Don’t just cry about it, DO SOMETHING!(updated)

I’ve had several of conversations lately with faculty senior to me about their young female graduate students. The conversations go something like this. They begin with the advisor raving about a particular female graduate student, usually including how bright said student is, what a hard worker, and how much they have or had accomplished in the lab. Then, bright female graduate student drops out of graduate school to get married (in one case she had a first author C/N/S paper) OR she graduates but leaves science to follow her spouse where ever he goes. The conversation ends with A LOT of hand wringing on the part of the advisor about how they could have done a better job with that particular woman to convince her to stay in the academic science pipeline, the futility of the one-on-one mentoring with that particular student, and bemoaning the lack of women at the upper reaches of science in general. And sometimes I hear the blame for the lack of women applying and getting faculty positions laid at the feet of those who chose to ‘drop out’. (This last part is very frustrating because gosh, it’s just so much more complicated than that.)

First, it’s a good thing that I am hearing acknowledgment of the fact that it’s a loss to the scientific community when women don’t continue their academic careers. Open acknowledgment of this fact is the first step- you can’t fix a problem if you can’t admit that you have a problem, right? (Just FYI Anna Kushnir has a post about the leaky pipeline in Wired and an entry on her Nature network blog as well).

But- here’s the thing- I am continuously frustrated by the lack of acknowledgment that there is a culture in academic science that is unfriendly (to put it mildly) to women, women sense it, and don’t want to be part of it, in many cases despite a terrific intellectual curiosity and all the right talents. I guess I am dancing around saying that one-on-one mentoring is fine, necessary for confidence building etc. , and can work very well- but its not ENOUGH to rely on one-on-one mentoring to convince young women that they can thrive in this profession in the face of a hostile culture. Why not also contribute to changing the culture itself???

Here is a suggestion for these hand wringing faculty- next time you have a young female graduate student with great potential who drops out of the pipeline- don’t just sit around bemoaning the fact that this happened. If this is an issue YOU care about, then get up off your bottom, talk to your chairman, talk to the other faculty, talk to anyone in the administration who will listen to you- the dean if necessary- with some creative solutions that could be implemented to actually SHOW the women in your program that the culture is changing/or can be changed. Naturally, I’ve got a few suggestions-

1. How about increasing the visibility/participation of younger women WITH KIDS in your seminar series. You want to show young women in your programs that the culture of choosing between kids and academic career has changed- there is NOTHING like a live demo. Send said talented female students out to lunch with the speaker after the seminar.

2. How about educating yourself and your department members (or getting the Dean to do a college-wide effort) to raise the awareness of how subtle and unconscious gender biases exist and influence the culture in science. This could be as simple as inviting someone like Virginia Valian to give a college-wide seminar on your campus. After all, you have to consciously work to change what you are unconsciously predisposed to do that contributes to perpetuating male dominated science culture…and you can’t do this if you aren’t educated about your unconscious biases.

3. Include female graduate students and post-docs periodically in women’s faculty leadership groups and events. These kids need to see first hand that a supportive structure exists or women… again- nothing like a live demo.

These are just a couple of thoughts- add your own, and think outside the box people!.

.. and one more thing… I found this insightful post after I wrote this text, it’s peripherally related… but I wanted to link it somewhere because I think you should read it…!

16 thoughts on “Don’t just cry about it, DO SOMETHING!(updated)

  1. excellent commentary. I am sending this post to my own advisor. We have an excellent female post-doc who has chosen to not pursue a faculty position. I personally think it is a HUGE loss to academia and know that my PI is quite upset by it. He will find this useful.

  2. I’ve been reading your blog’s rss feed for a few weeks and haven’t commented, but this post really struck me, so here I am.

    I am a female scientist with an MS who has been encouraged to pursue a PhD by many different individuals, so I guess that makes me a female academic. 🙂 I have also just dropped out of academia by accepting a job offer in industry. My advisor wails repeatedly about how his graduate students all leave pure academia (all female, all have left academia) and actually did say once that it wasn’t worth training women because we all left.

