Monday, November 01, 2010

The Other End of the Pipeline

Lately I have been losing some of my colleagues; specifically: senior female colleagues who either leave academic entirely or who dive into administrative positions, never to be seen again in a research setting or even a science conference.

Some administrators maintain some level of research activity or graduate advising. Some of my disappearing colleagues have intended to do this, but eventually they stopped any involvement in research and devoted themselves full-time to administrative positions of various sorts.

It is a good thing if university administration involves a diverse group of people who work to improve the key aspects of the university: teaching and research. I think there are far too many administrators at my university, but I know that universities do need to have some. When I think about it at the individual level, I am glad that these women -- all of them excellent researchers and teachers -- are in positions of power.

Even so, there weren't many senior FSPs active in research in my field at the time I started my career, and now there are far fewer. None of these women were particularly old when I started my career, so the losses have not primarily been from retirements.

I thought that being a mid-career FSP would involve having older and younger FSP colleagues, with more of the latter than the former, but certainly some of each. Lately, however, I have been the oldest or only FSP in some academic settings, and the youngest in others (because there are still so few early-career FSPs in my field). I didn't expect either of those situations to arise very often at this stage of my career. Shouldn't being middle-aged and mid-career mean having younger and older colleagues?

I am certainly not criticizing any of the senior women who decide to leave research and teaching and pursue a career path in administration, and I am not criticizing the women who quit academia entirely. Each individual needs to decide what is best for her life and career. Nevertheless, I am always saddened when another one disappears from the realm of research. Some days, it's lonely in the middle.


Athene Donald said...

You pass no comment on whether these women are leaving their academic posts for administration because they have felt marginalised or otherwise disadvantaged in their original positions. I agree that having people move into admin who understand the dynamics of research and teaching at first hand is a real plus, but leaving because they have found their current positions unattractive is very different from choosing to move for positive reasons. I just wondered whether the title gives a clue that you do believe these people are leaking out for negative reasons, and because they can't stand the rat-race any more.
And are the women leaving in larger proportions than the men? Again you hint at this.

GamesWithWords said...

I really believe it's a matter of time. A significant portion of faculty stop doing research by the time they are in their 50s, either because they're mostly writing books, mostly in administration, or mostly doing nothing. If there were few female professors in your department to begin with, there will be fewer through natural attrition. As the input pipelines widens, more will make it to senior positions. This has happened in many industries, and already in many fields of science. This kind of change can only happen on the generational level (e.g., changes one makes to science education now are only going to affect senior faculty in 30-40 years). It would be nice if it were faster, but there are some natural constraints that are nobody's fault.

Chris said...

My long-time mentor is a senior FSP who took the administrative route. She tried to hang on to some research activity for several years, until she decided that she was not giving her students the attention and supervision they deserved. Our department, and our field, are poorer for her departure.

Jean Grey said...

"Nevertheless, I am always saddened when another one disappears from the realm of research."


The same goes for students. Of the 10 or so female undergraduates to move on my from current department/university, NONE of them decided to pursue advanced degrees (at least not immediately upon graduation).

I spend a lot of time doing women-in-STEM outreach so it's incredibly frustrating to see this happen.

Anonymous said...

I do think that it's part of the same pipeline issue. I'm an Associate Prof and the signals I've been getting ever since joining the TT at my R1 institution are that I am valued for my educational activities far more than for my science. The kinds of undergraduate education service activities that I've done have been noticed by the College administration, and I am being asked to do more service work at the College level. Much of it is interesting, and offers a chance to work with people outside my department and field. People seem to think I make useful contributions. I feel more positively rewarded for these kinds of contributions. Meantime, when I was up for tenure, my department made various cautionary statements and blasted my confidence, when after all was said and done, I was generally acknowledged to have been a "slam dunk". So why shouldn't I go into administration if the opportunity arises? People might appreciate me more, plus I'd get paid more.

Anonymous said...

I am in my early 40's and have done great research. But I am now moving into administration to make a larger impact on my unit and institution. I am looking forward to growing new initiatives that will stengthen our institution. Plus I want to help make academe somewhat more humane. (Of course ask me in 5 years whether these ideals came to fruition... ;) )

inBetween said...

