Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Case of the Disappearing Women

Despite the discussion this week about ogling and more posts on breasts than I can fathom (in fairness, we really should have penis week to bring cosmic balance back to the blogosphere! And it looks like Isis has gotten Penis Week off to a rousing start), I've been feeling really good about the outlook for female scientists in my field.   Graduate programs in ecology are now pretty much 50-50 male/female....sometimes actually skewed towards female. When I left my post-doctoral institution to take this job, that graduate program had a huge group of gung-ho female grad students who were clearly on the fast-track to success. (They had an intense passion for science and the pubs to prove it.) Not only has our graduate representation increased, but it also feels like our faculty representation has increased. There are a large number of totally kick-ass young female ecologists that have been hired over the past couple of years. I mean, people who have wide-spread recognition as rock-stars. While I have run into some sexism in the older ranks, my male contemporaries (or at least the one's I'm lucky enough to hang out with) evaluate their male and female counterparts based on ideas and productivity, not body parts. So, I've been blissfully sitting here, watching the discussions occurring in the blogosphere, thinking 'thank god I'm an ecologist'.

Then reality struck on Friday night. I had a long conversation with an old friend from said post-doctoral institution. During this conversation, I did the standard "what's so-and-so doing", and I asked about all the young female graduate students who had looked to be destined for successful careers in academia. Each answer was grimmer than the last. Every single one of them has either left science, or it is difficult to see how they will remain in the game for much longer. Every single one of them apparently decided that it was impossible to have children and a successful career in science. Since having both is "impossible", they have made decisions for having the child that often preclude the science.  Every single one of them has a husband with a  job he could do in any city in the U.S., but she doesn't want to uproot him and the family when it "seems likely" they won't make it in academia anyway. Unless you're in one of the cities with multiple universities in close proximity, it's hard to get a permanent position in ecology when you're anchored to one location (we don't have the same industry options as the medical folks) and the funding situation at NSF makes the soft-money route even harder than it has been. While I hope that things will work out in the science arena for these women, I am not optimistic.

Obviously, for each of those women, the details of their situation is more complex than I've portrayed, but in complexity there is often still generality. A clear message I heard  was that these women felt they had no role-model of having a family and being a tenure-track professor. They didn't like the choices other women had made and assumed it was impossible to make different choices and still succeed.

And so, despite that fact that my post-doctoral institution had a 50-50 ratio in its grad population, it looks like from that group the number of women who will make it through the post-doc phase will be much much less. As an advisor, currently training a lab full of women, this revelation has me very, very worried. So, to all those rock-star young female assistant professors out there, keep doing what you're doing, sisters, because I think we desperately need you in more ways than one.

15 comments:

EcoGeoFemme said...

I have felt similarly sheltered in my interdisciplinary ecological subfield. It sucks to hear an ecologist saying that things aren't as good as I thought.

BUT, here's some good news to bring your spirits back up. I'm working on a symposium proposal right now and actually struggling to find enough good men to include. Right now the line-up has 6 women, 1 man, and 2 open slots that may or may not go to men.

Also, I know of a rising star who left science a few years ago to deal with her fourth kid. The other day I heard that she's trying to get back in. I really hope it works. In fact, I honestly think she can do it.

Also noteworthy: my department had a faculty search last year comprised of 5 women and 1 man. That doesn't really get at the retention issue you're talking about, but it's still a good thing.

Hermitage said...

I must say, my previous lack of role models made me kind of want to trade in my uterus sometimes, but now I've met some super awesome female profs with babies who do kickass research and I feel better. Because even though teh big U and I agree on the non-birthing of children I suspect that will change if I ever get brainwashed into marriage.

Anonymous said...

Well, Chaos, I'm in the ecology-ish boat that's sinking in my opinion. I can't be a chameleon for much longer... I keep adding on (being schizophrenic with my research interests, so I have been told) new avenues to broaden my horizons. The boys club hires new boys for their club. over and over. I am teetering between govt and academia on soft money at the moment, and after this year, I'm jumping ship. I will not be on the market looking for a DECENT place for a 4th year. I refuse. Where I go, I don't give a flying crap anymore. I just want a stable job in my preferred part of country (where I have friends and family).

I completely agree with other bloggers that to have a family and be a successful academic, you need to have a flexible and supportive partner. I've had none of that. I leave men in my wake. There's a "guy left behind" in 6 states, seriously. Had I known things would be as tough as they are, I would have bailed on science years ago.

