In July 2006, I commented on the concept/myth of successful women who 'pull up the ladder' after themselves -- that is, women who are unhelpful (actively or passively) towards younger women trying to progress in their own careers. I wrote that I had not experienced this when I was younger, did not know any women in my field of academia who behaved this way, and didn't believe that it was as common a phenomenon as some had proposed.
There surely exist some women somewhere who behave this way, but I was (and still am) skeptical that this is a characteristic of women who succeed in male-dominated fields.
Nevertheless, in the past year I have seen some disturbing examples of women thwarting, or at least hindering, the careers of other women. This type of behavior always raises the general question of whether we should somehow expect more of women in positions of power, in academia or otherwise. That is, given the precarious position of women in science, do successful women have a responsibility to help other women succeed? (Successful is a vague term, but for the purposes of this discussion about academia, it could mean women who have tenured positions, or, to some extent, even women who have tenure-track positions).
All academics -- women and men -- have a responsibility for fostering the careers of students, postdocs, and younger colleagues, but each person will have a different capacity to be helpful depending on circumstances, personality, and so on. Do women have a responsibility above and beyond this?
I suppose it depends on what responsibility means and entails. For example, I think a woman can be an excellent role model just by being very good at research and all the other things that professors do, without any additional mentoring or other activities. A simple statement, then, of the responsibility of successful women towards women progressing through earlier career stages might be: At least do no harm (and if you can help more, that's great).
A related question is: If a successful woman actively thwarts the career of a younger woman, is that somehow worse than if a man does it? This question makes me queasy, but is one that I have been contemplating in recent months as I became aware of a few examples of women-thwarting-women at various US universities.
In one case, a female professor objected to an outstanding woman's being interviewed because the candidate had an infant and therefore couldn't possibly be serious about her career. Eventually, reason prevailed, the outstanding woman was interviewed, but she accepted another offer.
In another case, a woman on a hiring committee had a difficult time supporting female candidates who seemed a bit too uppity/aggressive, but had no problem with this characteristic in male candidates. Some of the men had the same reaction to the uppity women candidates, but reason also eventually prevailed in this situation.
It is depressing that these situations occur (and occur and occur), but at least this type of behavior is seen by many as unacceptable. I believe that as more women scientists succeed in academia (and I have to keep believing that that will occur), the culture will change for the better to be more accepting of women with a wide range of personalities and family situations.
Some professors don't intentionally pull up the ladder or thwart the careers of younger scientists, but their actions have that effect, and, as a result, their students, postdocs, and younger colleagues may give up trying to succeed in an academic career. This is the advice I give to women students who are having a hard time with advisors (male or female) who seem aggressive, mean, and unfair to them: If you love what you are doing but just hate the environment, don't give up. The academic culture has long selected for the personality type of your advisor, but it need not always be this way. Graduate and get a job and be part of the positive change.
If things do change for the better for women in science, it won't be possible for anyone to pull up the ladder because the ladder will not be some temporary movable thing, it will be firmly in place.
13 years ago