Thursday, October 18, 2012

Off Topic

A reader writes about her frustration with the prevalence of Women In Science (WIS) events that turn out to be about how to get out of science or, at least, academic science (research), and frustration with the number of workshops and other WIS events that focus on babies babies babies (primarily anxiety about the possibility that babies lead to "career suicide").

"There are very few events about how to do good research at the top competitive levels, the psychological travails of an academic lifestyle" ... "even something about common sexist gaffes (e.g. asking about your husband's job at your job interview) would be helpful ... I went to one .. event early on in my position here, as I work on an area .. with very few women and I like the XX companionship, but it turned out to be a networking event for women looking to get out of research. I still haven't been back."

"Is this problem [having babies and a career as a scientist at a university] just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?"

This reader provided a very long list of workshop titles to prove her point about the workshop obsession with work-life balance (= having a career and children) and leaving academia.

Has anyone else had this experience of being overwhelmed by an emphasis on opting-out or baby-anxiety topics?

I would hope that there could be workshop theme balance, such that topics included how to find non-academic careers in science as well as how to succeed in a research career in science. Women-in-science events at the university where I had my first tenure-track job were extremely important to me when I was getting started, and definitely included discussion of the topics the reader mentions as being of interest to someone pursuing a research career at a university. If there had been a major emphasis on getting out of research/academic, I would have felt even more isolated than I already did.
The topic of babies is clearly a critical one for many women, but it's too bad if this overshadows (or eclipses) everything else. I don't just mean that for women who don't have children (now), but for all women in science. The baby issue should be part of the discussion, but there are many important topics.

I don't mean to minimize the challenges of having children and a career as a professor at a research university, but I hope that in most fields it is easy to encounter -- in real life and in blogs -- examples of happy, successful professor-moms, so that early-career scientists can see that babies ≠ career suicide.

Another hope of mine, perhaps an even less realistic one, is that it wouldn't always be women talking about careers-and-babies, but that more men would be involved in these discussions. It is still common for FSPs who are invited speakers at other institutions to be asked to have a "pizza lunch" or whatever with female students and postdocs, typically to talk about work-life issues.* Are any of you in departments that routinely invite men to do the same?

For those who share the experience of my reader in not finding WIS workshops that focus on topics relevant to women who want to stay in (academic/research) science, blogs can help fill the gap to some extent, but there's no substitute for talking with others -- sharing stories and experiences, getting and giving advice and support, laughing and expressing anxiety. If you can't find that in workshops sponsored by a particular group, perhaps you can create your own mini-workshop or social-professional event, somehow getting the word out and seeing if there are others interested in discussion of similar topics. Alternatively (or in addition to this), see if you (and like-minded women) can get word to the relevant organizations for WIS and let them know what topics would be of interest to you.

* Not long ago, something rather cool came out of one of these women-lunch discussion things that I did years ago at another university. One of the women who attended my discussion later became a high school science teacher in the region where I live, so, when one of her students became interested in my general field of research, this teacher got in touch with me and we arranged that I would meet the student and introduce her to some undergraduates and professors involved in advising the undergrad program in my department and I thought this was a great, albeit unexpected, outcome of having what I remember as rather bad pizza while being quizzed about the usual work-life issues by anxious young women.


Anonymous said...

"women in science" events are designed to focus on issues that are unique to the female scientist. the kind of challenges that the original poster are asking about are common to men and women and can be discussed in larger, coed forums. why not seek those out?

Anonymous said...

"Is this problem [having babies and a career as a scientist at a university] just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?"


At least when you first have kids (which is all I know about so far), yes, absolutely.

Being a parent, for me, was the single largest adjustment I had faced in my career. Caring for sick and dying relatives came close. Any major life change that consumes so much of your time and energy that you must re-imagine yourself as a professional and as a human IS big.

I'm still in my first few years of parenthood, and my family situation is such that I must forgo important fieldwork, panels, and positions of responsibility. It's not that I'm not trying hard enough or that I haven't found the right balance... I simply cannot travel like I used to. As a field scientist, and now coming up on mid-career opportunities, travel matters. I believe these things can wait, even though I'm impatient and wish I could do everything at once.

