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posted Oct 4, 2011, 2:43 PM by Awis CTC

July 24, 2007

On the Origin of Academic Species

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 the sciences.

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 you.

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 damage.

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 expertise."

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 his lab.)

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 of women.

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 everyone back.

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 empowering.

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.