Encouraging (women) scientists to opt in to academia

25 Jun

It’s an interesting week to talk about women in science. On Tuesday afternoon, I listened in on the end of a White House panel discussion about Title IX and its impact on women in both athletics and science and technology. Scientific American also reported on a new government study about the state of women in academic science, which indicates that women are at least as likely to be hired into tenure track science positions as their male colleagues. One problem is that women don’t apply for those positions in numbers that match their representation in science.

Academic science as a system still selects against women (and men) who might want a more flexible life before 40. Once you have tenure, you have autonomy, but for a decade (or two) you’re at the mercy of a sometimes merciless system.

I’m an out-opter, and I don’t regret my choice. I realized that academic science and I weren’t the best match, in part because I discovered that I loved writing, disliked labwork, and had broad interests. Another piece of the decision came from the stark realization in my late 20s that I was at least 10 years away from possible tenure. Academia, which had once seemed like this wonderful, flexible lifestyle, gradually became confining– long hours, low pay and little room for an outside life for another decade or more.

One quote from the Title IX discussion stuck with me:

You’ve got to SEE it to BE it. –Billie Jean King

King was talking about the dearth of women in high level positions in athletic departments. But although more and more women trainees see women scientists, but they don’t always see models that reflect all their goals of career and life entwined. Some of the tenured women in academia that I remember talking with spoke wistfully about something that they gave up: a relationship or the opportunity to have children. And let’s not forget the many women (and some men) who gave up their academic dreams to fulfill their familial urges.

From my own observations and my conversations with colleagues and sources over the years, I’ve come up with my own wish list that might help more women opt in. None of these are novel, per se, but I think they all get at pieces of the problem.

  1. University policies that support family and child care: affordable day care and generous leave policies for graduate students, postdocs and faculty. No stigma against using any or all of these support systems for women or men.
  2. More discussion of career alternatives outside the ivory tower throughout graduate school and postdoctoral work. I know, it sounds counterintuitive. Only a small percentage of graduate students in the sciences will become tenured faculty. Seeing a variety of options gives trainees choices instead of feeling trapped on a single, ever-narrowing path. Trainees might keep academia on the list if more departments and faculty encouraged diverse choices on the career menu.
  3. Encouraging students to take time before they start graduate school. I know I could have used more life experience before I started. My observations of colleagues and interviews with faculty suggest that life experience helps you have more focused goals. That focus usually leads students to use their training time more wisely.
  4. End the serial postdoc. It’s good training for a limited period, but it’s indentured servitude over a long haul. Postdocs need to lead to permanent positions. Trainees, be honest with yourself and your needs and look for mentors who will help you get there.
  5. Reform tenure. I’m not sure if it needs to go completely, but the process needs to be more transparent and adaptable, both to personal circumstances and to the difficulty of the science being attempted. I’m not convinced that a system that reviews a faculty member’s contributions to the community every 5 to 7 years might not be better and fairer.

Some might argue that academic obstacles are just natural selection: a way to winnow scientists down to the “fittest.” But if academia wants to percolate diversity in its hiring pool, the people in charge have to think more about the overall needs of that diverse pool.

Academics– or former aspiring ones– what would be on your wish list?

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2 Responses to “Encouraging (women) scientists to opt in to academia”

  1. drtreehugger November 22, 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    I definitely agree with the second point, I wish there’d been more opportunity to discuss alternative career options. Now I am in the final haul of my PhD, have realised I don’t want to be an academic afterall (personal lifestyle choice, mostly) and starting to panic about what to do besides that. I guess I’m “lucky” in that I already know where my other interests/strengths are, so I can look there first. But it’s terrifying to realise you ended up on that “ever-narrowing path” and want to get off!

    • webbofscience November 22, 2009 at 1:15 pm #

      I agree– stepping off the traditional academic track is incredibly frightening. When I was a graduate student, it was easy to put career planning on auto-pilot– Ph.D., postdoc, tenure-track job, and then tenure. When I realized that I wanted to jump off that train, there wasn’t a track, just rough footpaths, not well-worn enough for me to be sure whether they might be dead ends.

      Good luck in finding your own way. It was scary, but it was also an incredibly rewarding journey that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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