Tag Archives: women in science

Notes on the leaky pipeline: realism or disillusionment? [Updated]

[Update in italics: May 3, 2012] After I wrote this post PLoS ONE published a paper that fits nicely with the points I was making.] 

Beryl Benderly’s blog post over at Science Careers caught my eye yesterday because she mentions a 2008 report from the UK about the retention of women  chemistry PhDs in academia. As expected, the women are moving away from academe. By the end of their PhDs only 12% of women want academic research careers in chemistry compared with 70% who are in the first year of the PhD. Those are compared with a drop from 60% to 21% for men.  (A disclaimer: I write regularly for Science Careers, but I wasn’t involved in this blog post in any way.)

Beryl takes a positive spin on this data:

The figures are still way above the percentage of new Ph.D.s who have any realistic chance of landing a job on the tenure track (at least in the United States). Thinking about the welfare of the young scientists who have devoted many years to preparing for their careers and are about to begin them, it does not appear “alarming” to me that they have traded in their formerly unrealistic notion about the possibility of landing an academic post.

I’m not so positive based on my anecdotal experiences. As a female chemistry PhD who flew the academic coop immediately after graduation (more on that here, here, and here), I’m one of those safe people, someone who walked away from the bench and hasn’t looked back. So as soon as young PhDs hear my story, they often delve into their own questions about the research life. What do I often hear? Confusion, disillusionment, and questions about how they can use their science in productive ways. A realistic picture of their academic prospects is a first step, but I’m not sure that the awareness provides a  bridge between their PhD and how they might use it in the workforce.

This particular report talks about the role of isolation in the choice to leave academia. If you’re in an academic setting and plotting a nontraditional career move, that decision often increases that feeling of isolation. So in some cases, a young scientist has to make their immediate professional social situation worse in order to make it better.  So step one is often finding a mentor or a like-minded support system and learning new skills, but all while you’re trying to maintain a presence in your laboratory. That’s easier said than done.

I realize that young PhDs who are happy in academia are not seeking me out, so I probably have an unusually gloomy picture. But I don’t think the academic system has addressed how it can broaden the career skills of young PhDs and support skilled scientists who become interested in policy, business, law, or education. I recognize that building a satisfying career involves incredibly personal decisions, and no career counselor or academic department can map that out for you. But better support for career development could help more PhDs who opt out of academia or research feel like extensions of their scientific community rather than renegades.

The PLoS ONE paper describes trends that I’ve noticed anecdotally. PhD students are less interested in the traditional academic research track by the end of their degrees. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily prepared for,  interested in, or aware of the jobs that might be available that would capitalize on their skills. Faculty members seem to be relatively neutral about alternative paths, and what I’ve noticed talking with some young scientists is this general sense that they want to do “something else” but without any sense of what “something else” might look like.

Figure 5. Share of students finding particular work activities interesting/uninteresting. Respondents indicated how interesting they would find each of six kinds of work when thinking about the future.

 

And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s what the researchers have to say about the way that student interests, encouragement, and career opportunities aren’t lining up.  (Emphasis is mine).

Second, respondents across all three major fields feel that their advisors and departments strongly encourage academic research careers while being less encouraging of other career paths. Such strong encouragement of academic careers may be dysfunctional if it exacerbates labor market imbalances or creates stress for students who feel that their career aspirations do not live up to the expectations of their advisors. In the context of prior findings that students feel well-informed about the characteristics of academic careers but less so about careers outside of academia [17], our results suggest that PhD programs should more actively provide information and training experiences that allow students to learn about a broader range of career options, including those that are currently less encouraged. Richer information and a more neutral stance by advisors and departments will likely improve career decision-making and has the potential to simultaneously improve labor market imbalances as well as future career satisfaction [23], [24]. Advisors’ apparent emphasis on encouraging academic careers does not necessarily reflect an intentional bias, however. Rather, it may reflect that advisors themselves chose an academic career and have less experience with other career options. Thus, administrators, policy makers, and professional associations may have to complement the career guidance students’ advisors and departments provide.

So let’s figure out how to bridge the disillusionment. I can’t think of a bigger waste of scientific talent than to have young researchers floundering because they don’t know how to bring their skills into a useful and productive career.

As a postscript, check out my fellow blogger Chemjobber, who doesn’t pull any punches about all things job- and chemistry-related.

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A leaky pipeline postmortem

I was just a couple of years into my chemistry Ph.D., when a good friend forwarded me a copy of an article about this MIT report: A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. I wasn’t  surprised when I read about the inequalities in resources and that many of the women faculty had felt marginalized. In many ways, I was relieved: an institution  was acknowledging the problem and working on making the path for women scientists better.

From the introduction of that report:

In the summer of 1994, three tenured women faculty in the School of Science
began to discuss the quality of their professional lives at MIT. In the course of
their careers these women had come to realize that gender had probably
caused their professional lives to differ significantly from those of their male
colleagues. Interestingly, they had never discussed the issue with one
another, and they were even uncertain as to whether their experiences were
unique, their perceptions accurate. This situation was about to change
dramatically. It was soon clear to the women that their experiences formed
a pattern. Curious to know whether other women in the School of Science
shared these experiences, they drew up a list of all the tenured women faculty
in the School of Science in order to conduct an informal poll.