However, this isn't just a women's issue... more and more Dads face the same choices. We need to work for more equality in societal perceptions of parenting. For example, in my dept women are encouraged to take maternity leave when a child is born or adopted (which is great!), but men are not given the same encouragement. Men in my dept are treated as 'good dads' when they can't stay for a late meeting because it's time to pick up kids, whereas women are criticized for the same reason.

At workshops/events like your reader describes, I have always found people willing to discuss a large range of issues (how to get grants, manage time better, religion and science, bring your pets in the field, etc.). It can take patience, though, if you feel like you're in the minority and don't identify with the topics the esteemed organizers have deemed most important...

Allison said...

On your question about gender-neutral career talks- yes, my institute has regular "Life after OurInstitute" talks where former grad students and postdocs who have gone on to various careers come back to talk about what their career has been like. These are very well attended by men and women.

Anonymous said...

My institution has many women's events where "women's issues" are discussed. Men are not invited to attend or speak. I'm a woman, but refuse to attend because I view this type of event as discriminatory in itself, and furthering unhelpful stereotypes. Yes, balancing work and family life is a huge issue, but it's not a "women's issue." And for us to say it falls disproportionately on women, isn't that on some level excusing the men from engaging in the discussion and only furthering the disproportionate burden, to the extent it exists? Even the seemingly harmless topics would, I believe, benefit a larger audience. Why do we have to tout successful female professionals to a women-only crowd? Can a young male professor not be inspired by a female? And vise versa?

Anonymous said...

Having former grads/postdocs talk about life is not the same as asking a visiting professor to talk about their personal life in addition to giving a research talk. Women get asked to do this in my department. Men do not.

Anonymous said...

The grad students at my department have lunch with all colloquium speakers. This time is usually taken up with us telling the speaker about our research, but some time is given for the speaker to talk about their career path. I was grateful that this week's (male) speaker talked about the challenges they faced in their time in a very prestigious postdoc (basically, not being productive and figuring out that they needed to switch fields). It was an issue that I think many face, but don't really talk about and I thought it was a good discussion, but we ran out of time (alas).

agradstudent said...

I am a member of a large email list of women-in-science (thousands of members). I was recently feeling alienated by all the baby talk, not because I don't want to eventually have to balance my career and a family, but because right now I'm single. It seemed to me like this group of people would actually share a lot of the same problems as me, so I sent an email about how we should discuss that in addition to just babies. Now we talk about dating too.

That's still not changing the focus to research. I feel like the women's group is a special place to discuss and network in ways that don't work if men are around. I think dating is an example of this type of topic. I think networking is incredibly appropriate for a women's group, especially to find role models that might not otherwise be available. But I guess it doesn't seem to me like leaving academia is, since that conversation could include males too. Maybe some discussion of research makes sense, especially when there are some goals around learning to be more confident in ways that having men around hinder. But in general, males should usually be included in research discussion.

It seems like what we really need is to discuss re-envisioning both careers and family. We should bring enlightened men and women together for some consciousness-raising, brainstorming, and strategizing.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I find that, though there are some women in science and a few who are able to do good science AND have a family, most of them are not people I can imagine being someday. They are science superwomen. I'm not superwoman, just a gal who loves science and wants to be a mommy too. No superpowers that I know of. Can I be a scientist, have kids and also get sleep at night and not work late into the evening after the kids go to sleep? I think not, at least, not yet.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the reason for this is that the "mommy wars" are spilling over into science. Women feel more self-conscious now about having a career and how it may negatively impact their children. I think young mothers now, and women planning to be mothers, may need a lot of assurances before they feel confident to pursue a really consuming career like science. If there were parallel "daddy wars" we would see work-life balance events sponsored by institutions and targeted at everyone, not just women.