It's just too much nonsense at this point. I want to get on with my life. My PhD advisor stopped taking students this year because it's been hard for all of us. He's been networking for us (6 women, 2 men), but he realizes now that things are very different for women. I'm done working twice as hard to not get anywhere in the job market, but hey, I'm climbing the paper trail.

It makes me sick to see well above 50% female grad students in this field for years, and a sea of white dudes hiring more dudes every year. I just can't turn the other cheek anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to say that the gender barrier in biology has been broken, and it was mostly done by child-free women or those who took non-standard paths to the tenure track (worked part time while their kids were young, then fought ageism as well to a tenure track job). Some, maybe most, of those women felt they had to choose between science and family, and they solved the dilemma in different ways. Now it's women wanting/having kids that is running up against bias and barriers (and why discussions of retaining and recruiting women in science seem to focus on child care/tenure clock allowances these days, which sometimes sweeps under the rug the fact that women, including child-free ones, still experience some differential treatment).

A wonderful Israeli prof I know gave birth 3 years ago, three weeks before an important meeting. She was 36 or 37 and a postdoc at the time. She brought the baby to the meeting, there were plenty of us who helped out with child care, and everyone loved having a baby to coo over (men included). However, everyone assumed it was her first child. She took some pleasure in informing people that this was her third (her eldest, a tween, was born during her masters and her second child, born during her PhD, was school-aged). It was nice to see someone telling Americans that we're all crazy for postponing having a family because of some outdated, ingrained mores.

But there's also evidence that women who combine kids and the tenure-track in this crazy American work culture suffer for it. One young, female untenured rock-star of ecology that I know is now pregnant. And the stuffy men in the department are taking exception to it, both because she's not being sufficiently productive... and because she is doing this without a partner. A professor in her department once told another woman that's it's completely fine to be a female academic scientist with children -- but then your husband can't have a career. While we need women (and their families) to smash through the barrier for the sake of the field, for the sake of future researchers... it's completely rational for each individual to choose something easier for herself. Insert some altruist/defector comment here.

All this being said, I know part of the reason I'm doing the R1 TT is because I haven't gotten married and I haven't yet burned through all my fertile years. I know I might defect myself when my circumstances change...

Fia said...

Hey, the whole point was to *motivate* us, wasn't it? Is anybody out here with good news? You guys should be our role models and all you do now is scare me.

In my opinion (hopefully soon-to-be post-doc, two kids + grad student partner), what we need to successfully combine a double (scientific - it doesn't matter, isn't it the same for other careers, too?) career and a family, and to motivate and encourage women to stay in science is

#1) a change in our society's understanding of partnerships. I call for equal partnerships.
Every single one of them has a husband with a job he could do in any city in the U.S., but she doesn't want to uproot him
That makes me mad! If it would be normal that the male partners would do their part in household and nursery (next to their jobs), the problem would be considerably smaller, too.

#2) daycare-on-campus, subsidized and available to everybody - from undergrad to tenured profs.
No crap like because you're a post-doc fellowship with no real emplyment, you are no eligible ect.

#3) role models, like many of the blogs I read hear, that help me (and maybe others in this situation) to not be scared.

Anonymous said...

I know we are supposed to spreading good cheer about being ecologists, but my good cheer wore off years ago.
My best friend is postponing having kids (she's 37) until she gets tenure (at MAJORLY HUGE R1 in another year). Another friend is considering divorce (she just got tenure last year and she's at wits end with her unsupportive husband). I have a tenured black female single parent as a mentor - she is superwoman to me but she has been through hell and back. Some postdoc friends are going into state govt jobs just to have decent health care so they can have kids. It's the reality.
I love my work. It's not work to me. But having to disappear for months at a time to count and chase stuff takes a toll on personal relationships. and I'm not really doing the work I want to be doing at the moment... being in postdoc/pre-prof purgatory, having a crap salary, having student loans, requiring gas and food, ...at age 33, I can barely take care of myself, despite having a PhD. I do agree that there's alot of focus on childcare and tenure clocks as issues why women "leak" - my personal reason is that I'm tired. I used to be a "kick-ass young female" - my ass is tired of kicking.
I wouldn't wish this on anyone.

Candid Engineer said...

On a positive note, I am happy to have found a community of good women scientists online, and this gives me infinitely more hope that I can pull off a science careers and have a couple of kids.

Karina said...

