was a very difficult test where you had to draw phenomenal chemical structures and show pathways and enzymes, but you there were lots of points to be graded on.

When I got back my exam, and I saw that I had failed it, I asked my closest study partner who happened to be a male, "Well, what did you get?" and he showed me his exam. He had two points deducted for an error, and I had 20 points deducted for the very same error. It was just a flip hydrogen on a ring structure, and they were the similar anomalies throughout the whole paper. Simultaneously, the other woman in the class, had asked her study partners what they had gotten, and she had the similar discrepancies. So our classmates told both of us, "Well this happened to your female classmate," that happened to me.

I went to my, then, thesis adviser because I had chosen him by then. She went to her, then, thesis adviser and said, "This is what Donna and I did." They both went to the department chair, and she and I went to the department chair and said, "This is what happened." What the department should have done I think is very different than what they actually did. What they did was basically gave me and the other woman incompletes in that particular class. They just voided the failure. Gave us incompletes and said the next year—for a year we would audit the medical school biochemistry course; a full year which was three days a week for an entire calendar year. If we just audited it, then they would make our grade in this course from an incomplete to basically a passing grade. I could have argued, but it was clear, as we were moving towards resolution to that, it was very clear that this was a professor who wanted the women to come to him and complain about their grade, then have him be willing to change the grade if the woman behaved in a certain way to him. I am just so grateful that the department chair, at least, recognized—and I think it's not coincidental, but three years later that faculty member just up and departed and went to another major institution.

I later found out 20 years later that he was basically asked to leave because this behavior apparently continued. But it's auditing that medical school biochemistry course turned out to be one of the most wonderful things that I could have done. I mean I'm not putting a gloss on it, it's just sort of life deals you something that turns out to be not a good things. So you say, "Okay fine. I have to do this so I'm going to get something out of it." Just sitting in a class with first year medical students and hearing biochemistry taught in the context of medicine, I think served me well later to understand it. I would hope those kinds of things happen these days, but I'm not sure they don't happen in some places. But the point is injustice should never be allowed to happen like that."


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