Flash forward  more than 10 years, and my personal perspective on the issues of women in science has shifted. I see more acknowledgement of the subtle issues of bias, but at the same time I made the personal decision to leave the bench and pursue a science writing career. And every time I see another report on women in academic science, I ask myself: Is it becoming any easier for women to pursue a research career? Or are we just rehashing the same issues of subconscious bias and what women have to do to have their ideas heard and recognized?

But this week, a new paper takes fresh look at the leaky pipeline. In some ways, they report good news: less institutional bias against women in science because of their gender. For the most part women receive just as many job interviews, opportunities for fellowships, and don’t seem to face bias barriers in the review of their publications. Instead, they report that “choice” is at the root of the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of academic science:

This situation is caused mainly by women’s choices, both freely made and constrained by biology and society, such as choices to defer careers to raise children, follow spouses’ career moves, care for elderly parents, limit job searches geographically, and enhance work-home balance. Some of these choices are freely made; others are constrained and could be changed (3).

The research gets uncomfortably close to the reasons that I left the bench. To make it clear, I’m incredibly happy with my decision to leave research. Any lingering mixed feelings come from my belief that women can and should be able to pursue research careers. As a woman who leaked out of the research pipeline, I sometimes worry that there won’t be enough role models and opportunities for the women who want to stay and who have strong contributions to make.

And the researchers voice my core fear:

To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem. However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.

At the same time that I was making my decision to leave the bench, I was working at a hands-on science museum. Some of my best days were working with young children who were excited about discovering science, particularly girls, and their mothers who gushed that they were so excited that their daughters were developing interests that they’d shied away from. I want those girls, if they choose, to have a future in science.

When I look back, I didn’t see where a research career would offer me enough flexibility to pursue my other interests in life. Five years into my Ph.D., my next step looked like several more years of long hours as a postdoc. An interdisciplinary person by nature, the demands of research had shut out my other interests, writing, language, culture, art– and, maybe, one day, a family of my own. I’d tried on the lifestyle, and it didn’t fit. All of life involves choices, and not every Ph.D. can or should stay in the academic laboratory. But restricting research science to a system that only rewards those who pursue it singlemindedly is also shortsighted. I hope the academic system can embrace part-time tenure track arrangements or other innovations that might make the research track more attractive. If every woman in science looks at the situation and comes to the same conclusion that I did, science, medicine and technology will be the worse for it.

Reference: Ceci, SJ and Williams, WM. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proc. Natl Acad. Soc. USA. doi:10.1073/pnas.1014871108

Image credit: Kris Griffon

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Both Science and Family– but not all at once

iStock_000008482963XSmall
istockphoto/AndreasReh

My latest story for Science Careers is up– about women who took extended family breaks from their careers and came back to the laboratory. I was impressed with these women’s creativity in crafting career and family life in ways that worked for them.

What surprised me a little when I was doing the interviews for this article was that no one had really planned her break. Circumstances came up– new parenthood, illness, trailing spouse issues– and they figured out that staying home was best for them and their families. When circumstances changed, and they felt ready, they made moves back toward the workforce.

After I thought about it, the apparent lack of planning makes sense– how do you really know in advance how long you’d want to stay home with your children? Or if you’re dealing with a health issue, how do you plan a timeline for treatment? In many ways, you simply can’t.

But at the same time, if you have an idea that you might want to return at some future date, wouldn’t it be nice to have guidelines, to know that you have options? I hope the article shows women and men that they have choices, even though the road might not be easy.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Freeland, she mentioned a resource from the Institute of Physics– a best-practice guide for career breaks, and even some ideas for planning them. In a way, some of that information is common sense: stay in touch with mentors and employers and remain plugged into the science community by reading the literature and even attending conferences.

I think stories are more important than guidelines. If you know that others share the same struggles, made similar decisions, and have had successful careers, you know that all your hard work is not in vain. Universally, these women at some point in their journeys wondered if they were completely alone. Over time, they slowly met others who had made similar choices and had similar career aspirations. I’m grateful that they took the time to share their experiences and struggles with me and with the broader scientific community.

The overall message I hope scientists get from the story– yes, you have options when it comes to career and family. And most of all– however you decide to manage family balance– you’re not alone in the journey.

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Truth Values: women in the equation

It’s evolved into women in science month here at Webb of Science.

On October 9, I saw Gioia De Cari‘s one woman show, “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Larry Summers’ now infamous comments about women in science inspired her to turn her own experiences as a  math graduate student at MIT (she got a Master’s degree) into theater. My immediate reaction: this woman gets it. She articulates the experience of being a woman in an insular male-dominated world.

To be fair, I expect that chemistry is more female-friendly than mathematics, but some of De Cari’s stories– the office mate who professed his love to her even though she was married and the macho dynamics  of other offices– complete with posters of nuclear weapons– reminded me of some of my post-undergraduate experiences. Though I did my Ph.D. with a woman chemist, I spent a year in Germany in a department where most of the women were secretaries (one ran the stockroom, and there was another woman, an American, doing her Ph.D. on another floor). My adviser and my immediate colleagues– though all male– were tremendously supportive.