Maybe the non-traditional careers events come up so often for similar reasons, because those careers are often thought of as more "family friendly" than academia.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student in California and part of the the Women in Science and Engineering group leadership at my school. I hope that this comment is helpful for someone looking for topics other than babies and getting of out science for their WISE group. Having a family and facing sexism are definitely big factors that discourage women to aim for tenure-track positions, but I often feel like seminars of these types leave me feeling more hopeless about the extra challenges that I face as a woman aiming to be an engineering professor. Most of the time the panelists say, "you can do it!" but when I hear the things they have gone through it's discouraging. Another grad student also told me that she doesn't want to have children, so topics about family aren't relevant for her.

From the research studies that I've found and been told, mentoring is the best way to keep women in science. My WiSE group deliberately have seminars that are focused on career-development and have coffee hours to encourage conversation between our members and create community. Perhaps your reader can request these kinds of seminars from the people putting on the WIS events? I find that women-centered discussions come up naturally in seminars that are comprised mostly of women, even if the topic is on something like, say, how to find a mentor.

I've felt much more confident in myself pursuing an academic career when I've felt supported and building my skills. Negotiation, networking, improv workshops for building presentation skills have been useful. Other seminars that are about women-issues but not about babies are impostor syndrome, differences on how professors write letters of recommendation, gender bias in hiring ( and the differences between how men and women communicate. Sheryl Sandberg gave a great talk :

I was asked to talk about some of women in science issues at my departments "how to be a grad student class." It's not with the faculty, which I think would also be great, but at least it's brings attention to these issues for grad students in the program, male and female.

About sexist gaffes...the best responses that I heard were from a panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing. In both of these cases the women said that they don't think the men even realized what they were saying:

1. She's interviewing for a professorship while 5 months pregnant. At the end she says, I can't start until this date since I have a pre-existing condition. "What?" says the male professor she's talking to. "I'm pregnant" she said. And he responds, "you're planning to come back to work after you have a baby?" After waiting to see if it was a joke she says, "Well, that's why I'm interviewing here!" (she got the job)

2. A woman professor asks for time off teaching the next semester since she's going to have a baby. The chair says, "My wife felt fine 3 days after she gave birth." She thinks about the possibility of getting a cesarean and other details of having a baby and she responds, "I think the students might be uncomfortable when I'm breast-feeding as I'm teaching."

Anonymous said...

I do find it frustrating that so much of "women in science" issues seems to be focused on "moms in science". Yes of course it's a big issue but it certainly isn't the only one. Also I agree with other comments that this shouldn't be a 'women in science' issue it's people in science since many dads face similar issues (although the response to them may be very different). It's hard not think of Romney and that he felt that the issue was that having women in his cabinet meant letting them have more flexible schedules - not that it was an issue that they might get paid less than men or that he couldn't think of a single one on his own. Balancing science and motherhood seems like a huge challenge but we still face other challenges like getting hired, paid, and tenured fairly and I'd like to see that addressed more often in discussions about women in science. I really think that separate 'families in science' and 'women in science' forums/discussions would be helpful as they would insure that the full set of issues gets addressed and maybe encourages people to think about family issues as an issue for men and women.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon a 11:23. There are many topics highly relevant to women that should not be strictly identified as "women's issues."

From the post: "...but there's no substitute for talking with others -- sharing stories and experiences, getting and giving advice and support, laughing and expressing anxiety."

But this is just it. I'm a woman on the STEM TT, I honestly wouldn't dare bring these issues up in a public way until I'm quite secure in my position, funding, research, and reputation. The culture around me is one of extreme confidence and extreme hours. I dare not break the mold, or reveal that I want to, though I find the atmosphere discouraging. And I honestly think I'm rather alone in not being motivated by the competitiveness and martyrdom (sorry, 'passion') that are allegedly required. Note: My work is quite good, but I think I relate to it differently than many others relate to theirs. I think this might be one of many dimensions in which significant gender differences exist.

Anonymous said...

This definitely does cut both ways --- though I think that women get the worst of it. My wife and I are both scientists and new parents, and trying to find some sort of balance between career, infant daughter, and relationship. Among of the things that make this harder are that:
a) the world likes to assume my wife is the primary parent, which means she doesn't get enough credit for the parenting work she does, and I get way too much, and
b) expectations in my department are calibrated around men who are single or who are secondary parents.

