With the internet currently atwitter about a new paper in the upstart journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, I have a couple specific thoughts that I’d like to share that go beyond whatever character limit twitter is using nowadays.
Ada Lovelace Day lands on Tuesday, 10 October. Here’s a post to honor Mary Talbot. She was a pioneer whose contributions were undervalued in her time, and that condition has persisted to our own time. Here’s a small attempt to rectify that situation.
When we talk about increasing the representation of women and ethnic minorities in STEM, the path towards a professional career is often characterized as a “pipeline.”
The pipeline metaphor is so entrenched, it affects how people think about our deep-rooted problems. This metaphor has become counterproductive, because it fails to capture the nature of the problem that we are trying to solve. Even if we were to magically repair all of the so-called “pipeline,” we still would have what some would call “pipeline issues.”
What are the problems with the pipeline metaphor?
When Jason Lieb was a professor at the University of North Carolina, he was sleeping with one of his own graduate students. He was investigated by UNC for sexual harassment, and then left for Princeton. He left Princeton within a year, and was hired by the University of Chicago. The search committee at Chicago was fully aware that he was having sex with his own graduate student at UNC, because Lieb told them this fact. And they hired him anyway.
This week I am officially unemployed. What does life as an unemployed academic look like? Well, in the first place not so very different from an employed one.
Sweden has a long school break so we’re just getting back into the swing of things here (read the kid is back at school). This is also the first week that I am officially without a contract and have to face the reality that came with grant decisions in November. But work as an academic doesn’t really stop when the money does. I have two masters students and a PhD to see through their defences this year so at the very least, I will continue to help them with their research and writing. Of course I also have a bunch of unfinished projects that I would like to invest in and get published. All this adds up to me doing lots of things that I would normally do as a part of my job.
Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.
This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.
So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections.
When I first joined twitter, I was nervous I might mess up somehow. I wanted to use my professional identity but because no one around me* was using twitter, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. Also, we’ve all heard about disastrous mistakes on social media that have lead to personal and professional fallout. Although I didn’t think I would do anything that extreme I was worried about job applications and such. So in short, I was cautious and worried about the dangers of putting myself out there on twitter. Now over two years and some 6000+ tweets later, I am less so**.
This week, I did my one of my first ever phone-interviews with a reporter for a story about black widows in grapes. I was really nervous about being quoted (what if I say something that sounds stupid, or worse, is wrong?) but I agreed to do the interview anyway. Despite my fears, I made this decision for a couple of reasons. I am passionate about spiders and science communication and I think it’s really important to do what I can to correct misconceptions that are often presented in the media. I absolutely want to take every opportunity to provide accurate information about spiders (especially the ones I study) to the public. Furthermore, I think that I have an obligation to do this because taxpayers pay for my research and training, at least in part.
It wasn’t until I thought a bit about it after I gave the interview that I realized there is another really good reason for me to say yes to interview requests from the media. News stories about spiders come up pretty frequently. If a spider expert is quoted in these stories, I often see familiar names: Rick Vetter, Chris Buddle, Robb Bennett (arachnologists who are all doing a fantastic job educating people about spiders). I just did a quick google search for the word arachnologist under “News” and found several more names on the first page or so of hits. With two exceptions (both of which were stories about recent spider research with quotes from study authors) all of the spider experts quoted have one thing in common: they are white men.
Is it possible that this is simply a representative sample of available experts? Maybe… but let’s check. If you google “list of arachnologists” the first hit is a wiki page with a list of arachnologists who are original describers of spider species… not super useful for finding a living expert. The second relevant hit brings you to a page on Arachnological Society of America’s website, listing arachnologists willing to train graduate students. That seems like a more reasonable sample. There are 11 women and 37 men on the list. So assuming this is a representative sample of the population of senior arachnologists, about 23% of available experts are women. I’d be willing to bet that among more junior scientists who study spiders (like me), there are even more women – probably much closer to 50%. Take for example the members of the lab I’ll be joining this fall: 8 of 10 are women.
I’m personally interested in these numbers because I’ve had variations of the following conversation several times, and it’s getting pretty old. It goes something like this:
Man: “So what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a scientist! I study sexual communication in spiders.”
Man: “That’s an unusual career choice for a woman.”
