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Today, I met another woman who is a postdoc and has decided to leave academia. That's a total of 5 women now, all of whom were postdocs for somewhere between 1-5yrs and have left or are planning on leaving. And no, it's not always because of family/kids.
I met PostdocXX yesterday at a conference mixer and we immediately hit it off. After the last symposia, we went for drinks and talked and talked or rather she did. I think she was just so grateful to find someone sympathetic to her struggles. She's in a lab with 17 postdocs (50:50 male:female) and 3 grad students. At this conference with her are three postdocs from her lab (2 guys and 1 other gal). Her supervisor is here at the conference and it turns out that he's decided to play hookey and go and see a ball game. The interesting thing is that he's invited four people to join him. Guess who. All boys. And two of them are postdocs from his lab. The other two are colleagues of his that are also both senior faculty. So her and this other female postdoc have been left out. She knows that this is an ideal networking opportunity, but doesn't get the chance to participate because whether by intention or not, she has not been invited. In PostdocXX's words, "I'm just tired of battling the old boys. I don't want to do it anymore. It's not that DrXY is not a good scientist, he's so great. And when I need to talk with him about science, I just email him and he will immediately set up a time. He's got great ideas and is very encouraging, but I don't feel supported, you know. I guess I'm just not ambitious enough." WTF, another one bites the dust, is what I thought.
So on that note, here is the last of my reposts on career trajectories. It's called, "The Glass Ceiling of Academia." and is from April 1st 2010.
A new report published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), called “Why So Few”, does a good job summarizing the information known to date about the under-representation of women in science and math. The report is an in-depth study (134pages) that examines the cognitive attitudes and achievements of girls vs. boys in maths and sciences at the high school level. It also re-iterates that the unconscious gender biases and climate within universities still impede women’s participation and success in STEM areas. Although there is little that is new, it does actually offer a few solutions. And part of the value of the report comes because it is a reminder of how far we have to go in order to get gender parity in academia.
I've highlighted some facts that I think are relevant.
The report finds that the number of women who have earned bachelor degrees in biological and agricultural sciences has more than doubled. In 1966 25% of women earned B.Sc and that number is now ~60%. And if you look at the earned doctorates in the biological sciences, the numbers have quadrupled. In all fields women are doing better with the exception of computer science where in fact the numbers appear to be declining.
At first glance this looks great.
But as we all are aware, if women are earning more and more doctorates in the biological and other STEM sciences then where are they?
The reason this report really interested me, is because over my morning porridge, I’ve been collecting a little data of my own. Mostly just out of curiosity. I’ve been visiting the webpages of various biological departments in universities across Canada and the US to find out what proportion of faculty are women. But what I want to know specifically is if the proportion of female faculty is inversely proportional to the research income of a school or total graduate student population. Furthermore, I decided to see what proportion of postdocs were female. For this data, I didn’t count lecturers or emeritus professors so it makes it a conservative estimate. Because I’m still collecting the data, the sample sizes are pretty low (N_Canada=12, N_USA=10), I think the story emerges is one that is corroborated with the data from this recent report. Below is the result:
Where are we? Well, many of us are doing postdocs. On average, across North America ~42% of postdocs are women. The numbers are not really different between Canada and the US - 40% and 44% respectively. But the clear pattern that emerges is that there is a 50% attrition rate of women from the postdoctoral level.
In Canada and the US, female faculty representation in biology departments is atrocious. If you look at the black dots, on the graph above, it is clear that there are no significant differences between the proportion of women faculty members in a biology department at a Canadian (0.220± 0.012) or a US university (0.230±0.018).
Then I read a proclamation in the NYTimes about how “Women making gains on faculty at Harvard.”
Here is another excerpt from the article,
"University-wide, slightly more than a quarter of Harvard faculty members are women, an all-time high, with the senior faculty accounting for most of the increase. "
And according to my data, Harvard has a better female faculty representation than the national average with 27% of its biology faculty being female.
