Women in Science: Update
Ah my friends it is time for another report on women in science. This time from the National Academies. I heard about this on the Scientific American podcast which interviewed one of the study authors: Maria Zuber, head of the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. It is a nice succinct description of the report and is worth a listen.
Basically the study concluded that (1) surprise, surprise women are capable of succeeding in STEM careers and (2) the single greatest impediment to retaining faculty (men or women) was the lack of a stay-at-home spouse. I think that this speaks volumes. In the past, it was very common to have a spouse (okay typically a wife) who could hold down the fort at home while the other partner worked diligently away at their career. But many homes are now dual-income, and not just for the money, but for the pleasure of pursuing one's own life aspirations. Yet, the system still requires from us the same (if not more) than in the past when support was available. And a key point of this report, was that this effects women AND men equally.
How do we fix this? I am not sure. I think that we may have to rethink what our expectations for faculty are. Funding levels right now are dramatically low (7-8% at last check). If this trend continues, it is unrealistic for universities to expect the number of students and support that faculty have achieved in the past. Perhaps this is a good thing and will cause us to re-examine our expectations. But, honestly I think that we need to take a good long look at what it means to be a faculty member. Is the mission of faculty to educate students or to conduct research and generate cash flow? I realize that these are not exclusive goals, but it seems that the trend has been much more to the latter, to the detriment of students. I posted before about the large post-doc factory labs on elite campuses. I sincerely disagree with this model because the interaction between faculty and student is lost. Yet, these elite schools are setting the standards for those below and this model has become the goal for many schools to achieve.
Separately but in the same vein, I would like to relate something that happened to me last week. I mentioned in my last post that I had a pre-proposal selected for full proposal. This was an internal university competition for a limited submission grant to a federal funding organization. I worked very hard on my pre-proposal putting together a team of faculty from my area and elsewhere. I thought about our experimental goals and how best to describe their potential impact and broader context, carefully crafting a proposal that I believe to be some of my better work. When I received the notification that I had been selected I felt honored, a little stressed that I now have to put together the full proposal, but pleased that I was selected. I sought out my department chair to tell him of my good fortune. And his response...I'm not surprised. The university has been very cognizant of its position with women and is doing everything that it can to encourage young faculty. They have not won internal competitions in the numbers they should have in the past, and they are careful to rectify this situation.
Alright. I felt a little deflated, but still excited. Next, I tried to find my co-PI, a male senior faculty in my department. His response was similar, but more tactful...I'm not surprised. Your proposal was really good and you are a young female faculty member. They are really trying to help out people like you and they didn't have to lower their standards to do so. It was good work.
Oh my. I am not too upset by this (although I know some of you will be), as this is not the first time that this has happened. I won an NSF graduate student fellowship and got the same response from the department graduate advisor after that victory, so I am used to it now. I did take some time to discuss the comments with both faculty, explaining that true equality means that you don't notice that I am a women not that you make sure to have equal representation in awards and honors, but sometimes I feel like I am yelling in the wind. I was pleased that my work, which I felt to be strong, was recognized, but much of that excitement was taken away by the belief that others do not see the quality of my work...simply my sex...which isn't even that important to me. I don't think about faculty as male or female or belonging to this race or religion when evaluating the quality of someone's work, and I don't think that anyone else should either. On the positive side, at least no one mentioned that I am mother, I think that would have been worse.
[All comments are paraphrased, but reflect the gist of the conversation. All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent those of the department or university. And neither of these persons are mysoginist in any way. I think they were trying to say that I am a talented woman not just a woman.]