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…!