The Self-Perpetuating Gender Gap In Academic Science: It’s Not Just About Having A Baby

There is not a one-to-one relationship between effort and reward in this job, and this uncertainty, which graduate students often learn about by observing their PhD supervisors, is a turn-off, especially for women.

On January 21, 2017, the first full day of the Trump administration, women will march on Washington in a demonstration of unity and strength, to show, as organizer Linda Sarsour puts it “that we are not afraid.” Although the feminism of the 1960s has evolved to a more subtle, fractionated form, this Presidential election, and subsequent reactions like this march, remind us that a woman’s place in society as equal to a man is a standard for which we must still consciously and tenaciously battle. Nowhere is this clearer than in certain sectors of the workforce, in particular, scientific research.

In 2015, I attended the American Chemical Society National Meeting to receive an award for my research. The first day of the conference, my husband, 3-month-old baby, a well-meaning security guard, and I were frantically and desperately trolling the hallways of the Denver Convention Center to find a place I could breastfeed the baby, who was still eating every two hours for 45 minutes at a time.

Despite having checked ahead of time that there was a designated room for breastfeeding in the building, we searched unsuccessfully for it for 30 minutes while the baby screamed bloody murder. I was about to give up and head back to the hotel when the security guard located the room. At best, it could be described as a homey storage closet with a chair, and no changing table (we changed my son’s diaper on the floor). It was, at least, warm and fairly isolated—that is, behind several makeshift tents housing conference supplies that we crawled through to get there in the first place.

I thought to myself—throughout this experience in particular, but also throughout that whole week of travel and conference activities, and during the few other work-critical trips I took in that first year of my son’s life—that experiences like these are why women don’t stay in academic science. This was nuts. This wasn’t natural. No woman should have to pump breastmilk sitting on a toilet in a stall in an airport with the pump buried in a bag of clothes at her feet to muffle the sound (which resembles that of a ticking bomb).

I already had tenure in the Department of Chemistry at Northwestern University at the time, but my job security was not the issue. Scientific research, in particular Chemistry, is relentlessly fast-moving and leaves you in the dust if you lose your concentration even for a few months. I had graduate students who needed to get their PhDs, proposals to write in order to fund the lab in the coming years, and commitments to colleagues to keep collaborations afloat. I had postdocs who needed to publish in order to be competitive on the academic market that year, and competitors with small armies of researchers publishing in our areas of expertise. These were the issues. These are always the issues, tenure or no—and analogous issues exist for mothers with careers outside of science and outside of academia.

The desire to start a family, and the difficulty in finding two jobs, where one is an academic job, in close proximity (the so-called “two-body problem”), are the most obvious answers to the question of why women disproportionately veer away from academic science as their career path even after getting a PhD; but, as frustrating as my Denver experience was, I also know that, for many women, these are the wrong answers, or at least very incomplete.

As a 26-year-old professional student at the academic tipping point—that is, considering whether to do a postdoctoral fellowship (the gateway to an academic career) or to take another path—neither I nor my graduate student peers had yet tasted the life or experienced the daily frustrations of a working mom. In contrast, many modern American women have been told we can do it all, and I think many of us do feel that way. We savor the task of managing our time, having multiple balls in the air, and feeding many mouths (so to speak). Naïvely or not, organizational challenges don’t scare us; they inspire us.

As a young woman in science, there are deeper, more unconscious forces at play in the decision not to pursue academic research, two in particular. First, for some, an academic career trajectory has an unacceptable amount of uncertainty, especially early-on. There is a fairly low probability of getting an academic job in general, and then there is the issue of getting tenure, being evaluated by your colleagues and your field, in a process that is often thorough and fair but sometimes includes some fuzzy criteria. Even after tenure, a career in research is a parade of rejections of papers and grant proposals, and requires, I’ve learned, a certain ruthless mentality. These are the costs of setting our own intellectual agenda.

The only thing that’s certain is that even the most successful academic scientists have to put an enormous effort just to keep the ship afloat, and have to improvise constantly. There is not a one-to-one relationship between effort and reward in this job, and this uncertainty, which graduate students often learn about by observing their PhD supervisors, is a turn-off, especially for women, who tend to take longer to build confidence in their scientific and research abilities.

A second deterrent of women from a career in academic science is the vague but intimidating feeling of treading into someone else’s territory, somewhere you don’t belong, a feeling also noted in essays about women in sports and in leadership positions in corporate America. Women are still a stark minority in the physical sciences faculty (10-15%), and graduate students see that. While I personally have experienced very few explicit instances of bias or discrimination in my job, it doesn’t take one of these experiences for a woman to feel out of place in a university science or engineering department, to feel that there is some achievement gap to be bridged in order to arrive at the same starting point as our male colleagues. Whether this bias is real or imagined is irrelevant; it is the perception of the female graduate student that counts.

The narrative that pins the gender gap in science on the work-life balance issue is important, because there are concrete changes to, for example, tenure schedules, conference formats, and travel requirements, that will improve the quality of life and the productivity of working parents (male and female), but our attachment to this narrative is also preventing us from seriously examining the more subtle issues of confidence that consciously or unconsciously dominate the decision-making processes of female graduate students.

The uncertainty of academic life is not going away anytime soon; fluctuations in the budgets of various agencies, changes in political climate, and the peer review system for research proposals and papers always keeps us off-balance, and the number of available faculty lines will shrink as professors—with no forced retirement in the United States—now stay physically and mentally sharp well into their 80s. There are concerted efforts at many universities to close the gender gap in science faculties, but this gap is stubborn, and self-perpetuating.

The way to break the cycle is for more women to show that they are not afraid: to embrace the risks of academic life, to value their careers as much they value their partners’, to realize that, even if they fail to get tenure, there will be many opportunities for a fulfilling career, and to know that, in exchange for the uncertainty comes an intellectual freedom and flexibility that no other job can match.

Emily Weiss is a professor in Northwestern University’s department of chemistry, where she also earned her Ph.D. She is a Public Voices Fellow.

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