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.