By Tess Isaac
Over the past academic year, we have been reporting from the
trenches, sharing our experiences, frustrations, and joys as women early
on in our careers in the life sciences.
"We" are the X-Gals, a group of nine women who met regularly in
graduate school to shepherd one another through writing and defending
our dissertations and who continue to provide mutual support via e-mail
messages and intermittent reunions.
This article is the last in our series. Sharing our stories has been
both enlightening and cathartic. We hope that our experiences have
proved helpful to others on similar career paths as well as to those
with the administrative power to remove the obstacles limiting women in
In the course of receiving many responses from readers, we were
amused to find that our critics could be lumped into distinct groups --
species, if you will. We find those same species well represented in our
departments and would like to use this column to describe those
archetypes, since they can potentially derail the lives and careers of
female scientists. First let us tackle the potentially dangerous ones.
The Dismissive Male
Members of this species read carelessly and misunderstand points, yet
are convinced of their positions and eager to point out where we are
wrong. The most abundant of this type are a subspecies known as The
Clueless. They show no outward bias toward their female colleagues, but
refuse to acknowledge the difficulties that women in the academic
sciences must overcome.
A case in point: When several of the X-Gals described the collective
challenges they faced in academe as mothers of young children, a member
of this species wrote in. To Lucille, who described commuting home
during her lunch hour to nurse her infant, he wrote, "Why didn't you use
a breast pump? Commuting home [to nurse] at lunch was a choice, not a
necessity." When we discussed serious problems finding quality day care,
he wrote that our experience "with day-care providers that were boozing
and beating kids is not the norm."
And when Jana described an adviser who told her to choose between
work and family while her newborn struggled with a life-threatening
condition, he wrote, "I don't think many male scientists who had an
advisee whose child was dying would ask them to choose between that and
their research. Again, that is not representative. (Why would you select
that person as your adviser?)"
To him we respond:
The nutritional and emotional benefits of breast-feeding are well
known. On a physiological level, using a breast pump is less efficient
than nursing and reduces the milk supply. In Lucille's case, she was
ultimately forced to supplement with formula.
Three of the six X-Gals who are mothers have had child-care
experiences horrible enough to cause us to question our career paths. In
Lucille's case, she discovered the problems by spending time at the
child-care center . . . nursing.
We acknowledge that Jana's experience with her adviser is atypical,
but here is the crucial point: His colleagues knew about his actions yet
he still went on to get tenure. At that point, the problem ceased to be
between adviser and student, and became institutional. When Jana went
looking for an adviser, should she have first asked him, "Oh, by the
way, are you Voldemort?"
Perhaps that reader meant well, but he exemplifies a type of
condescension that can prove fatally discouraging to a nascent career.
Ladies, you will face people like him; do not let their criticism sway
If you have children, you will undoubtedly question whether you want
to pursue the tenure track, with all its demands, while your children
are young. That is OK. Several of us have chosen not to apply for, or
accept, tenure-track positions. Just be clear that the decision is your
own and not induced by naysayers.
The Condemning Wo/man
Members of this species like the status quo. They are incensed that
we find "their" system inadequate, and certain that our suggestions are
"outrageous." While rarer than the Dismissive Males, their overweening
bitterness outweighs their low population density in potential career
A prime example is a correspondent who urged us to "stop publishing
articles that highlight the 'unique' problems of women in the academic
workplace where they are clearly just poor individual choices, because
they only hurt the chances of women who are serious about their career."
Her remarks illustrate a pervasive attitude among this species that
deviating from the one true path in academic science -- graduate school
to postdoc to tenure-track appointment at a major research university --
is tantamount to failure.
This correspondent was writing in response to Meg Murray's column, in
which she explained why she had turned down a tenure-track offer for
family reasons to continue working as a lecturer and researcher in her
adviser's laboratory. The letter writer wrote that her adviser's
investment "was wasted on Mrs. Murray, who will never be a useful
contact, research partner, or grant collaborator of any importance for
him in the future."