I would really like to see more men getting pressure to spend more time being fathers. Yes, there's a biological aspect of birth and nursing that can't be underestimated, but it gets compounded rather than ameliorated by pushing women towards thinking about career/life compromises and not doing the same to men.

Rachael Helschein said...

My name is Rachael and I am currently writing an article examining the use of social media and web 2.0 technologies (ie. blogging, meetup groups, forums, user-generated content sites) by female professionals in STEM. I have identified your blog as a valuable resource and perfect case study for this article. I am interested in understanding your perspective on the role of social media in the lives of women in STEM. Would you be interested in contributing by participating in an interview? My e-mail is Please let me know :) And thank you for your blog! If anyone else reading this is interested in contributing to the piece, please feel free to e-mail me as well. THANK YOU!

Female Science Professor said...

Rachael, I already replied to your email. My reply was sent on Oct 12. Check your spam filter?

Anonymous said...

The best advice I ever got from a WIS panel was very simple. Buy yourself a support network. Women in science are more highly paid than women in many other fields. Use that.

Anonymous said...

I recently attended a panel discussion hosted by a women's group. The title was something like "The Future of XField in an Era of Limited Resources." The panelists were women in high leadership positions in the industry.

The majority of the questions were totally unrelated to the future of XField! Instead, people kept asking about career paths, work-life balance, mentoring, etc.

I have no problem with workshops discussing these topics, if it's clear that's the point of the discussion. But it was frustrating to see a panel discussion on an interesting topic totally hijacked. That would never have happened in a mixed group.

plam said...

I just gave a colloquium today and met with the students afterwards. I explicitly told them that I was happy to talk about not just my research but also broader issues about being a scientist as well. I got a couple of questions in that vein.

As the male faculty member on the women in engineering committee, I've also helped run a "bootcamp" for female grad students/postdocs hoping to get academic and other positions. "Other" was certainly an option, but I'm pretty sure we didn't try to push a "here's how to leave academia" agenda.

In retrospect, though: we aimed it at reasonably senior students. But there's only so much you can do with a senior student. If you know what you have to do as a junior student, there's a lot more potential to do what you need to do.

Anonymous said...

To the first anonymous poster: The point is that babies and work-life balance should not be issues that are unique to women scientists. They should be equally important to men. Perpetuating the idea that they are women's issues hurts women, because it absolves men of baby and home responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I've always felt really uncomfortable about women-in-science groups. I don't really understand what they're for. Well, I mean I understand logically what they're supposed to be for, but I don't feel like they succeed very well in fostering networking and a "safe space" and all that.

And I agree with many of the commenters that the best way to make things better for STEM moms is to make parenting an issue for men as well as women. I was really impressed with some grad student dads who worked hard along with grad student moms to create a grad student parents' network at my school. This group has spend the past couple years helping to change policy at the school to, yes, benefit moms (more nursing rooms!), but also dads (any parent must be excused from class if they need to stay home with a sick kid). If dads can stay home half the time to take care of sick kids, it means moms can get more work done. I see things starting to change, culturally. But it's going to be a long ride...

mathgirl said...

I think one should separate two types of challenges. Type 1 revolves around situations that face women in academia because academia is a system designed by men for men (these include: subtle and not so subtle discrimination, the need to be often aggressive and behave "men-like" to succeed, the old-boys club, etc). Type 2 revolves around family situations and how they affect the academic life and they typically involve everybody (these include: two-body problems, babies, infertility, other health issues, ageing parents, etc).

In my opinion, women workshops/programs/etc should focus on type 1 situations while there should be other programs for everybody that are focused on (at least some of the) type 2 situations. As long as we don't have programs to focus on type 2 situations, type 2 are going to hitchhike women programs, which is unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

I want to follow up on the comment by the WISE leader CA grad student that is somewhat relevant to this thread. She mentioned how many of her colleagues come back from these Women events feeling hopeless, in spite of the "you can do it" cheerleading that tends to go on.

I really worry about that.

There are a lot of good comments in this thread (including from WISE grad student) about the importance of mentoring, and the need for topics other than babies and opting out. So I don't have much to add about what we _should_ do. But I am starting to wonder if the babies-and-opt-out events needs to be added to the list of things we _should not_ do, or at least relegate them to the back seat behind discussion of more positive strategies for success.