In the past, I haven’t known how to respond to this because I didn’t have actual data on which to base a statement like “actually, XX% of arachnologists are women”. The data (at least for professors) turn out not to look that great, but I think it’s fair to say that female arachnologists are not particularly unusual. Anyway, the men in these conversations often go on to talk about how women in general or some women they know are afraid of spiders. I get that one of the reasons they think it’s strange for me to be a scientist who studies spiders is that women are more likely to be arachnophobic than men (it’s still an untrue stereotype that most or all women are afraid of spiders, but whatever). But it’s a fact that most people think of scientists in general as men. I recently read a piece about the male scientist stereotype and some thoughts on how to kill it on The Conversation. You should read it.
Women are just not seen as often as men talking about science in the media. Think about science TV shows – how many can you name that are hosted by women? A while back I attended a great talk by Dr. Jennifer Gardy for Ada Lovelace Day, and this was one of the things she talked about. Her main message was that things are (very slowly) getting better for women in science, but she made a bunch of suggestions about how to help continue to improve. One was related to increasing the diversity of scientists represented in popular media. Dr. Gardy regularly agrees to do media interviews, and she also occasionally hosts the CBC TV show The Nature of Things. Her advice to the women in the audience was to always say yes (when possible) to interviews. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s one important way to work toward improving diversity in science. If, for example, a girl sees a scientist who looks like her on TV, that could be the first time she realizes that becoming a scientist is something she could do. It just might help encourage her to aspire to become a scientist one day, and that would be awesome.
So great, if you’re a woman and/or a person of colour, saying yes to interviews is a good thing to do. What if you’re not? No problem! I’m definitely not saying that white dudes should avoid giving interviews. But what if you get asked to give an interview and you can’t? Do you suggest a colleague or student the journalist could ask? You almost certainly know some women who would be great choices. Suggest one of them! Even if you can do the interview but you know the journalist will probably be interviewing other experts too, why not suggest a woman they could talk to as well? Simple!
So that interview I gave about spiders this week? It was one of two that I gave, for different stories. Originally, Professor Chris Buddle was asked to give interviews by two journalists (he’s their go-to arachnologist, because he’s done interviews with them before and is always happy to talk about spiders), and he had to turn them down. He gave them both my name, and they contacted me. That easy! It’s not the first time he’s given my name to a reporter, but it’s the first time I said yes. I was busy visiting family last time, but I probably could have made it work – mostly I was afraid, but now I know it’s not so scary! I will be saying yes to interview requests whenever I can in the future. It’s a simple thing to do, and it’s important.
I’m writing this post because I have been thinking about my career goals and how they have changed since my days as an undergraduate. It is only recently that I have seriously thought that becoming a professor is something I want to do and that it might actually be possible for me to do. One really simple thing helped me to come to this realization. It’s not the only thing, but it was a really important thing for me, so I want to share the story here.
I’ve read a lot of things about why there are fewer women than men in academic science, and one idea seems to be that women just aren’t as motivated as men to become professors. Maybe that’s true – but why?
Maybe girls grow up watching TV shows featuring scientist characters that are mostly male, nature documentaries mainly hosted by men, and news stories or interviews with scientists who are usually men. Maybe most of the science books and toys are marketed towards boys. Maybe girls aren’t encouraged to join the math club or Odyssey of the Mind. Maybe most of their science teachers and the scientists in their textbooks are male.
But putting all that aside for a moment, let’s assume a young woman can enter University with an open mind, believing that any career path is potentially open to her. I was such a young woman.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at first, but realized during my first year that I loved math, and entered a mathematics degree program. Over the course of this program, male professors taught all but one of my math courses. A female postdoc taught the exceptional course. Many students complained about the quality of the course and her teaching, and at least one wondered aloud about her qualifications. (She was actually an excellent teacher, but she had a quiet voice and a thick accent so her lectures were hard to follow with so many students talking over her. There was a male professor in the department who was also very soft-spoken and had an accent. When he was lecturing, the room was always silent.)
I never seriously considered a career in mathematics despite doing very well in my program. I did think that maybe teaching high school math was something I could end up doing – I learned that I loved teaching as an undergraduate TA for a first year calculus course in my 3rd and 4th year.
Later I went back to school while working part-time, taking some undergraduate courses in biology. Of the 13 biology courses I took, male professors taught 8. Of my 5 female teachers, four were full-time lecturers; only one was a professor. All of these women were amazing and inspiring teachers. My impression was that my one female professor must have been really exceptional to make it the way she has.
It turned out that I loved biology even more than I loved math. When I considered potential careers, I thought that maybe I could become a lecturer in biology – I still loved teaching. It never crossed my mind that becoming a professor was something I could do, until during my work as a summer research assistant, my PhD-student-mentor’s supervisor stopped me to chat in the hall one day. He told me that he hoped I would pursue a graduate degree in his lab, and that he saw me becoming a professor one day.