The letter writer went on to accuse all of us X-Gals of helping Meg
"frame her decision to abort her career as a positive achievement. Sure,
you can 'redefine success' to feel better about your choices, but not
even daily 'feel-good' messages from your friends will make your failure
a 'success' in the sense that most people in her situation would
consider it to be: an academic research career in your chosen field of
Combating that type of bias is one of the main reasons we created the
X-Gals, and why we encourage other women to form similar support
groups. Academic science needs to re-evaluate nontraditional career
paths, to raise the compensation and prestige of those positions. (By
the way, since earning her Ph.D., Meg has co-authored several papers
with her adviser and brought a significant amount of grant money into
Those are the dangerous species. We've encountered others that fall under the category of "generally harmless."
The Me, Too
Members of this group like to say that they have it just as hard as
we do, even though they are in the humanities, they are fathers, or
whatever. One mother wrote, "We all face the same issues as mothers in
academe. Please do not assume other disciplines are any easier."
We agree that it's difficult to be a parent and an academic, no
matter the field, but the hard evidence belies the writer's argument:
Women have achieved academic parity on the tenure track in the
humanities but still lag woefully behind in the sciences. Unless you
subscribe to the (unsupported) notion that women are less apt than men,
then there must be something about the sciences that transforms the
obstacles from "challenging" to "insurmountable" for the vast majority
We are not sure which aspects of the scientific culture derail the
most women. But we've attempted in our series to present our experiences
and a few suggestions for improving the lot of women scientists.
The Generally Disgruntled
Our correspondents in this group have no real comment on our articles
but want to gripe about something. We're right there with ya!
We were amazed at the outpouring of emotion we received from people in two other categories:
The Desperately Coping: These folks are struggling to keep their
heads (and hearts) above water and want to thank us for opening their
eyes to alternative options.
The Amen Sisters: They have had similar experiences to our own.
We heard from women who were afraid to start a family due to career
demands in the sciences. (By the way, there will never be a perfect time
to have a baby.) Other women were struggling with family compromises,
finances, and how to solve the two-body problem.
Still others were dealing with political treachery within their
departments and the constant exhaustion that stems from being a wife and
primary caregiver, while advancing through the academic ranks.
Commenting on the personal choices she had made throughout her career,
one reader poignantly stated, "I just didn't realize how big the
consequences would be."
We X-Gals are scientists, regardless of our official titles or the
opinions of our critics. Based on current statistics, only three of the
nine of us will end up with tenure.
That's not what we planned, but it's OK. We are each navigating a
unique path that fulfills us intellectually and emotionally, and we are
happy. Sure, we wish academe would acknowledge that brilliant scientists
lurk in those nontraditional byways. We wish departments wouldn't
immediately dismiss us as viable candidates when hiring, but we're
convinced that that attitude hurts academe more than us.
We are the teachers, grant writers, and role models of the next
generation of increasingly diverse scientists. Holding us back holds
Women pursuing scientific careers must understand the challenges they
may face. They must have peers who can provide advice, constructive
criticism, encouragement, and sympathy. Academe can be a lonely, hostile
territory, but with the right friends, it doesn't need to be.
We strongly encourage women in any stage of their academic careers to
form a support group similar to our own. A wonderful aspect of the
X-Gals is that we can share our triumphs and fears with colleagues and
friends in a noncompetitive environment. We benefit from nine different
viewpoints offering advice, congratulations, comfort, and, when
necessary, brutal honesty.
We all face different circumstances and choices, and having a
sounding board to assess life-changing decisions is both reassuring and
Forming a support group is as easy as inviting a few friends to lunch
or happy hour. The format doesn't have to be formal or structured, but
it should suit your needs and those of your peers. Once the dynamic is
established, you can open the doors to the next generation. Read and
comment on one another's work. Learn to trust one another. And have fun.
After all, you chose science because you loved it.
Tess Isaac is the pseudonym of a lecturer in the sciences at a university in the South.