And I say, even as someone who has both had babies and opted out, that these were NOT things I wanted to talk about, with strangers or purely professional acquaintances, while I was trying to be successful. These were thinks I talked about with my best, best friend over a bottle of wine, in the privacy of my or her home.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion with an economist who is funded by the NIH to study diversity issues in the scientific training/pipeline and workforce. She said a lot of interesting things that would be the topic for another several posts, but one thing jumped out at me, especially since she said it in kind of an off-hand way.

She talked about how she and her colleagues had organized many mentoring meetings for junior faculty (not just women or underrepresented groups). At one such meeting, someone went off on the usual "haviing babies is career suicide" and "you can be a success or be a mother, not both" story. She said that they decided to rethink these sessions when they noticed that a few women, over the years, had actually left the tenure track. In other words, the message of fear was so powerful that it had motivated more than one person to leave a tenure track position, which can not have been easy to come by. So, rather than go up for tenure, and risk not getting it, and making decisions about your life at that point, should it be required, these women just jumped off.

There are many worse things in life than not getting tenure. I am now really wondering how much that particular fear keeps some people from even trying. That needs to be addressed.

Rachael said...

Thank you for letting me know! I apologize for the double response :)


Dr_WIS said...

To "Anonymous" above, I think you are making a very good point.

A lot of what is said in the post here and in the comments reminds me of Sheryl Sandburg's (COO of Facebook) caution to women: "Don't Leave Before You Leave." ( She was struck by how young women were already curtailing their ambitions as soon as they even started thinking about having a family, long before they were even pregnant much less had a baby or were on leave. I think this is a lot of what you are talking about an what we are seeing in science.

I worry that these "work-life" balance session do push the panic button on young women in science and they start opting out while they are still in grad school.

And I second the Cal WISE students impression of returning depressed or distraught from these sessions. I went to only one as a graduate student, but it struck horror into my heart. What I remember most was a professor saying she had the secret to work-life balance, it was to make sure you talked to your partner for 30 minutes a day, although they would not be consecutive (these minutes included text messages and one line emails). Fortunately, I actually come from an academic family and I called my mother that night in a panic asking if she really only had 30 non-consecutive minutes a day to communicate with my dad. She said that was not the case at all. She said she gave me an early bed time and that left them plenty of time to catch up on work and hangout with each other every night. But for the women at that meeting who did not have the same access to a second opinion, I can imagine them leaving with a full blown plan to leave science or start planning for a child-free life.

So maybe the answer is to leave these matters to more one-on-one interactions, somehow institutionalizing this concern in this way may be backfiring.

Anonymous said...

Isnt it amazing how the feminist bloc is capable of complaining about practically ANYTHING!!!

First its gender imbalance in science.

Then, lack of enough support for women in science.

Then, too many womens events focussing on babies!

Then, not enough men involved in work/life seminars.

The last one that FSP throws in, is especially devious. Now its not enough for women to have special events dedicated to them, it is the responsibility of men to show up to these and take active interest!

In other words, it is not enough to have spend institutional money and time on these events, even the personal freedom of male scientists is subject to feminist whims. Men must take interest and participate!!!

What is next? Male scientists must change their research interests in favor of fields with higher representation of women?

Meanwhile, when was the last time someone in America even talked about the problems men face? When was the last time in America some feminist spent some time crying over why women are not well represented among those who work in the sewers or die like dogs in some cave in Afghanistan?

No, we gotta worry about why women are not well represented in cushy, elite PhD jobs! (yes...a postdoc
is cushy compared to checking for landmines by hand in the sands of Arabia!!)

Or how about problems of male scientists? When did we have an event about them?

I forgot...male scientists have no problems. They
should just man up and forget about it all.

Alex said...

Anon @ 3:50pm, did you purchase carbon offsets for the straw women that you are burning?