I was frankly shocked by that conversation, but also really excited. I still have some trouble imagining myself becoming a professor, but not quite so much as I did then. Since my recent MSc defense, when my supervisor* again told me that he believes I can and will become a professor, it’s something I’ve actually started thinking is within the realm of possibility.
My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and encouraged my interest in science. Maybe I’m just not that ambitious, and that’s why I didn’t aspire to become a professor during my undergraduate work, despite the fact that I knew I wanted to continue in science and enjoyed both research and teaching. I never consciously thought to myself, hmm, looks like professing is for men (and maybe the occasional extraordinary woman) so that’s obviously not open to me. But it’s pretty clear to me that when I was considering potential careers in science, I looked at the people around me (and noticed people’s attitudes towards them) and that influenced my thinking about what I might be able to do.
The number of women in academic science is increasing, and I think things are slowly improving in a lot of ways. Having good role models and mentors (both male and female), and being a role model and mentor, is really important for female students and academics. And whether you’re male or female, you can help by encouraging girls and young women to do science. Just telling them out loud that they can be scientists and professors if they want to might make a difference.
*My inspirational MSc supervisor was Gerhard Gries, who has been fiercely supportive ever since we first met. I am extremely grateful to him for his continued mentorship, and for always believing in me.
I’ve made a point to not mention this over the last several months, because I try to keep this site (mostly) professional. But — of course — personal and professional matters interfere with one another. We are all working on the same 24 hours per day, no matter how it gets sliced up.
By my counting, we have three kinds of science education crises in the USA.
A student recently dropped by to tell me about an exciting opportunity. She was going to spend a few weeks doing research in a gorgeous location, camping with a field crew led by the professor who taught her Intro course last semester.
I asked her how much the job paid, and she said it was a volunteer gig, but the opportunity of this short trip would would be worth it on its own. And she would be getting academic credit.
I had more questions.
Last week we saw a blatant example of not considering the implications of your wardrobe. There are a lot of good perspectives on That Shirt worn by Dr. Matt Taylor not the least Terry’s own last week; on twitter #shirtstorm or #shirtgate. Rather than discuss the incident itself, which has received plenty of play already and been written about more elegantly and thoroughly than I can, I want to write about academic dress codes in general.
I live in the city where Richard Feynman did a bunch of amazing things. I’ve chatted with a number of people who knew him. He is fondly remembered as an inspiring teacher, engaging writer and phenomenal scientist. He is also remembered as a creepy guy who frequented a local strip club, and for misogynist quips, even in his popular writing.
- One Woman’s Life in Science. This came out almost twenty years ago in the Sigma Xi magazine, but it reads as if could have been written yesterday.
- “Student course evaluations are often misused statistically and shed little light on the quality of teaching, two scholars at the University of California at Berkeley argue in the draft of a new paper.”
- The Royal Society awarded 43 fellowships this year. Two of them went to women. At the application stage, shortlist stage, interview stage, and award stage, the proportion of women kept dropping. This is enraging.
If you haven’t seen it yet, go over and read this courageous, important and stunningly written Op-Ed piece by Hope Jahren over at the New York Times.
Her story reflects the unexpressed story of many others.
We need to ditch the “academic pipeline” metaphor. Why?
The professional destinations of people who enter academic science are necessarily varied.
We do not intend or plan for everybody training in science to become academic researchers.
The pipeline metaphor dehumanizes people.
Dads typically do less parental care than the mom, at least in the US. This is a problem, especially for the mom’s career.
Many men, and I suspect particularly academics, are genuinely focused on parenting. They want to do right by their partners, and make sure that they don’t create an inequitable parental burden. Parenting is a joy, but time demands of the required tasks involved are often burdensome. In some some families, if you fast-forward from zygote to toddler, you’ll find that some, if not many, of these guys are not doing their share.
Nine months ago, I asked LEGO to make more female scientists. As a start, I cobbled together a few from spare parts at home: arachnologist, chiropterist, herpetologist, ichthyologist and ornithologist. Click through to check them out. I made them with my 10-year old son.
I never thought they’d make a chiropterist. But, now, they indeed they are making an astronomer, a chemist, and a paleontologist!
Earlier this fall, I had an interview for a tenure-track job here in Sweden. I didn’t get the job, which was of course disappointing, but that isn’t really why I am writing here. The interview process was stressful and it is tough sitting in front of a panel addressing their questions one after another. It feels a bit like everything about you is on trial. I was prepared to answer tough questions about my work, how I would function in the department, as an advisor, etc. But there was one single question that really threw me: ‘Are you a fighter?’
