By Mallory McCarthy
The Laker Student Editor
Ms. Cahill’s journalism class sat in a semi-circle, intently listening to the life stories of their guest speaker Dr. Dorothy MacFarlane this past October 15th. MacFarlane is a Kingston resident and graduate of Silver Lake’s class of ‘61. She returned to her alma mater to share her experiences as a woman working in the male-dominated science field. MacFarlane explained her hardships and struggles with sexual harassment throughout her career, and expressed her hopes for gender equality in the future.
As a child, MacFarlane excelled in science and math. She followed her father’s words of wisdom to “aim high,” and wanted to pursue an education in the chemistry field. However, a college advisor told MacFarlane that chemistry is for men, and women should only consider careers in biology. Following this advice, MacFarlane earned her BA in Biology at Northeastern University in 1966, and went on to earn a master’s degree in physiology in 1972.
MacFarlane experienced sexual harassment during her college experiences. She told the students how she was afraid to walk down certain hallways in the school buildings because some male professors and administrators were notorious for cornering the young female students. MacFarlane said the harassment ranged from unwanted verbal advances to physical abuse. Whatever the victimized students endured, MacFarlane made it clear that there was nowhere to seek justice– often times the individuals students should turn to for help were perpetrators.
When MacFarlane landed a job with the U.S. Borax company and moved out to California to begin her career, she hoped she would be taken more seriously. Yet, sexism in the workplace was evident from the very beginning of MacFarlane’s experience, with male higher-ups penalizing women for their achievements.
MacFarlane explained to Laker students how the harassment was not always blatant: Her presentations were at times cut short with insignificant questions, and she was often scheduled to present last, when all the men of the company were eager to leave and play golf. MacFarlane felt that she was not always taken seriously and granted the respect she deserved, and she was paid less than male individuals who had the same qualifications. This subtle, but continous discrimination only progressed as she attempted to flourish in her field.
Eventually the harassment became physical and more egregious. During a company trip to Puerto Rico, she was groped by one of her coworkers on the dance floor. Incensed by this, MacFarlane fled to her hotel room, where the man followed her and repetitively knocked on the door. MacFarlane was mortified by the unwanted attention and commotion caused, and waited until the man gave up. Later, she answered a phone call and remembered hearing, not only the voice of the pursuing man, but the laughter of her colleagues in the background. The people she thought of as friends, along with her bosses, found the situation entertaining and did nothing to rectify the hurt and embarrassment MacFarlane felt.
After that trip, MacFarlane realized she would never be valued as an equal in that company. She shared that women did not have many options with regard to sexual harassment in the workplace. “Either you took it or you left.” MacFarlane left. This decision afforded MacFarlane the opportunity to continue her education, and she eventually earned her doctorate in biology in 1996.
In the wake of campaigns like the #metoo movement, Doctor Dot’s experiences are relevant more than ever. While sexual discrimination still remains part of our nation’s institutionalized culture, Dr. Dot is hopeful that women will keep making forward progress. She found assurance in the fact that Cahill’s thirteen year-old daughter could not conceptualize the wardrobe limitations put on female college students in the 70’s. When Dr. Dot explained she was only allowed to wear pants on Saturdays, Cahill’s daughter questioned, “What did you wear then!?” The skirt rules of the past are so far removed from the eight-grader’s current experience, that she misunderstood Dr. Dot’s anecdote.
Dr. Dot is still visibly angry and upset when she talks about the harassment she endured so many years ago. She stood up against inequalities and hopes that by sharing her stories young people can continue to make progress. She encourages Laker students to live by her father’s words and “aim high” for the future.