As to "alternative" careers, every grad student and postdoc (male, female, etc.) should be attending workshops on non-academic careers. Statistically, most of them will wind up in non-academic careers, and even the ones staying in academia should make that choice fully-informed of the other options. (They should also know something about the paths that their students are likely to follow.) However, I see why some of the readers and commenters here are uncomfortable with workshops pitching non-academic careers as a female-specific thing. There's a fine line between "Here's how to negotiate a position in a male-dominated industry" and "Getting the hell out of academia is a crucial thing for women, here's how to do it ASAP."

Anonymous said...

Also to Anon @ 3:50pm, we do need to worry about not having enough women in cushy PhD jobs. Perhaps it sounds like women are whining about how they have it bad in a first world country, but from a practical point of view, it's bad for America not to have a gender (and diversity) balance in academia. In any type of job, a population of employees that does not reflect the population of the country means that they aren't drawing from the full population. If there's only ~35% of America that's a white male, we're ignoring talent in the other 65%. Scientists and engineers make most of the jobs for others in the population. Gender-balanced teams also do a better job...

Karina said...

I'm taking a class this semester about women in science. The articles we've read about gender bias in perceived competence, hiring, salaries, etc. have absolutely convinced me that there are much bigger and more widespread issues that women face than becoming parents. I agree with other commenters that it's important for WIS concerns to not be synonymous with "work-life balance." I can imagine it's alienating for women who don't want to have children, and the other problems (though perhaps less visible ones) are faced by more women, and not just at one point in their careers.

Anonymous said...

A long time ago I asked the WIS listserv organizer in my STEM field if we could have a little less emphasis on babies and work-life balance, and allow discussion of lesbian issues and lesbian baiting (topics that were quickly suppressed back then). She immediately slammed these as topics of "no interest to women,"(!) and defended the former topic as interesting to "all women." I'd like to think they are a bit more balanced these days, but since I quit the list I wouldn't know...

Anonymous said...

This is why I have only attended one Women In Science/Engineering type event in my life (and I'm now 10 years post-PhD) and long ago took my name off the email list. my husband and I have chosen not to have children, thus I apparently have nothing in common with all other Women in Science.

Seriously, they should rename these events "Mothers in Science". Those who are not mothers (whether just not yet, or ever) need not bother applying.

Anonymous said...

The vast majority of my peers have always been men since my field is male dominated. And they have struggled just as hard as me and faced most of the same challenges. A few benefitted from white male privilege and old boys club privilege but most did not. There just isnt room for all the white male PhDs and postdocs to benefit from white male privilege. There arent enough jobs for all of them either. Thus I rarely felt marginalized as a woman since most of my peers are men and struggling equally fruitlessly in long term postdoctoral positions. Thus I don't really identify with this whole "women in science " thing as being something special except when it has come to blatant sexism by older men which is insulting and offensive but hasn't in my experience hindered me in concrete ways than most of my male peers who don't have to experience that.

Anonymous said...

Just found this:

"Wimminz in Academia sans Babies" on The Hermitage Blog

What a breath of fresh air!

gmr said...

I tend to avoid going to women's events in general. Women's workshops, Women in STEM mixers, you name it. I don't really want to put any energy into being a Woman Scientist because being a scientist is hard enough.

One thing I have learned from successful people is "Fake It To Make It." I may wonder if my womanhood has any impact on my effectiveness as a researcher, but I have to act like it has no impact whatsoever and go full speed ahead with confidence.

Also, I decided not to have children but that story is a lot more complicated than could fit into a comment box. I used to have a blog about it but I got rid of it in order to focus on doing good research rather than on telling and retelling my own dramatic backstory.

Laurent said...

Decision to go for parenting as a hurtful career move is mostly bad because peers think it is bad. It may, or it may not be hurting. There's no rule actually.

An anecdote (doesn't make data, hope it is eases choice if necessary):

(PhD student to her advisor:)
- Okay and last, I wanted you to know that I'm pregnant...
(Advisor, suddenly rising in anxiety:)
- ...Oh shit! What are you going to do?
(PhD student:)
- Me? Just like for the first one!

Anonymous said...

At current institution women in STEM organization is totally awesome with all sorts of career development, work-life balance (including families, care of parents, and various other things), bias-awareness, diversity, and networking events.