    The reasons were varied for all of us, but for myself, I don’t like the environment of academia. It is hostile to not only women but younger scientists. Being treated like dirt because I happen to be young and still learning isn’t worth it, especially since I get paid like dirt too. A technician job that expects me to work 60 hours a week but pays less than my spouse makes as a retail slave? No thank you.

    Industry and government make more sense for many reasons, and I am not somehow “less of a scientist” for realizing that.

  3. ScientistMother-

    Last night before I wrote that post I had a very lengthy conversation with a colleague who was in a similar situation to your mentor- talented female trainee who dropped out, sits on search committees sees no qualified female candidates come through. But the thing that frustrated me about the conversation was that he wasn’t the slightest bit insightful about how he might participate in starting some action (however small) that might be part of a long term solutiion to STOPPING THESE THINGS FROM HAPPENING in the future.

    All I heard in reference to participating in making small steps in moving in the right direction- was a bunch of I can’t do this, I can’t do that- well, why the hell not???? So I say- if you are faculty member in such a situation, and this kind of thing really, really bothers you- I URGE you to participate in the solution instead of giving me a bunch of bullshit excuses why you CAN’T.


    Welcome and thanks for commenting. UUUUgh this just drives me crazy to hear- people- women might stay if YOU senior (and I don’t mean in age) faculty SHOW that you want to keep women in science by actively participating to change YOUR culture.

  4. “I am continuously frustrated by the lack of acknowledgment that there is a culture in academic science that is unfriendly (to put it mildly) to women, women sense it, and don’t want to be part of it, in many cases despite a terrific intellectual curiosity and all the right talents.”

    Thank you! That’s the heart of the matter, right there.

    I am myself teetering on the edge–do I try to reenter academia after some time away, or do I transtion to an “alternative” science career or leave science entirely? I loved research, I really did. But I’m the mother of two young children. And even without the bleak NIH funding landscape, the negative lifestyle issues associated with academic research are a HUGE deterrence.

    Blogs like yours are at least a visible sign that there *are* women scientists out there who “make it” in academia, even with children. I think you yourself are one of those “live demos” you mention. Thank you.

  5. bean-mom-

    Thanks for commenting. A love of science is absolutely required to have an academic career- if you have that, and decide that you want to do this job, everything else can be worked out. It might be slower or by a different path than if you were doing this under different circumstances…. but no one except you is keeping a timetable of how fast or well this goes.

    I appreciate your kind words about my blog very much. I love my job- it is the right fit for me and I know that I am doing the right thing for myself. I think academic science is a wonderful career, and is just such a unique and intellectually satisfying pursuit where I may have a chance to do something good.. I want this to show, I want other women to realize how really great this option can be!!

    My family is important to me above all else. There are times when I just have to drop what I am doing and to put out a burning family fire… but, that’s just how it is…

    I hope that by chronicling my experiences and thoughts here- they can be of some benefit to someone!

  6. I hope that by chronicling my experiences and thoughts here- they can be of some benefit to someone!

    They are to me. Just sayin’

  7. As Kes said:
    The reasons were varied for all of us, but for myself, I don’t like the environment of academia. It is hostile to not only women but younger scientists. Being treated like dirt because I happen to be young and still learning isn’t worth it, especially since I get paid like dirt too. A technician job that expects me to work 60 hours a week but pays less than my spouse makes as a retail slave? No thank you.

    I just left the pipeline myself, BS in Physics and no interest in subjecting myself to grad school when I could be out there making money and living my life. An article that I found just the other day at put it well. The problem isn’t just that the academic system is hostile to women, although it is; the system is hostile to anyone who isn’t willing to dedicate him- or herself to it 110%. Want to have kids? Want to have a happy relationship with a spouse who has his or her own career? Sorry, the only family allowed here is the wives who type up grant applications for their scientist husbands.

    Maybe we say “no, science needs women!” and try to change that culture, or maybe we say “no, science doesn’t want you unless you’re devoted” and recognize that, for a variety of reasons, many women are just not going to be as willing to sell their souls to science.

    As a note, this doesn’t have to mean that “women are more practical” or “women are too smart to settle for crummy living conditions”, which is how it’s put so often. It can also just be that women are socialized not to be ‘selfish’ by devoting huge chunks of time to their studies instead of doing something that makes money for the family, or that men are less likely to help their wives’ careers in the way many women help their husbands’. Either way, the sacrifices that are being demanded of men just aren’t OK with a lot of women.