Later in the article,
“Different departments are at different points,” said Elena M. Kramer, a biology professor. “In biology, where women earn half the Ph.D.’s, it’s not so hard to hire women. You don’t need any hand-wringing; if you’re doing a good search, you’ll get women. ”
So if it's not so hard to hire women then why are only 23% of biology faculty across the United States and Canada women? And according to NSF stats in the last few years only 25-30% of new hires in the biological and life sciences were women .
Apparently, Why So Few re-iterates research suggesting that there is bias in peer review, evaluation, and hiring. Here is an excerpt from the report,
"Research has also pointed to bias in peer review (Wenneras & Wold, 1997) and hiring (Stein- preis et al., 1999; Trix & Psenka, 2003). For example, Wenneras and Wold found that a female postdoctoral applicant had to be significantly more productive than a male applicant to receive the same peer review score. This meant that she either had to publish at least three more papers in a prestigious science journal or an additional 20 papers in lesser-known specialty journals to be judged as productive as a male applicant. The authors concluded that the systematic underrating of female applicants could help explain the lower success rate of female scientists in achieving high academic rank compared with their male counterparts.
Trix and Psenka (2003) found systematic differences in letters of recommendation for academic faculty positions for female and male applicants. The researchers concluded that recommenders (the majority of whom were men) rely on accepted gender schema in which, for example, women are not expected to have significant accomplishments in a field like academic medicine. Letters written for women are more likely to refer to their compassion, teaching, and effort as opposed to their achievements, research, and ability, which are the characteristics highlighted for male applicants. While nothing is wrong with being compassionate, trying hard, and being a good teacher, arguably these traits are less valued than achievements, research, and ability for success in academic medicine. The authors concluded, “Recommenders unknowingly used selective categorization and perception, also known as stereotyping, in choosing what features to include in their profiles of the female applicants.”
Furthermore even when they do make it to t-t faculty positions, Why So Few suggests that women are less satisfied with the academic workplace and thus are more likely to leave it earlier in careers. Yet another excerpt,
"Women cited feelings of isolation, an unsupportive work environment, extreme work schedules, and unclear rules about advancement and success as major factors in their decision to leave. In a recent study on attrition among STEM faculty, Xu (2008) showed that female and male faculty leave at similar rates; however, women are more likely than men to consider changing jobs within academia. Women’s higher turnover intention in academia (which is the best predictor of actual turnover) is mainly due to dissatisfaction with departmental culture, advancement opportunities, faculty leadership, and research support."
So what solutions does this report offer? It suggests that departments conduct internal reviews to assess the climate for female faculty, cultivate an inclusive environment by providing an opportunity for all junior faculty to collaborate with senior faculty, providing accountable mentorship, and implement policies like stopping the tenure clock for parental leave that support a faculty work-life balance.
While all this is a step forward toward the retention of junior female faculty, it doesn't address a major issue. We are losing women at the transition stage from postdoctoral to faculty level. My preliminary data support this. As far as I could tell the only suggestion the report makes is to raise awareness of implicit biases.
You know, I'm pretty tired of people saying that raising awareness is the solution. Frankly, all it does is make people pissed off that they have to waste time in some politically correct workshop to make them a better human being. I think of one particular faculty member I know that could benefit from this. But he would scoff at the idea that he holds any biases against women. Yet it is clear to all, both in terms of his language and actions, that he does in fact believe that women can't do science on their own. And even if these workshops were mandatory, the very people who obviously need it will find a way out.
One idea that might help recruit female postdocs into faculty level jobs is getting women postdocs into an active mentorship program. I don't mean the kind where you meet once a week for a cafe. There's a place for that, but I mean active participation in hiring committees, grant review committees, etc. From what I hear, some grant review panels at NSF have started to include a postdoc. This is a great idea. it will make the system less oblique and offer a postdoc a view into what makes a successful grant and what doesn't before jumping into the snake pit.
It's a step. A small one.
I could think of a more drastic way to break the glass ceiling in academia. For the next five years make the majority of the hires in biology departments - women. I think that is what it will take.