But I still had one jarring incident where I left a computer lab for a few minutes and returned to find a screensaver installed– a digital bare-breasted woman bouncing across my screen. I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like that in English, much less in German. I suspected that a student from another floor, a frequent user of the computer lab, had rigged up “bouncy babe,” but never knew for sure.

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Chemistry Nobel, women, and the "choice"

A chocolate Nobel Prize
A chocolate Nobel Prize

On Monday, I mentioned that it was a good week for women in science. Well, it got even better today with the announcement of the chemistry prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science becomes the fourth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (sharing the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  and Thomas Steitz of Yale University).

The science is essential for life, understanding the structure and workings of ribosomes. These packets within living cells that take the master plans encoded within geness and manufacture the working parts, proteins.

For an upcoming story, I’ve been thinking a lot about research careers, work-life balance, and the “choice” that’s often drawn in the sand, particularly for women, between work and family. Some of that comes out in Yonath’s interview on the Nobel website:

[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?

[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.

The Nobel recognition is about Yonath’s science, not her gender. But I find this quote fascinating, and it skirts around the main issue. She’s of a different generation (born in 1939), and I see one point: motherhood was  considered a socially acceptable– maybe even socially sanctioned– reason for a female scientist to leave the laboratory. A man would probably get more backlash for making a choice to leave the laboratory to raise his children.

But that choice, by a scientist of either gender, comes with consequences. I doubt that many of today’s women  use motherhood as a smokescreen for a waning interest in research. They leave for many reasons: because they decide to apply their knowledge in new ways, because they don’t see enough opportunities, and maybe even because they want to make more money. Some of them discover that the research lifestyle isn’t compatible with the family life that they’d like to have, particularly in the early years of their children’s lives.

Working on this upcoming story already had me thinking about my own decision to leave the laboratory. My choice didn’t come down to a line in the sand between career and family. I was single throughout graduate school and defended my dissertation shortly before my 30th birthday. But those issues colored my decision. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I sensed a culture of inflexibility.  I realized that I didn’t want to feel locked into lab work, and I wanted to be able to pursue other creative interests, and, yes, eventually have a family. Did those desires make me a less capable scientist? Absolutely not, but conventional wisdom would say that I didn’t want it “bad enough.” If I had sensed more flexibility– an environment more compatible with my personal goals–  would I have considered staying in research? I don’t know.

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Nobel Prize for telomeres: focusing on the ends of DNA

It’s Nobel Prize season again, and the science behind this particular award for Medicine feels like a familiar friend. I got my crash course in telomeres and telomerase from a group meeting talk that one of my lab colleagues gave almost exactly a decade ago.

The science recognized was done a quarter century ago. DNA sequences have protective caps called telomeres that are maintained by a riboenzyme, telomerase, but the implications for the scientific understanding of aging, cancer and stem cells remain active research areas. Telomeres get shorter as we age, and maintenance of telomeres in cancer cells may help them continue to survive and divide. Part of the understanding of stem cells and their capacity for regeneration (or to cause cancer) will come from a better understanding of their telomeres.

This Nobel Prize story has many of the plot points associated with great discoveries, particularly the discovery of the telomerase enzyme, by Carol Greider in Elizabeth Blackburn’s laboratory on Christmas Day 1984. But notably, this award goes to two women: Blackburn of UCSF and Greider of Johns Hopkins University (They share the award with Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School).

Though I wish that there were enough female Nobelists to make a double double-X chromosome Prize in Medicine less notable, it’s definitely a good day for women in science.

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Encouraging (women) scientists to opt in to academia

It’s an interesting week to talk about women in science. On Tuesday afternoon, I listened in on the end of a White House panel discussion about Title IX and its impact on women in both athletics and science and technology. Scientific American also reported on a new government study about the state of women in academic science, which indicates that women are at least as likely to be hired into tenure track science positions as their male colleagues. One problem is that women don’t apply for those positions in numbers that match their representation in science.

Academic science as a system still selects against women (and men) who might want a more flexible life before 40. Once you have tenure, you have autonomy, but for a decade (or two) you’re at the mercy of a sometimes merciless system.

I’m an out-opter, and I don’t regret my choice. I realized that academic science and I weren’t the best match, in part because I discovered that I loved writing, disliked labwork, and had broad interests. Another piece of the decision came from the stark realization in my late 20s that I was at least 10 years away from possible tenure. Academia, which had once seemed like this wonderful, flexible lifestyle, gradually became confining– long hours, low pay and little room for an outside life for another decade or more.

One quote from the Title IX discussion stuck with me:

You’ve got to SEE it to BE it. –Billie Jean King

King was talking about the dearth of women in high level positions in athletic departments. But although more and more women trainees see women scientists, but they don’t always see models that reflect all their goals of career and life entwined. Some of the tenured women in academia that I remember talking with spoke wistfully about something that they gave up: a relationship or the opportunity to have children. And let’s not forget the many women (and some men) who gave up their academic dreams to fulfill their familial urges.

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