I'm still optimistic about my potential to have a tenure-track job and babies, then tenure and kids. If I could actually control such things, I'm thinking it might be best for me to take an extra year in grad school and pop out one or two before I hit the job market. I know, I know, easier said than done. My advisor, thankfully, is very supportive of his students having kids during grad school. I'm not discouraged yet.

chall said...
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chall said...

I feel a bit like Anonymous at 7.15pm. I don't know if I want to kick ass anymore. As in, I am not sure that it is worth it...

It might be that I am tired in genreal but the last few months I have come to realise that I don't feel as happy to weigh up the potential down fall of not having family/publications going to fail&fighting every day for not being "forgotten on the acknoledgemnt slide" etc.

I too thank all the female scientist who blog. you all have made it easier for me during my post doc time and you give me hope.

Too bad though that I feel that my two older mentors and my present situation does not give me the environment that make me think I can "make" it. plus boring things as not getting grants and leaving men in states and dissolved marriages etc...

I do think however, that many women give up easily when it comes to "not wanting to uproot their husbands" but it is very very dangerous to trry and judge other people. So I won't.

chall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anon (UK) said...

Good news? Sorry. No good news over here (computer science).

Workloads in my dept are very high; despite being intellectually capable, having a supportive partner and no kids, I ended up unable to cope and went backwards, undoing a promotion and going part-time, in order to continue the research and teaching that I still want to do. It's just as well that I don't want children; there's clearly no way I could have coped with a full-time academic job and child-rearing if I couldn't even cope when childless.

As far as other women go within the department (we're a minority but a significant minority), every single woman has some kind of sacrifice made somewhere. Some aren't active in research. Some are part-time. Some were research-inactive for several years whilst their children were small. Some try hard to get research done but find it very very difficult to squeeze out time for it.

On another note that is slightly less pessimistic concerning gender issues, women are not the only ones to be part-time; some of the men are too (though proportionally fewer), and some of the men with children are not as research-active as those without.

My soul is still in computer science. But I've had the stuffing knocked out of me and I've had to adjust to much lower expectations. I don't have much fight or enthusiasm left. I can summon up the energy to fight if I need to do so to prevent more stuffing being knocked out of me. I can do enthusiasm on the details level.
So I am getting joy where I can nowadays, which is in the details of understanding computing (whether teaching students or doing my own research).

Jane said...

This is a very timely post---I'm having a very rough week myself, finding it really hard to get any semblance of "balance". I'm tenure-track, going up for tenure next year (um, just a bit of pressure there, huh?), and have a toddler. It's hard, some days, really hard. But I *know* that this is what I always wanted to do, and that I'd find a way to make it work, and so far (knock on wood), I have made it work.

What's helped? Number one, a super-supportive spouse with a flexible job, who splits household stuff and childcare w/ me 50/50 and who has had no qualms following me for my career. This is probably the most important factor in my success. Number two, GOOD DAY CARE! Number three, a supportive network of colleagues who also have young kids, some pre-tenure and some just-tenured, women and men who are trying to be good scholars and not neglect the home life. It's so, so great to have peer role models struggling (and succeeding) right there with you. Number four, the blogging community, all the stories from women who are trying to make it all work out. And finally, number five, a kick-ass senior mentor, single-mom, super-productive researcher who has been an invaluable source of advice.

Thanks for the post---definitely good food for thought and discussion!

ScientistMother said...

A lack of female role models is a huge issue. I left the institute where I was doing my PhD (and almost left science) because everyday I was told that it is near impossible to have my kid AND do science. Either its not worth it, or I am not able to work the required 60-80 hours a week. Thankfully I've landed in much different place

Ms.PhD said...

A useful post and comments.

Regardless of the children issue, it's harder for women.

The lack of role models is a major problem.

Most of the male PIs I work with continue to stick their heads in the sand about the obvious trends in their labs- that they themselves promote their female postdocs' work less than their male peers', and that we go on to have a much harder time on the job market.

I'm glad to hear it is getting better in fits and spurts, but in a way, I'm also glad to hear other women feel the way I do. A little burned out, a little hopeless, and quite a bit fed up.

I think it's really important, contrary to what younger women WANT to hear, to keep telling them over and over and over, how hard it is. And to keep telling our male peers and 'mentors', over and over and over, how hard it is.

It's too easy for them to complain about affirmative action and to say that women are not leaving science in larger numbers than men, but they will continue to believe these things because it is easier than facing the truth. If we keep shoving it in their faces, eventually they will have to admit, even in the supposedly 'better' life sciences, women have it really hard.