I think you are several years or more ahead of me. I'm an associate professor at a major research university. I completely understand why many women step back by mid career. I've been quite successful but over the last 6 years have grown increasingly disgusted by the jerks in my department who really do treat me like a second class citizen. Add on the jerks you fight with all the time professionally in one's discipline, and there is nothing positive anywhere. So, I am stepping back and belatedly having a family. It isn't good for the women behind me in the pipeline, but I've had enough. Maybe in a few years I'll step back in more actively, but for now. Screw it. I'm going to work 40 hours a week and find some joy, happiness, and reward since it is completely lacking in academia. Bitter? yep. Maybe it's just a phase...

Alex said...

Jean Grey,

There's an alternative view: The female students who decided not to go for advanced degrees are smarter than the men who fell for the grad school pyramid scheme.

OK, it's not QUITE that bad, and there are important reasons to send more women to grad school. Still, there are days when I see all of the attention paid to sending students to grad school, and no recognition that the students going to industry will be making more money than me within a decade (and along the way still make more inflation-adjusted dollars than I made at their age in grad school), and I want to bang my head on the table.

Ms.PhD said...

I think the point is that it's lonely being a female scientist. Full stop.

Welcome to the club. That was part of why I started blogging - isn't that part of why you started, too?

I wonder if it actually is worse in some fields now than it was when you started out, because of broadening the relatively small numbers of women into other positions like administration.

Some fields have already been adversely impacted by these kinds of feedback effects. Take for example a field like computer science. where there was a gradual increase of women for a long time, which has lately reversed again to become a drop in women all the way down to the level of undergraduate majors. Departments are scrambling to try to stop the leaking at both ends.

GamesWithWords is a bit too patient for my taste. There's nothing "natural" about the current system and I don't see why we should agree that it's fine for entire generations (say, people like me and those who identify with my blog). I don't see why we should be happy to put up with the status quo remaining as it is while we waste our training because of what Athene Donald so tastefully calls "marginalization".

Anonymous said...

I believe at some universities, taking the administrative route is a much easier one. For example, those that view full professorship as an administrative position. In other words, why bother applying for prestigious grants when managing a bunch of academics get you a professorship?

Also, if one is driven by $, he/she should take the administrative route the goal is to get a vice-chancellor position.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous at 11:41. No matter how great my research is, nor how well funded, I don't get much respect from my generally inactive male colleagues. Plus I get paid shit. So why not consider administration?

(I'll tell you why. At my school, all the female administrators are very attractive and well groomed. I would never make it!)

Kea said...

I think that successful female researchers who move away from the solitude of Jerksville are basically just giving up. The Patriarchy provides endless avenues for veering away from That Which Women Should Not Do. Nobody argues with the idea that women can be good administrators. And what kind of power are we talking here? Are these women going to directly improve female representation in STEM fields? I'll believe it when I see it. Oh wait, I've been waiting 40 years and nothing has changed.

Anonymous said...

"There's an alternative view: The female students who decided not to go for advanced degrees are smarter than the men who fell for the grad school pyramid scheme."

For decades, the M.S. degree has been the financially optimal degree for an engineer. The Ph.D. is explicitly recognized as the degree for those who want to teach or do academic research rather than work in industry.

It is rather a shame that in other fields (like biotech), the over-production of Ph.D.s has been so high that industrial jobs insist on years of postdoc experience before hiring. The post-doc training is usually poor preparation for industrial positions, and higher M.S. students would make more economic sense.

Anonymous said...

Ok... full disclosure: I'm a male prof who considers himself very feminist and active in promoting female colleagues junior and senior. I like FSP's blog and generally agree with most of what she says about gender issues. And in this case too, her post is entirely reasonable and I felt only sympathetic as she expressed missing her colleagues.