And I know many of you are thinking "yes, but that's reverse discrimination." Yes, yes it is. And not that I advocate this, but imagine a scenario where we’ve achieved this marvelous state of gender parity in terms of representation, do you think that the workplace will remain dissatisfying?
Change comes from demand. As it stands, there is no demand for change because women only make up a small proportion of the workplace. This kind of change will not only make things better for women but also for men.
But you know what? It's only a dream and the small steps that are occurring are not going to happen to make a difference in my academic career. Given the latest reports of economic gloom and the contraction of universities such that departments across the US closing and laying off tenured professors, I doubt that women will make many gains. Economic hardship tends to make people conservative in their choices. This means that glass ceiling is probably going to get thicker.
So as I sit here with my tea and porridge and calculate my probability of getting a tenure-track position given that I'm a woman and there is an economic depression. And I couple this with the possibility that to even get that t-t position it may take oh another 3-5 years of postdocing. And let's say I actually get that t-t position, but when the time comes for me to go up for tenure after 3-5 years because I can't secure funding (i.e. 7-12% success rates at NIH), I end up with my ass on the curb. That's 6-10 years before I am looking at the very narrow possibility of a tenured professorship at a university.
If I were 21 years old it might not matter. But like many in my cohort, I'm not. I understand that I'm important as a role model and that I should carry on to be present in the system.
But at what personal cost?
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One thing that struck me about my recent Masters research project were the following stats:
PhD students (n=73) 64% female
Postdocs/fellows (n=95) 59% female
Lecturers/senior lecturers (n=60) 45% female
Readers (n=16); 31% female
Professors (n=26) 19% female
These data pertain to bioscientists employed in primarily research positions across the UK, and they mirror larger surveys.
Furthermore, a lot more female lecturers (roughly equivalent to assistant professors in the US) have been in
that position for over 15 yrs and are not getting promoted up the ranks as often as their male counterparts. If you just focus on the youngest professors the figures tell you this gender gap is not closing or being skewed by old male professors.
This was not the main focus of my research, but just having those figures in hand was shocking.
Thanks for those numbers. I hope you find an avenue to collect more data and publish some of your findings.
I am a PhD grad student. Someone had the audacity to say to me the other day "OMG I cant beleive its just a bunch of chicks representing our program! What are the seminar speakers going to think when they show up here and it's just a bunch of blond haired dizzy chicks hosting them?!" And then he expected me (a blond haired chick) to agree with him or something! The thing is, the guys in the program refuse to participate in anything so how is this my issue? Should we not have a seminar because only "chicks" offer to host the speakers?!
@KL Ugh, did you say anything? I would have retorted, well it's better than a bunch of dicks representing our program, don't you think?
Urgh,...I can't stand it when the guys in one's programme start talking as @KL states above. It drives me nuts. I also find that as the economics times become harder that fewer of my female colleagues are being hired...and the men are usually employed. Sadly I think that the glass ceiling is dropping again. Its odd especially since the numbers in many fields indicate that more and more women are getting degrees etc. Part of me wonders whether the economic climate is an excuse to not hire women who might be challenging etc..just a thought.
Don't get me wrong...I have worked under women supervisors (projects, masters, PhD included) and I hope I can say this. I have experienced a huge difference between the way women and men approach problems in science...As a man, my comfort levels (work atmosphere wise) was much better under women. Women also tended to approach the problem from more than one possible ways. However, some of my male supervisors always brought the best out of me...because men gave me a feel that they were my competitors...they were rough...it allowed me to be rough and tough...I can't be rude to women even if they are not treating someone well...a cultural stereotype you might argue...this in general is true for most men...that is why women get excluded from men's social circles...men don't like to complicate a simple matter...I have seen women scientists really grapple with something trivial (in a man's view)...and I don't think women have to be amongst male colleagues to climb up an academic ladder...if she is good enough, she will be good enough (same applies to men)...again a stereotype would tell you men don't like to fight women (academic or otherwise)...:-)
Actually yea I responded with "you are a dick!" LOL!!!