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.  


  1. I agree with very much of what you say, but I am in a position that I think proves there is still a significant bias against women in STEM fields (my experience is in engineering). I have been at my institution since Fall 2004. Only two women (both from the same department) in my college have been awarded tenure during that time. Two women were not reappointed prior to their designated tenure year, meaning they were dismissed from the university. One female was denied tenure just this year. I am facing the very real possibility that I will not be reappointed, which will effectively prevent me from submitting my tenure dossier this fall (which is when I am supposed to submit). Finally, there is an assistant professor who is completing her second year that is in an equally precarious position and is ready to leave because of how she has been treated and what has happened to the rest of us. Three out of five women have been dismissed, and another two do not expect to receive tenure/promotion...absolutely dismal statistics. In the entire time I have been at this institution, only one male in my college has been denied tenure, and that just happened a couple of weeks ago. All of the other men up for tenure/promotion have received it. There is only one female full professor in the college (roughly 60 faculty). It has been widely discussed among the college faculty that the college wanted to promote a female faculty member. However, when she put in for full professor, a male from another department also put in. The female had a respectable record of publications, research funding, graduating PhD and MS students, teaching and service. The male applicant had significantly more publications but had not ever (and still has not) graduated a PhD student. The committee did not feel they could promote the female without promoting the male, so both received promotions. Perfect example of men being held to different standards. There are 5 females at the rank of associate prof in my college; I do not think that any one of them believes they will ever make full professor (but at least they do have tenure).

  2. In response to the previous comment...
    I did not mean to imply that there is no discrimination left. I can certainly agree that there is in fact bias in many places, overt and more subtle. My own school (of engineering) has a less than stellar record. The number of women that were promoted from assistant to associate with tenure can be counted on one hand. Currently there is only 1 full female professor, although we have had more in the past. There are currently a few associates, but still obviously less than 5. One being myself. I'm trying to assess the bar for promotion right now and will likely post on this soon. My department has never promoted someone all the way from assistant to full professor (relatively new department) so it's hard to compare yourself with people who were hired with tenure. I find it appalling that anyone could be promoted to full without graduating a single PhD student. I got grief about only having graduated 1 before tenure (when our dept average time is 5.5 years to graduation and tenure is typically applied for in the 6th year???). I'm sorry for your situation, but I hope you are actively looking elsewhere. If you have a package that is competitive you should be able to find a position as a target of opportunity. We sometimes feel locked into our situations because of family but I think you have to be ready to walk if needed. That is the one thing that often keeps me sane. Talk to friends at other schools! This kept me sane through tenure. And remember if you aren't happy professionally you and your family (spouse, kids, if you have them) all suffer. Qualified women in engineering are a hot commodity! Don't want for the job listings, start pinging friends at places you would like to go and have them approach their chairs. Email me if you would like to discuss more privately. mommy dot engineer at gmail