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Lab Mom

Lab Mom spent 15 years as a Lab Manager in Academia before off-tracking in 2010 to stay at home with her two daughters. She blogs about the juggling act of motherhood and a science career, which encompasses a lot more then the cliche work-life balance.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ms. PhD's post at YoungFemaleScientist got me thinking about this article from The Atlantic Magazine.

Reflecting on the fact that women now outnumber men in the workplace Hanna Rossin suggests that it only makes sense given the evolution of the job force in America. As our society develops from manual labor/manufacturing/agrarian nation to a post industrialized one, it appears that the attributes in women (communication, nurturing, flexibility, social intelligence, the ability to focus) open doors to success which were previously closed. The majority of jobs in the US no longer require size nor strength.
It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer. And how does this manifest in the fields (like science) where "knowledge is power"?
Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.
So if this is a 'custom-made' country for women why doesn't it feel like our society has made the shift from patriarchal to matriarchial? Why are women still paid less for the same work? Well, it once again comes down the S-word. SEXISM.

It is often emasculating for men, to sit back and watch "their" field become female dominated, and it is even more emasculating to enter a career track which has always been considered "women's work." Part of that can be attributed to machismo and lack of adaptability, and perhaps the feeling that a field dominated by women may not be worth entering. Stereotypes (and the bigotry that comes with it) is still at work in many of today's workplaces.
The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt. Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way. Nursing schools have tried hard to recruit men in the past few years, with minimal success. Teaching schools, eager to recruit male role models, are having a similarly hard time. The range of acceptable masculine roles has changed comparatively little, and has perhaps even narrowed as men have shied away from some careers women have entered. Fortunately, at least in the eyes of Ms.Rossin, even that hindrance should soon come to an end.
Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment. Dozens of college women I interviewed for this story assumed that they very well might be the ones working while their husbands stayed at home, either looking for work or minding the children. Guys, one senior remarked to me, “are the new ball and chain.” It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: in the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.And this career conversion goes beyond the working middle class. Even white collar professions are becoming female friendly..
With the exception of the sciences.
(Although 45% of post docs are female, only 19% of senior investigators are women. Similar lack of gains are seen in the very top tiers of business as well, where only 3% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO.)Women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [..] a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood. Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background.Perhaps it is because science and engineering is not an environment which requires a lot of intrinsic communication and/or nurturing behavior. Is it possible that science is still an 'old boys club' where sexism runs rampant or perhaps women just aren't interested? Another dilemma is that frequently couples are faced with the two-body problem which drives women out of the leaky pipeline. It is rarely assumed that in a couple where both parties have advanced degrees that the male partner will be the one to sacrifice, either with a less prestigious position, or to become the stay-at-home parent. In these cases it is typically the women who fear their careers cannot survive motherhood and often sacrifice their positions. (When is the last time you even saw a poll where they asked fathers about their careers and how it relates to fatherhood?)

Whatever the reason, it will require a major paradigm shift in order for women to become the dominant force in science. Not only will a better domestic support system need to be in place for women to succeed in a field which often requires 10+ hour days and frequent weekend and evening hours (which aren't always possible when one is the primary caregiver), but also a support network of their peer group (who up until now has been mainly men) is essential.

Hopefully young female scientists can take hope from what is happening in other career fields, and aspire for such equality in the world of academia. 50 years ago, you would be hard pressed to find someone who thought women would one day outnumber men in the work force, and they were very wrong. Perhaps those naysayers who lament about the long-term role of women in the hard sciences will be just as incorrect.

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I've been thinking about this because certainly there are plenty of women in science so why don't they keep going up the ladder? It's certainly not because they are not good enough.

When I was in graduate school, unfortunately, the few women PIs in the dept. were pretty harsh. They were mean people. I guess all the struggle to make it to TT made them angry. They were all harder on women students than men. There was only one woman PI that did not have a chip on her shoulder.

Maybe some women see this and think "I don't want to turn into a person like that". But this goes for the men PIs too who are mean. Maybe women are more likely to look at this type of behavior and decide if making it to the top means being an ass, I don't want it.

I had another thought and I don't have kids so you'll have to tell me. Perhaps in the case of two married scientists and careers, maybe once the child is born, women are much more likely to feel that their child is more important than career and change priorities. I mean, I can imagine that once you have that little person in your arms and you are taking care of them, what is better than that? So maybe it's not so much that women have no choice to give up their careers but suddenly career goals don't seem so important?
I don't know, but I imagine that if I were a mom, I would probably not care so much about work since a child is by far more important.

What are your thoughts on that?

Lab Mom
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Sure, I think kids play into it. Mothers are still more likely to be the primary caregivers of kids since they are considered the "nurturer" sex, but if that were the only reason women aren't climbing the ladder, then we would also see less women succeeding in things like law or medicine and that isn't the case. A mom's love their newborn isn't any stronger if she is the CEO or if she is the janitor. The pull is the same. So why are some professions more likely to see women bow-out early?

Maybe the pool of alternative careers is too appealing. What if being at "the top" in science isn't all it is cracked up to be? It isn't like being at the top of other professions where things get easier when you are the boss and so you have a good reason to be successful. Maybe in science it would actually be more 'pleasant' to NOT succeed (or at least to not bang your head trying)

Perhaps the "happiness factor" is something that hasn't been accounted for. It is an assumption that if you are successful you are happier, and therefore we should all strive for success. But instead women are getting disillusioned in science (academia especially) and realizing that they would be happier elsewhere. It is possible it isn't a inability to succeed, but rather a choice not to WANT to succeed.