Some of the comments though just seem like people want to find a dark, sexist side to ANYTHING. Look, if there were no women represented in high-level admin jobs that would be bad too, right? So some take those jobs and that is also bad? What would be the good outcome here that would not be indicative of gender bias? I'm not saying there is no gender bias - not not saying that - nor that some may not have given up their research for bad reasons... who the hell knows. But really, if there are two possible outcomes (women in admin jobs, no women in admin jobs) there has to be one that is ok.

And of course, many men leave their research for admin jobs too, and maybe some of them do it to get away from jerks also. But I do think it is just age and fatigue in many cases, or wanting to move on to new challenges, make a difference etc. Women should have the same opportunities to do that as men and we shouldn't cry too much when they take them.

Jean Grey said...


Valid point. I'm not going to argue that PhD programs aren't overpopulated or that industrial jobs are somehow less desirable than academic ones.

But my point was, how are we going to get more female TT faculty members if we can't even get them to 'survive' undergrad? Why can't *some* portion of the population that choose to move on to grad school be female? As a female, I sit here and watch this and say to myself, 10 more bite the dust...

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I'm part of that end of the pipeline - I've been doing a lot of administration (mostly because I'm a rather get-things-done kind of person) and am now dean.

I have a hard time scheduling large chunks of time for research, and today was the first time I had to give up time scheduled next week in order to meet with a Very Important Administrator Who Does Not Understand Teaching and Research.

I find a very bitter taste in my mouth after having given him his appointment, and then this evening finding an email in my inbox "Your research in the area of Specialized Basketweaving is so fascinating, but you didn't publish anything this past year, when can we expect to see your new results?"

Someone actually noticed that I haven't been working as I used to - they miss me! On the other hand, I have a large data set that needs analysis and writing up, and I can't do that with 15 minutes here and half an hour there.

If some of my esteemed colleagues would just grow up and do their jobs and I could get a few little odds and ends sorted out, I might have some time for research.

As it is, I spend a great portion of my time as a kindergarten teacher, making everyone share nicely, putting them in a corner for a time-out when they are misbehaving, dividing up the cookies evenly, and producing piles of scribbled paper....

Helen Huntingdon said...

You might term me as part of the leaky pipeline since I have no intention of being a professor, but I don't see it that way since I'll still be publishing scholarly research.

I face not just sexism, but harassment, pretty much everywhere I go -- work, transportation, grocery stores, whathaveyou. I've never known any men -- ones I've dated or otherwise -- who don't regularly say incredibly clueless things that contradict the reality that I have to live with. What is intended when someone does that is beside the point, since no matter what is intended, it's psychologically harmful to the person who has to live with it.

In my experience, many or most women in STEM fields sooner or later reach a point where something has to give -- they've got to do something to lessen the constant stream of psychological harm inflicted upon them. Short-term pragmatism tends to be the deciding factor; the quickest and least immediately painful remedy gets taken. If you've got a husband saying clueless things in your home, he's not likely to educate himself out of it overnight, and if you've got kids, chucking the husband can seem a more drastic relief measure than changing jobs.

My response to that sense of, "it's just too much and I'm going to change *something*" has always been to chuck the boyfriend. But then, I never had children or owned joint property with any of them, keeping the immediate pragmatic cost of ending a relationship relatively low.

And once I came to see the death by a thousand cuts we live with for what it is, I decided men don't get to live with me -- my home at least stays free of clueless reality-denial, which makes life a whole lot saner. But what if you can't arrange your home that way?

Anonymous said...

I wonder though if there's a bit of positive discrimination going on too.

As in the university thinking that it would good to have some women in high level science admin roles, so let's actively ask our top female scientists to apply - without seeing that it takes them away from science.

Just a thought...

Helen Huntingdon said...

Anon, that's not positive discrimination unless you're assuming that women would only be offered such positions for the sake of diversity, not because they're actually the best person for the job. Is that really what you're saying?

Because unless you really are arguing that women are inherently unqualified for the admin promotions, what you're saying makes no sense. It's a cute way to avoid taking responsibility though. If you can distract everyone into thinking they need to play tug-of-war over the few women they notice as being available, then they don't have to ask the real questions, like, "Good grief, what in heaven's name are we doing wrong that there are so few women here?"