‘Do not gape.’ A Penn scientist’s tips for her white male colleagues in the 1970s

Tribune Content Agency

PHILADELPHIA — University of Pennsylvania biochemist Mildred Cohn was a pioneer in studying how the cells in our bodies use energy, earning a National Medal of Science in 1982.

She was perhaps just as well known for working to remove barriers for other women in the sciences.

Cohn is one of nine women featured in “Pursuit & Persistence: 300 Years of Women in Science,” a new exhibit at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

The display about Cohn illustrates how she overcame discrimination against women throughout much of her career. A college professor once discouraged her from pursuing a career as a chemist, calling it “unladylike.” She was unable to find in work industry, as many companies specified that only “male, Christian” applicants need apply.

“My career has been affected at every stage by the fact that I am a woman,” she said.

A decade after she joined the faculty at Penn, Cohn chaired a committee on the status of women at the university in 1970, making recommendations for how the school could increase their numbers among the faculty. Later that decade, she wrote a memo to colleagues titled “Affirmative Action Retention,” in which she outlined strategies for the university to foster a welcoming environment for women and people of color.

The memo included tips for her white male colleagues on how to interact with women and people of color on the faculty. Here are some excerpts:

1. Treat these newcomers as full-fledged colleagues. These people have chosen their particular disciplines for the same reasons, in most cases, that prompted white males to choose them.

2. These new colleagues are sensitive, feeling, perceptive people, not curiosities to be examined, paraded around, ogled, and denigrated if some mannerisms or characteristics are unusual in the eyes of the beholders.

3. In professional settings, treat women and men faculty members in the same way. This means that both female and male faculty members should be addressed in the same way. Both are professors. When you introduce your male colleagues as Professor or Doctor X, do not introduce your female colleagues as Miss, Mrs., Ms. X, or call them by their first names. The latter forms of address have no professional relevance.

4. Do not compliment women on their appearance if you do not compliment men. Do not gape. Gaping makes you, the beholder, look like a 19th century relic! Do not put your arm around women faculty members, pat them on the head, call them “dear,” comment on their physical characteristics or life style.

5. Do remember that the newcomers have well-educated minds and that they have been exposed to aspects of the discipline more recently than you, in many instances. You may be able to learn about your discipline from them. Ask them about their specialties. Ask them to comment on a paper of yours. Ask them to describe the graduate or professional program from which they have graduated.