Monday, April 01, 2013

Rational Decisions About Academia

The very intelligent and determined Biochem Belle recently posted a link to Jo Handelsman's depressing study on gender bias among scientists.  (The results are the latest in a long series showing the same thing.  I have a scientist friend with a gender-ambiguous name - in fact, he's married to a woman with the same gender-ambiguous name - and some of his recent grant reviewers were distinctly more disparaging in particular ways when they thought he was a woman.)

When I was a young, new, stupid, naive grad student, I didn't know what challenges were going to come my way specifically because I am female.  I surely learned a lot over the years.  In fact, I have already expressed exactly how I felt about it:
Academia tells me that I should stay and make sacrifices for the greater good. I should see the barriers in front of me, and they should be overcome by the force of my desire to be professorial. I should compare what I want to what I can have in academia, and give up what I want. I should see the price of motherhood in academia and elsewhere, and pay it.
And furthermore, apparently, I should have put up with my competence being judged less, and with still being offered less salary, so that I and other women could change this system from the inside.  In other words, I should endure personal misery, from which I would gain nothing, so that in future, people I didn't even know can benefit.

If women want to be professors, run research labs - that's great.  If they are willing to put up with climbing an extra-steep hill, much steeper than their male counterparts, then it's their hill to trudge up.  Then, the justification is not future-benefit-for-others, it's that that person really wants a certain thing and is working for it.  Fantastic!  Go for it, female-scientist colleagues!  Kick some ass for me.

But women also make rational decisions to go into careers where the uphill is more equal, where salaries are more equitable, and where people have children when and how they want without their bosses publicly wondering if they're really committed to their careers.  At Snooty U, only one female professor in my department had any children- one child, the year she went up for tenure.  ONE.

Do you want to guess how many male professors waited for tenure?

Industry has problems.  Industry has glass ceilings.  Women probably still earn lower salaries on average, are penalized for female-ness, and definitely run against sexist bullshit. Nowhere is perfect.  However, in academia, where the turnover is so low and the old-white-guy quotient is so high and the governance on faculty is so weak, I think the opportunities are greater for all these conditions to approach their maxima.

I liked working at Bicycle Company for many reasons, but this was the biggest: I never noticed anybody giving me a hard time for my female-ness.  I stood in rooms full of male engineers, all of whom had ten times the technical knowledge I did, and I told them what to do, and they listened, because by God, I was in charge.  I had a baby because I damn well felt like it, and got a $5000 raise and a $1000 bonus that year.  If there was a price for motherhood, it was the same price anyone would pay for being physically absent from work for eighteen weeks - not a surcharge.

Staying in academia may be an act of love for one's work, but my love wasn't sufficient.  It is a rational choice to leave, too.


  1. Anonymous7:47 PM

    You're certainly right that industry has equivalent biases against women. I'm glad BC was a good place to work, but the fact that you didn't experience bias there is about as generalizable as my experiences--because I'm not in a STEM field or at a Snooty, I might argue that academia is fiiiiine for women. I don't mean to be jerky, though this comment probably comes off that way. I just mean to say that you probably got the worst possible picture of the situation. I recently read some papers arguing that having just 25% of a group be female changes how females are viewed (reducing bias). I'm not in this game to make things better for women down the road, but I'm grateful to the women who came before me, and try to be a good mentor to those I encounter.

    1. I wasn't trying to say industry is bias-free (SO NOT) merely that only 30% of grad students end up as faculty anyways, but 100% of the female grad students I know were told "But you should stay! And make it better!" Plus the low-turnover thing in academia- OMG the dinosaurs - I think *can* maximize the possibility of badness, and they're really really hard to fire, no?

      25%! That's encouraging!

      (Snooty U DOES give one the worst possible view, that's for damn sure.)

      ... and so to bed.

  2. I agree with Bunny that your personal experiences affect your view a lot. In my undergrad department, there wasn't a single female full professor. In my PhD institute, there were 2 (two) in the entire place. Now, there are about 30% here, so that seems AWESOME. Not that all the problems are fixed -- talking to a friend recently about careers and IVF and other fund parts of life, she just commented "All the women in my department either have no kids, or they have twins."

  3. I realize you wrote this a year ago, so it's random on my part to comment now. But, I've been reading and enjoying this series. I've been working on my own academic life vs. rational choices-hard.


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