In the interview, my mental response was basically WTF? It felt like a gender-specific question—are you one of those women who will just trying to please everyone and do as you are told or are you a fighter? Now to be fair, I’m pretty sure the question was asked to see how I would respond and I heard the other candidates had a similar kind of experience. Regardless of the reason, the fact that such a question could be construed as gender-specific was disturbing to me.* It pushed a button because I realised that I am a fighter and what is more I have had to be to get where I am.
I have been incredibly fortunate in my scientific career. I’ve had great, if sometimes difficult, relationships with my mentors and advisors. But really, I’ve had lots of support throughout. I also have not experienced any direct sexual harassment in a professional context. So, in that sense, science has been a safe place for me. This fall, twitter and the blogosphere are showing that this is not the case for many (one summary), which is unfortunately not at all surprising (wouldn’t say I’ve lived a harassment-free life). I have been deeply saddened by the revelations about race and gender and sexual harassment. I truly applaud the bravery of the women who are speaking out because I know first-hand how tough that can be. But I’ve been quiet about my own feelings, in part because I haven’t had my own experiences to share.
Unfortunately, there has been another development recently with an inappropriate/offensive joke video where Einstein is seen sexually harassing Curie. If you are not a part of the “online science community”, you’re probably sheltered from these discussions. Being pretty new to blogging and twitter myself, I’ve felt mostly like an outsider—I haven’t been directly affected by what’s happening and I haven’t known any of the players. But all the events have got me thinking about many aspects of privilege and gender.
Of course there have been times where I wonder how my gender plays a role in where I am. Have I been passed over for opportunities because I am female? Have I been asked/hired/etc because I’m female? These doubts can play a role in undermining who we are as women and scientists. Follow #ripplesofdoubt on Twitter to see how pervasive this can be and #ripplesofhope to see positive reflections on change.
Although I haven’t faced direct discrimination, there have been situations where my gender has been at the forefront:
- On not getting a talk award (think it was meant to be consoling): “Men are more convincing because they have deeper voices and sound more confident. Your voice is too high.”
- An off-handed comment about having met with someone in a professional context: “He does like talking to the ladies.”
- Or undermining responses course evaluations about my appearance rather than my teaching.
- Or those times I’ve watched younger students/mentees turn to a male colleague to seek answers/approval.
- Or having your male colleagues worry they don’t have a chance at a job because they are male and thereby implying that you have a leg up because of your gender.
- Or that time I was talking to a high profile evolutionary biologist and I mentioned my daughter as one reason for not staying on in my PhD to do more experiments. The response “Can you publish that?” immediately told me that I wasn’t in a safe place and reminded me that I could be judged for considering anything other than the science when making decisions.
But like many women, I have tended to shrug these incidents off. I haven’t wanted to be too sensitive, and too, well, female. So I pretend that the comments don’t matter and they don’t affect me. But of course they do. Although these are subtle forms of suggesting that I don’t belong or aren’t good enough, they are a part of what many of us experience.
One positive thing that has come out in the last few months has been that people have begun to speak up. I have come to realise that I need to make more effort to do the same. Although it is tough, it is important to speak up both for myself and for other women. Ignoring and internalizing comments changes nothing. We all need to be allies. I’ve been encouraged by the efforts to be positive and change things for the better (e.g., see here for lots of good ideas on supporting other women). Science is a tough gig; it’s what drives many of us. But I hope we can all move towards a more inclusive place where we support each other regardless of race, gender, age, size, hair cut, clothing, family….. Hopefully discussions surrounding causal and not so causal sexism/harassment can help us all get there.
At the interview, when asked if I was a fighter I was thrown off. I was mad and I struggled to regain my footing in the interview. I highly doubt that it cost me the job but I left the interview unsettled.
The next time someone asks me whether I’m a fighter, I know what I’ll say: I am a scientist. I am a woman. I’m here. Of course I am a fighter, what else could I be?**
Post script: writing about sexual harassment and discrimination while simultaneously watching cartoons is both very strange and comforting at the same time. I’m home with my sick 4-year old daughter and being with her reminds me part of why I want to do my bit to change things for the better.
*When discussing questions afterwards with two male collaborators who where also interviewing, we were able to match most of the things we were asked, except they were not asked if they were fighters.
**I think that men also face some of the same struggles in academia. You have to have a bit of fight in you to stay in this game.