Not sure.. that was random stream of thought. I would have to ponder it more to see if it makes sense in actuality, and if I could think of examples where I know that holds true. (ie. are they stats on job satisfaction in women scientists at different career stages)

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"but if that were the only reason women aren't climbing the ladder, then we would also see less women succeeding in things like law or medicine and that isn't the case."

OK- I didn't consider that- good point. Perhaps lawyers and CEOs make soooo much money that they can afford a live in nanny type deal and so they don't worry as much (less guilt) around work?

I can totally see how stressful it is in a situation where the top of the ladder is as demanding as the process to get there. I am thinking at some point in biotech, it is going to get easier too. But I don't know what point that is.

"But instead women are getting disillusioned in science (academia especially) and realizing that they would be happier elsewhere. It is possible it isn't a inability to succeed, but rather a choice not to WANT to succeed."

So same point as with lawyers and medical doctors- success = happiness but maybe for these professions, success really does = happiness? Maybe the end result of "making it" in science is not as rewarding as, say, healing children or cancer patients, or defending a client you know is innocent. In science, the successes are all about you and in law or medicine, success is helping someone else.

And maybe women as nurturers need or want to feel like they are having a positive impact in the lives of others? Maybe we want more immediate gratification vs. the gratification of working on something 20 years to be rewarded?

My work involves helping other people with their science. I get satisfaction knowing I helped someone's experiment to work and that will get them closer to a paper or a PhD.
Where does the satisfaction come from in academic science?

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The way I see it, most women don't even consider that as an opion, not because they don't think they can, but because it just does not cross their minds, it's not typically considered a womens job to be a PI, or the VP of engineering, and I think unless the woman in question is particularly driven, she won't get there. It's not like w guys, for dudes, someone could very possibly come up to you and say hey, you'd be great as the VP, have you ever considered it? Hey, we recommended you to be PI on this next project, would you like to do that? Women are usually overlooked, sadly. The way I see it, it's just a cycle that can be broken, a habit, that can be changed. It does require more force coming from the women climbing to the top, and it also requires there to be younger, non-old boys club type people involved.
Of course the other factors come into play, and they are huge, family, nurturing, but not all women would choose to give up their career, if they had their sights set to the top, and those sights seemed more naturally attainable.

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Oh, and @Jade Ed - I too have come across only 2 women PIs at the dept, while I was at Uni, and they were both very mean, specially to girls.. I dont know why that was, I know one of them was living on the other side of the continent from her husband, and I assumed that had much to do with it. The other.. she may have just not liked me, she seemed to be partial to local kids, and I was about 5k miles away from home.. so very not a local.

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Thinking more about this....I have another theory.
I wonder if making it to the upper tier of science careers, either academics or biotech, requires a high level of selfishness.
To reach the top, you have to put yourself first a lot of the time. Maybe this is not a personality trait that many women in science have compared to other professions?

Having kids is the antithesis of selfishness. It is the ultimate sacrifice. A woman who does not have kids can afford to be more selfish with her time and commitments. So it is easier to move up. Same with a woman with a huge income such that she can afford the best childcare or live-in child care.

It may have nothing to do with being male or female as much as being willing to play the game according to the men's rules. Rules like putting yourself first, working too much, traveling, taking on too much responsibility...etc.

As a woman in science without kids, I don't feel there is any limit to how far I can go. I don't have any commitments besides my job. My time is my own. If I had kids I think it would be much different. I don't know that I would have the time or energy to play the game as good as the guys. It would no longer be as important. Raising a well adjusted and happy child has to be the most important job there is.

It doesn't mean giving up a career. But again, maybe it is just a change in priorities.

Guest Comment
Very nice post with links and food for thought. I wonder how much it is "we scientists see" and how much of a leaky pipeline there really is in the law businiss. Partly though, I wonder if it isn't mainly to the whole "you need a grant in order to do science and you need to do good science in order to get a grant" dilemma. And if you aren't in a lab where the PI gives you some support and etc and promotes you and PI friends look at your research and like it...well...

Although, I have started to reasses a bit after talking to my female friends who, prior baby, talked a lot about having a career and doing scinece and working their way up. Now, post baby, they are all happily (? but so they say) working part time and/or have shifted down* to something less bossy as PI/manager/professor. And their husbands are going at their careers and scincey stuff as before.

I guess it could be something about it all that makes it "which is worth more, baby or job" wheras (as the story goes) men don't look at it that way in science? More likely though, I wonder if it isn't that many couples have a slight shift in age towards the male being older and if you are a woman in science and your man is older he's either further in his career or if he is in science he might already have TT or something, then you follow....

I don't know but I was intriguied by the Atlantic article since I am not sure that we are that far ahead from the 40ies... and especially not in science (with class issues to come too)

*meaning in a strict hireracal way of looking at careers, not disrespect

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Hi Chall,
I agree. It seems to me that is the most logical reasoning- once the baby is here, career goals change.

So women readers with kids- what's it like pre and post baby? Does having a baby change your perspective on your career?

Maybe I'll move this discussion over to the forum....

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I agree with the post, but I am still puzzled for not seeing how science is different from the other demanding fields such as law and medicine. They too demand a great deal of time and will power to get to the top. Female lawyers and doctors have kids too, why do they stay, whereas scientists (in the academia) don't? Could it be because with a science background, women with children have other options? They can work at non-academia that are less demanding of their time, whereas for doctors and lawyers, jumping from one hospital/ law firm to the other doesn't make much difference. Possible??

By the way, the female faculty at my department are pretty mean to me too, although my former supervisor who is from another department, are incredibly nice to me. In fact, we are still in touch since I left the department.
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