Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Are we part of the problem?

The AAUW release a report recently called "Why So Few?".  It seeks to identify reasons for the gender gap in STEM fields and offers some potential fixes.  I was excited by the possibilities, but somewhat disappointed by the short chapter with limited recommendations.  I should preface this conversation by saying that I'm serving on a committee right now looking at ways to improve enrollment and retention of undergraduate women in STEM fields, so this was of interest to me.

This week, there is an editorial piece on the report on the Chronicle website "Are Women Partly to Blame for the Gender Gap in STEM Fields?".  It is a thought provoking article that I agree with in some respects, such as how the AAUW report doesn't really offer any new suggestions.  It also got me thinking about whether I was part of the problem, and discouraged women from entering careers in academic STEM fields.  After all, it is hard to make it through the tenure process, and it is hard to balance working with having small kids.  I think tenure is hard for everyone, not just women (although it does fall during our prime reproductive years).  I also think that being a working mom is really hard, no matter what your job is and in fact we have luxury of having a more flexible schedule than many professions (lawyers, physicians, etc.).   I can't do everything at home, but I can do a lot, and much of my work can be done between 8 pm and 2 am, just as well as 8 am to 2 pm (except for the effect on my sanity).  But are women keeping each other down at times rather than being advocates for others?  

This is a delicate balance for me.  I would love to have another female faculty member in my department.  DESPERATELY!!!  But, I don't want someone who is not qualified or would not contribute to the department.  I'm not willing to give someone a complete pass on quality just to get a warm body in here that would likely not succeed.  But, do I go too far sometimes to make sure that when we do get another woman, she will meet the bar?  Am I subconsciously too hard on women candidates I'm not sure about?  I'm a big supporter of the good ones, but they never seem to accept the offers.  Food for thought....

What about students?  Do I let them see the sometimes grim reality of the challenge of being a faculty member a little too openly?  Does it discourage them?  I think this was definitely the case for my first doctoral student.  She is at home with two young kids right now.  I think this is totally the right decision for her and I support her on this.  But did my struggles in the early years turn her off to a faculty career?  I hope not, but I fear it may be true.  

I certainly did get turned off in graduate school by the harshness of a few female faculty members.  They had surely been through a lot to get to where they were, but rather than convert that experience into trying to ease the path for others it was more of a "I went through it so you must too" type of hazing.  This is what I want desperately to avoid.

I think the truth is that we just need to be more open and more flexible about what constitutes success, a career path and. acchievement.  Definitions of fields, milestone, research are all opening up more with interdisciplinary research anyway.  People don't all follow the same path from undergraduate to graduate school to post doc to faculty position.  Theey may detour for work, family, or just adventure.  This all makes them richer people.  I love that more and more women in my field are having kids pre-tenure.  It's become the norm rather than the exception for women faculty that started in the last 10 years.  Amazing, because 12 years ago I could count on 1 hand the number of women faculty I knew who had kids pre-tenure.  And, I don't think there is a big drop in the % of women getting tenure, so while I'm not goign to lie and say it's easy, it can and is being done.  

Here's the other myth, the being a stay at home mom (SAHM) is easy.  Frankly, it's really hard.  I have lots of friends that are SAHMs and that is just as hard a job for no pay.  I get to hang out with grown-ups (or almost grown-ups) all day and only have a few hours that can possibily have tantrums (from my kids at least).  So it's hard being a mom, whether you work outside the home or not.  Kids are hard just when you think you have them figured out they change on you.     The whole working vs SAHM battle is another battle I just don't get, in that it is so counter productive to helping women.  

Anyway, I'm going to try to think about ways to make sure I'm helping encourage women, rather than discouraging them.  Let me know if you have suggestions from your experiences.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Post Spring Break Hangover

OK.  I really wish that I did have a hangover from Spring Break because it would have meant doing something fun.  Instead I had a toddler with hand foot and mouth disease that resulting in 2 missed days from daycare and 2 more days of very picky eating (due to mouth sores).  Despite all this he has gained a pound recently so I guess he didn't starve too badly.  All this was really not conducive to finishing my spring break to-do list or taking a personal sanity (read clean out the clutter at home) day.   And now it's back to classes with nary a holiday until after finals.

On the bright side, despite the craziness that was my break, I did finish my grant and successfully defeat the e-submission system to get my grant submitted (read department admin hitting submit 50+ times and me clicking it once in the evening).  I could do a whole post about how unhappy I am that NIH chose not to grandfather grant being resubmitted.  It's really hard to response to reviews while cutting your grant length by 50%.  6 pages is too short for a grant proposal.  I hope the reviews can be considerate about the lack of space for methods.  I think the new format is actually helpful for providing info so that reviews can find it (e.g. significance and innovation), so I like this part (once I got my tooting your own horn hat on).  However, I'm still struggling to figure where to put the background info, or in other words I realize I'm not the only person in this field and that I am building on the work of others.

Also completed, book chapter (submitted), grading for my class up to date (as of last night), and planning on the way for the next recruiting weekend (Friday).  I did manage an few hours of me time after a eye exam/dilation put an end to grant writing one afternoon.  So really with the sick days, not too bad on my checklist.  Also did get the kids spring clothes washed and pool shoes ordered.  Now it's on to prepping for the guest lectures in another class this week and the 3 manuscripts that need to get submitted, as well as the paper reviews that are due soon.

One other interesting article from the NYTimes regarding the state of women at Harvard in the last 5 years. It's hard to fight the attitude/concern that women are being hired as tokens when the numbers are so small.  I think the key is that making life more balanced benefits everyone not just women.  Men these day have spouse who work frequently too.