  8. Yup, yup, yup.

    It *is* nice to see the male faculty complaining about losing talented women– it is better than hearing them complain about how much easier it is for women to get hired for faculty jobs than it is for men (which I often hear…)! In much the same way that older men with daughters sometimes make great feminists, so can older male professors with female PhD students. 🙂 However the additional step of understanding is not always there– they don’t really understand why women might not want a faculty career!

    Similarly, I heard a very kindly senior colleague talk about how it was really too bad that women were quiet and shy in classes and did not speak up and participate in class, and that they really needed to get over it so that they could be successful “out there in the world”! He meant well, but clearly did not really get it. Fortunately he made this comment in front of a bunch of articulate women who turned around the discussion to how he as a lecturer can create a supportive classroom environment that encourages the development of all students. Meaning well is a good start… if combined with a few nudges in the right direction.

  9. Doing something about it:

    Funny I should come across this. Recently I went out for dinner with a speaker as well as 2 other female faculty in our department and another faculty (male). The issue of part-time postdocs came up as a question: would you hire a female postdoc who might go on mat. leave and perhaps work part time thereafter. To my shock and amazement, the three women essentially said “No”. Of course this is understandable given the current funding climate and the NIH regulations. I mentioned this to another female colleague of mine who was just as shocked. So the hesitation is not confined to PP. Anyway, we came up with an idea: why not ask the dean to set aside 1-2 postdoc fellowships for the department. The funds would be under the control of the chair and would be expressly used to fund a postdoc while she worked part-time after mat. leave. The dean loved the idea and it is now implemented. Of course my school has deep pockets but I am sure it can work elsewhere. Hopefully this can convince a few women that

  10. This post is very timely in my world! I’ll be completing my PhD this fall and have been doing the academia vs private sector debate. At this point, I’m about 95% certain I’ll head out of academics and back into the consulting world (which I was a part of for ~5 years pre-grad school). There are many reasons for this choice, but the primary one is that I value my time outside of my job. For the past 5+ years I’ve worked in a department with 1 female faculty member, so I have to admit I’ve lacked any sort of role model who might demonstrate that it’s possible to have both a life and a research career. However, I have watched the male junior faculty work their tails off toward tenure (often 60+ hrs per week), and I just don’t want to do that! I love research and fear I will miss it greatly, but I love my husband and value my free time more. I’m fairly confident I could get an academic job if I chose to pursue it, but I’ve been feeling like the benefits of university life are outweighed by the negative aspects of the job. Perhaps if I’d had more exposure to female mentors to see that a happy medium between life and work is possible I would be thinking differently. Thanks for the insightful post!

  11. Lisa and almostDrJ- Yes, I know- basic science has this issue of not allowing real life to go on simultaneously- a bit for both men and women. I guess I see that when my husband works long hours he is also not available to the children- and I don’t want that for him either. I just don’t find this an acceptable way of living- for our family. We do the best we can to balance this, and try to have a healthy gauge for when enough work is enough.

    anon and Dr. Shellie- Both great comments. I like both tales of creative solutions!

  12. I like the suggestions about how to change the atmosphere rather than just hounding individual “leaking” women to stay in academia. I defended my phd 2 weeks ago and just today announced to my boss that I am leaving academia. I have to admit that part of the reason I’m leaving is the bizarre attitude most academics have about how great academia is and that anything else is for sh*t, when the fact is every academic I know is giving up a LOT in life and living an incredibly stressful lifestyle trying to get grants/tenure. The continual pronouncements about how great it all is (and the intense pressure to stay in the “cult”) smack of “methinks the queen doth protest too much”.

  13. Andrea-

    Thanks for visiting- and for the comment. The one-on-one approach has usefulness, but if the real problem is the culture- why not try to make some small inroads on that here and there? Much of the system being the way it is is just careless inattention to and acceptance of the status quo by people who actually have the power to change things in many small ways (that could be cumulative) but instead many of them just use their energy to bemoan the status quo.

    I don’t favor that attitude.

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