Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So few women in science...

*another post I started a while back but completed now

The NY Times published an article today on why there are so few women in science. This is a subject that hits home with me (obviously, as I am a woman in science). The article is pretty light on studies and facts, but it does highlight some anecdotes that reminded me of my journey through this crazy science career I've had.

  • Gender bias started early - in elementary school I can remember the boys teasing me for being "too smart". What an odd thing to get teased about, but, really, anything that makes you stand out as a kid was something to be ashamed of.
  • The first subject I really struggled with was calculus in college. I had always been good at math, and had always been able to figure out the logic behind it. However, calculus was a whole new ballgame and I just didn't have the toolbox to figure it out. I thought I was too stupid to go to office hours or to ask anyone for help, so I never did. I barely scraped by.
  • The second subject I really struggled with was (is) physics. I have a firm belief that this is because I didn't have toys that displayed the principles of physics (like Hot Wheels, or dump trucks), so when we started talking about principles, it was really hard for me to grasp concepts I couldn't visualize. I decided to take a different tack with physics and I started going to the learning lab and TA office hours. Those helped immensely, although I think my lack of calculus really hindered my abilities to understand the principles completely. However, I did end up getting mostly As in physics, which was better than the Cs in calculus I got. 
  • I don't remember if I talked about going to graduate school with other people or not. I just always kind of "knew" I was going to graduate school. After working for four years, I felt ready to get my feet wet in academics. I applied somewhat blindly, and I applied to UPenn on a whim (Ivy League? c'mon - like I could get in there!) I don't know what made them accept me as a graduate student. I think my grades in college were good, but not stellar. My GRE scores were not that great. But I had work experience, which I think accounted for a lot. I think that also I was personable and likable on my interviews, which is always a good thing. 
  • When I got to Penn, I felt incredibly overwhelmed. I had "forgotten" how to study. The concepts and ideas were fed to us at a much faster rate. And we had to read real, scientific papers. These papers would take me hours to get through. Talks were overwhelming. I couldn't even begin to grasp concepts, and forget critiquing science. That was beyond my abilities. There were also a lot of things that I was too embarrassed to do. I didn't attend office hours, and I didn't ask for help. I was so intimidated by other people in my class sounding like they knew what they were talking about. I hated to take a risk and sound stupid in front of other people.  
  • To make a note, my incoming class was about 30 women and about 5 men. I was intimidated by both men and women, and was pretty sure my admittance into graduate school had been a fluke. 
  • My parents visited me for Thanksgiving my first year of graduate school. It was really fun to see them, and it was great to show them what I was doing. They met my advisor, Dan, and he said something to them that was probably a one-off comment to him, but which has stuck with me to this day. He said, "Christine really made the right decision coming back to school." It made me feel like I might actually belong there someday. And, truth be told, I did feel like I belonged by the time I graduated. 
  • I can remember going to bars with friends and talking with guys trying to hit on me. When they would ask what I did for a living, I would say I am a scientist. When they ask what kind of science, I would say, molecular biology or embryology, or developmental biology, or something like that. You should have seen how quickly they would run from me to the other end of the bar! Mostly, I found it to be funny. Why would you want to date a guy you met in a bar anyhow? But I know a lot of women find this to be upsetting. This actually still happens to me at parties, or when I meet new people. I can quickly shut down a conversation by bringing up what I do. I don't see this happening as much with my husband. I think, to some people, it's less intimidating to meet a smart man, because they are the gender that's "supposed" to be smart. 
  • The nice thing about having a class full of women is that, once I got out of the larger "weeder" classes in grad school, I started having mostly women in my smaller, group discussion classes. It turns out that women, to me, are much less intimidating and dominant than men. A lot of men in science try to dominate conversations, and don't let people get a word in edgewise, which can be incredibly frustrating (especially when a grade depends on class participation). These smaller classes with mostly women really helped me to come out of my shell, to see that my opinions and my thoughts DO matter, and that sometimes I can see things from a slightly different perspective than other people. 
  • On my floor, there was one woman faculty member (out of, lets say 8). She did not get tenure. Then there were none. I had one female on my thesis committee. I was mentored by an additional two other female faculty. In the time that I was at Penn (8 years), I can think of 2 women who were hired as faculty, and both were already established professors. The women who mentored me had exceptionally strong personalities, and could be very intimidating. I chose not to be intimidated by them, but I know a lot of people were put off by their personalities. Women "acting" like men can be intimidating to people. 
  • The majority of women faculty who started when I was at Penn did not receive tenure. The majority of men did. 
  • I've seen more women than men struggle to get funding. This is shown in statistics as well - more men receive grants than women.
  • The successful, top of their game women in science rarely have children, and usually have a husband with a much less demanding job.
  • More female faculty are divorced or single (as compared to male faculty). 
  • When I got to Stanford, things seemed different. My boss is female. She is a rock star, and she has a family (and a life). There are a large number of female postdocs, and everyone seems to be more on equal footing. Until faculty hiring began. We have roughly 50/50 female and male postdocs but all the new faculty hires in my department this year were male. Talk about frustrating.
  • Starting a family has made me realize just how tough women in the workplace (not just in science) have it. My pregnancy was not particularly difficult or challenging, but I missed a bit of work due to doctors appointments, fatigue, morning sickness, etc. My mind just wasn't in the work 100% (maybe because I was building a baby). To some bosses, this may seem like I am "less committed" to my work. I was not (am not) willing to work long hours, to give up my weekends, to sacrifice time with my family just to get work done. Don't get me wrong, I love my work. And there may be times when I do work some overtime. But for now, it can seem like I am not the "best fit" for a position. 
  • Now, I am on maternity leave. I will have a total of about 4 months off, which is literally 1/3 of a year. This time off does not extend my contract. I do not get "extra time" to complete my postdoc. In the meantime, my husband had about 2 weeks total off, but was able to keep things going during those two weeks. He's not usually dealing with sleep deprivation or the physical challenges of birthing and caring for a newborn. He can use this time to work a bit, while my working is wholly unrealistic since I have no predictable and consistent blocks of time in which to work. 
All of these points and more constantly make me rethink my goals of being faculty, and are likely factors in other women deciding to leave academics. While I'm not sure yet what the future holds, I do know that my climb will likely be a lot tougher than a man's.

1 comment:

  1. I'm always so proud to have such a super smart friend.