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.