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Academic Discrimination Lives On
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Kathleen Richter, Graduate Student

California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California

In its November 7, 1968, issue, Caltech's student newspaper announced, "The Board of Trustees has now approved girls, in principle." More than three decades later, there are still urinals in some women's bathrooms. But the problems women encounter here are bigger than that.

For those of you who have not heard of it, Caltech is an esteemed school of science and technology in Pasadena. Its faculty has included Richard Feynman, Linus Pauling, and numerous other Nobel laureates. And Caltech is fond of bragging that U.S. News and World Report ranked it the best university in the nation in 2000. The question is: the best university for whom? Caltech is overwhelmingly white and male. As a woman, I was shocked when I first got here.

Shortly after arriving on campus, I started hearing about the bizarre undergraduate phenomenon called glomming, which involves a man or a group of men stalking a woman, usually a first-year student. The glommer might follow the woman to class, wait for her afterward, sit at her cafeteria table, or enter her dorm room and refuse to leave. Some men are e-glommers who send tons of e-mails, or constantly "finger" a woman's account to find out where she is logging in from.

Glommers say all they want is for a woman to hook up with someone; once she has a boyfriend, they generally leave her alone. At the same time, some men have called women sluts while they were glommed, as if they "asked for it." Students who have objected to or reported glomming have been ostracized. One undergraduate told me, "It's the isolation that really makes it bad." Kathleen Schulweis, former director of the Women's Center agrees, pointing out that many Caltech first-year women, who were lonely in high school because they were among the few women involved in science, find it difficult to fight glomming because "they end up alone, all over again." Some women have left Caltech because of this "tradition."

But glomming remains a big part of undergraduate culture, and too many people don't take it seriously. A male graduate student got very defensive when I referred to glomming as stalking. He told me glomming was "normal and natural" behavior. Too many men agree: a recent study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that women on college campuses are twice as likely to be stalked as women in the general population. And I know men at Caltech who have taken ideas like these to their logical conclusion and argued that rape is "natural" behavior.

I'm surprised at how some undergraduate women play down glomming and make excuses for it. Women recognize the culture of disrespect but are unwilling to rock the boat because they are afraid to be seen as man-haters. A few years ago, a small group of undergraduate women created "The Girl's Guide to Glomming," a short book for first-year women on how to protect themselves. They got funding from the administration for it, but the school forced the authors to make the guide's language gender-neutral and to change the title to "The Geek's Guide to Glomming," as though both women and men were doing it. Still, many upperclass students were vehemently opposed to the guide, saying that it would bring negative press to Caltech. At one point, the e-mail account the authors had established for the guide was hacked. Finally, they gave up and stopped printing.

Glomming isn't the only problem women have on campus. Recently, the Women's Center sign was defaced, with the "W" and "O" painted over, making it the Men's Center. Schulweis says she didn't mind the prank — even though the center had to pay for the repairs — but she was angry that no one took responsibility for it. This was a violation of Caltech's Honor Code, which applies to all aspects of campus life and is generally taken seriously — except when it comes to the Women's Center or issues of sexual harassment, it seems. And this wasn't the first time the Women's Center was vandalized. An administrator who asked not to be identified told me people used to break into the center and take down posters, use computers, and leave dirty dishes and used condoms lying around. And the little t, the Caltech undergraduate student guide, once ran an insulting description about the Women's Center instead of the ad it had written and paid for.

If you visit the seven campus "houses," where all new students must live — and which are structured more like fraternities than dormitories — you can see how the problems women face have evolved. Take Page House. Last year, according to our student newspaper The California Tech, Page House had to remove its Web site from Caltech's server because the administration had received complaints about sexually explicit photos. Students were being awarded titles like "House Pussy-Whipped" and "House Child Molester." Then there's Ruddock House, which publishes a satirical newsletter featuring crude sex jokes, and in the past also has included pornographic material. An article advising students to visit Costa Rica during spring break read: "When you're looking for a whore, don't go to the ones near the beach towns; they're overpriced at $20. Go to the capitol, and you can get some for $5. Saying 'Mi madre coge mejor que eso' [My mom fucks better than that] afterward can get you a discount."

What strikes me most about the newsletter is how it is so clearly written by men, for men. A reader might not be able to tell there are any women in Ruddock House. This is a big part of the problem at Caltech — somehow, women seem to become invisible, and everything centers around what men want to say, what men want to put on Web sites or in newsletters. As Kim D. West, director of residence life, pointed out, sometimes people assume that if women don't complain about these things, that means they don't mind. But it is important to understand how hard it is to be a dissenting voice in an environment like Caltech's.

There's a lot of denial about what's happening to women on campus. According to several people I talked to, there was a meeting about sexual violence several years ago in which participants responded to women's stories of rape by saying, "That doesn't happen here." And when I said I was writing this article, some people advised me not to discuss glomming or other problems because it might scare away potential students, and we desperately need a more diverse student body. It never seems to occur to anyone that maybe women should be wary about coming to Caltech. We do need more women students here — and more students of color — but they will be better prepared to deal with the atmosphere if they are warned about it instead of being deceived into thinking Caltech is some kind of utopia for aspiring scientists. That is the first step in transforming Caltech into a school where the administration rigorously enforces its own sexual harassment policy, where women and students of color do not feel like oddities.


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