Why academia is still hemorrhaging women in this day and age

Feb 09 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

I just read a comment from an anonymous person on this post at Academic Jungle:

"This post really hit home for me. I am an early career PI (3 yrs in) at a soft money institution and am currently facing the (very real) prospect of having to close my lab, due to a combination of a major institutional financial crisis and the horrific federal funding situation. I have a young (<1 yr) baby and work 90 min from home. I rent a small apt in the town where I work and during the week I am a single parent to my daughter so deal with absolutely everything related to her needs, daycare, doctors, etc etc. I also manage our "real" household and do all the finances and other boring organizational crap. Meanwhile I am desperately trying to salvage my career, get papers out, apply for jobs elsewhere, write as many grants as possible, try not to drop the ball for people in my lab. Husband is also working very hard and is sensitive to any criticism that he's not doing his part because he feels like working hard is what he can do to provide for our daughter's future. What's happening though is that his career is doing OK while mine is collapsing. I have the academic pedigree but now I'm getting the lack of productivity critiques...gee...I wonder why that might be considering birth and 3 mo of maternity leave. No body cares why the papers haven't come out, just that they haven't. I absolutely feel like I've failed to live up to both what I expected and what other people expected of me."

This--this is why it's such a struggle to keep women in the leadership ranks of academia. This is very similar to my experience in many ways, although my husband made a career change recently, so that he could move to the town where I work and was living with our daughter, to make this easier for me. These situations are the practical reality for many women at assistant professor age, and disproportionately, the women end up taking the career hit because of so many social pressures (direct, indirect, conscious, unconscious, from spouse, from family, from friends, from wider culture) while colleagues look on disappointedly as if they can't do anything about it.

Well, we as colleagues CAN do something about it. We can actively work on changing our mindset about what "counts" as productivity in a given amount of time based on extenuating factors. We can start putting our attitude money where our policy mouths are regarding flexibility in the tenure clock--get out of the rut of thinking that the productivity allowance ONLY counts at the year you're supposed to come up for tenure, and actively recognize that it is a continuous process of a slower rate (driven by the higher activation energy of producing without the catalyst of an "easy" lifestyle with either no family involved or a spouse who organizes it all). It's going to take all of us (including BOTH the oldsters AND youngsters) changing our perceptions, dialogue and defensive reactions when challenged about it.

The current model of how academic performance is evaluated is a construct of what our own internal culture has decided is important, and it is based on a system that grew out of the old Victorian model of the footloose and fancy-free affluent young man trying to "make his way in the world" by spending years and years at the university putzing around. The values of that system were defined by that dude's ability to live and breathe the lab, the pub, and his smoking lounge. Let's get over it, wake up to our different culture, and work on adjusting the way we measure success to take a whole picture into account.

WE (us all scientists and faculty) are the only ones who can start this, and it's our responsibility to change the way we think.

11 responses so far

  • Ilovepigenetics says:

    So, when you cross that tenure line, give them hell and challenge the system, Chemical BiLOLogy! You rock!

  • EXACTLY. I don't have kids but I see what happens to my female colleagues who do. And those 'social pressures' are there even when you're child free by choice - any decision to put family first (regardless of who/what that family consists of) is seen as weakness and obvious lack of total dedication to the job (!). We definitely need to change things from within.

  • Stacey (@sswillard22) says:

    Sad but true. This story is poignant - I'm at the place where I cannot even GET a position so I can then fail at it.

  • Marcus says:

    Flexibility is key and should be a question asked during any interview.

  • becca says:

    To paraphrase Bill Clinton (talking about the new legislation to expand the Family Medical Leave Act, but it applies well)...

    Scientists desperately want to have successful families, to be good parents and to have a job and succeed at it. If you take one away to get the other, the country pays a grievous price and every life is diminished.

  • Very good post and sad that this is the reality.

  • SEL says:

    A major part of the problem is that female scientists opt out of academia before they even apply for TT positions. Why are gender ratios among postdocs around 50:50, but gender ratios in applications for TT positions dramatically skewed? The reason is ingrained gender roles. There was a study published in Nature several years ago where they surveyed male and female postdocs at NIH. A key question was "how much would having a child affect your choice of job?" A large fraction of the female postdocs said "quite a bit". A large fraction of male postdocs said "not at all." The unspoken last bit of that is "because the wife will take care of that stuff."

    Here's what needs to change, culturally and psychologically:
    1. Women: Once the baby is born, you are no longer mandatory. You do NOT have to do EVERYTHING or even most of it. Children have been raised successfully by single dads. Do not be under the impression that a baby requires mommy to do the bulk of the work. Make sure your partner knows going in that he (or she) will be expected to do plenty of heavy lifting.

    2. Men: I don't care how enlightened you think you are. Deep down in your heart of hearts, in that place you don't like thinking about, you subconsciously think "babies = wife will do the work. " STOP IT. It will be difficult. You will have to overcome millenia of social programming of gender roles, not to mention some eyebrow raising from your male colleagues.

  • Michele B says:

    Is is bad that academia is hemorrhaging women? Maybe it's a good think.

    The hours are long, the stress is high, and the pay is crap.

    Who wants that? Is it really a worthy goal of the feminist movement to encourage more women to go into a job where they are so obviously taken advantage of? We wouldn't encourage that in any other field.

    I don't wonder much why so many women leave academia. I wonder why so many men stay.

    • chemicalbilology says:

      Michele B, that is the whole point--the current model is stupid and should be changed, and the only people who have the power to change it are the ones on the inside who evaluate each other in this way.

      The "feminist movement" isn't really involved here. This (managing a lab, mentoring students, doing research, writing papers, yes, even writing grants) is what I and many other women love to do and are very, very good at. We aren't doing this because someone encouraged us into this job, or because women should have equality (although I believe that), but because we want to do it and we love it. But the way it is set up is stacked against us for artificial reasons--the supposed "pace" of success is set by an extreme that A) barely exists anymore, and that B) most reasonable people think should not be the measuring stick. Yet it still is, and that stick is used to measure up this shit even by those who think they disagree with it.

  • BUSI says:

    The trojen horse principle must be applied , we will not give upntill we are recognised for our hardwork not baby making abilities because that is a given.

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