Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

ResistorsAs I said earlier, I recently went to a BigIvyLeague University to give a talk, and I met with a group of young scientists – men and women – for lunch. The meeting turned into a mentoring meeting, as any meeting I have with young scientists tends too. As I said, there were two women postdocs, and we were discussing women’s issues. Another part of the conversation was about the impediments to advancement for women. Different people experienced the resistance at different stages, and this is normal since no two people’s trajectories will ever be exactly the same. Of the two women postdocs, one felt that she was being disregarded and put down even in graduate school. The other had a happy experience in graduate school, but was beginning to feel the resistance now as a postdoc. Of my WomanOfScience friends, many did not feel it until they got to a tenure-track job or even until after tenure. Myself, I had an 8th grade math teacher tell me that I could not advance more than a year in math. Perhaps my early exposure to the resistance is why I am so hyper-aware and intent on changing things.

Studies have shown that the glass ceiling for women in academia is at the full-professor level, as I describe and quoted primary research in this blog post. So, despite the onset age of the resistive load, the trend of the resistance, or other personal factors of each woman’s career, the highest resistance comes just at the precipice of really becoming a fully acting, voting, participating member of your department and college making similar wages as your colleagues. More on this issue in future posts, I think.

The main reason why I wanted to discuss the resistive load was because the meeting directly after the lunch, I met with a young, newly hired WhiteMale Assistant Professor. I had met this guy before at a small conference, and I knew he had been a postdoc at the same BigIvyLeague University where I was visiting, and where he was now tenure track. Some BigIvyLeague Universities do this, when the person is truly a superstar, so I assumed that this was the case, although I didn’t know his full record. This guy is young, and he was very open and honest when I asked him about his trajectory. He said that he had not had many other offers or even interviews, and that he was not, in fact, a superstar. The only places he had interviews were places where people already knew him. He said that this was because he had a low publication rate. Of course, BigIvyLeague University knew him, and his postdoc advisor was key to getting him this position. I consider this a gross case of “The Drift” where someone just continues to advance without any forethought or even any real effort. It is kinda like being in the lazy river at a water park. You get pushed forward.

I often see these people who appear to “Drift” in Second Generation Academics, whose parent(s) were also academics. Second Generation Academics are always typically extremely good at what they do, and in the meritocracy of academia  they advance seemingly effortlessly. In actuality, I think they just understand the game intuitively because they were raised in it, but they are good and working hard. Unlike a Second Gen Academic, this guy is an extreme version of a true Drift. He is literally coasting with no cogent plan. He isn’t applying to grants, or really trying to get students. He is trying to get a few more postdoc publications out because his publication record was reportedly slow.

The juxtaposition of this Drifter with the hard-working excellently bright, quick, and enormously put-down women of the lunch meeting was almost sickening to me. I was somewhat in shock as he told me his path and his non-existent plan. I would like to think that the system would weed this guy out, but given how far he has come, I cannot be sure. Being at a place like BigIvyLeagueU helps in so many areas, like getting good students and postdocs, getting grants, and having papers accepted based on BILU’s reputation. And the worst part was that I really couldn’t blame this guy. He is a nice guy. He is an open and honest scientist. So what if his publication record is slow? What boggles the mind is the system, the structure that promotes this guy and denies even better women and minorities the chance to  work in academia at SecondTierStateU without a hope of even getting to a place like BILU. Or, if you do get an offer at a BILU, they don’t have spousal accommodation, so you have to sacrifice other parts of your life for the benefits of BILU. Indeed, several women I met at BILU did just this.

This post has been long and rambling, so I apologize. These thoughts have been kicking around in my head, and I am not quite sure how to approach them to reconcile the fact that excellent women have so much resistive load against them. What do you think? When did you first feel the resistance to your forward progress? Do you know any female “Drifters”? Even the most excellent and well-promoted women I know really deserve it and still suffer from impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and are truly excellent yet still under-recognized. Post or comment here. Remember to hit +Follow for updates whenever I post. I hope to post more frequently now that classes have ended for the semester!

Comments on: "The Resistive Load vs. the Drift" (4)

  1. Robin Selinger said:

    If Mr. Drifter doesn’t bring in grant funds he most likely won’t get tenure, so he had better get his act together and soon. Drifting will only get you so far in life.

    Last night we had about a dozen grad students over for dinner and afterwards we watched PhD The Movie. It presents an exaggerated but otherwise realistic view of the negative environment that students of both genders experience in grad school. It is a good place to start the conversation about how to succeed in spite of a negative and potentially discouraging work environment,

    I have not faced a lot of resistance and have been lucky to receive encouragement at every stage of my education and career pathway. My trajectory has certainly not been a random walk but it has not been all uphill, either.

    The hardest thing for me to deal with in my faculty career, to be painfully honest, is not the occasional rejection of papers or proposals, not incompetent administrators or demands of unreasonable department chairs, not getting the cold shoulder from colleagues. It is facing the ugly reality that sexual harassment occurs on my campus. Even in the 21st century, older men too often attempt to use their power and authority to gain sexual access to younger women. I have seen with my own eyes the emotional and career damage that results and –even worse– the reluctance of the victims to report.

    Women are not fragile flowers who need 24/7 body guards to keep us safe as we work alongside and under the supervision of men. But we do need a better means to stop the misbehavior of university faculty who misuse their power and authority in a way that threatens the well being of female students, postdocs and staff.

    Perhaps this is not the kind of “resistance” you were thinking about, but I suspect that sexual harassment in the STEM workplace has affected more women than you might think.

  2. Social Scientist said:

    I enjoyed your post on resistance and drift, but my experience suggests that you’ve slightly miscast both the BigIvyLeagueUniversity and the Second Generation Academic.

    First, in the bad (or good) old days (depending on your point of view), BigIvyLeagueUniversity advisors simply got on their land lines, called their friends, and their advisees received job offers (my own PhD advisor had a dozen such offers from top places!). Once the job was in hand, the BILU dissertation was considered finished. On the job, a certain amount of drift was possible, because the advisor’s friends would, if necessary, offer co-authorships or add them as co-PIs on grants or whatever else was necessary for the BrightYoungWhiteMaleAssistantProf (who reminds them of themselves when they were young) to get tenure. They of course expected that their own advisees would receive the same help all along the line (which they did). OldWhiteBoyAcademia thrived, and alas still lives on (well beyond BILU campuses), despite new challenges posed by citation indexes and expectations of external funding.

    It lives on because, whether drifters or not, good scholars or not, second gen or not, the advisees who benefitted from the system embraced it and all of the personal and institutional power that came with it. Needless to say, the system is deeply gendered and raced, and not unrelated to the sexual harassment that women continue to endure (see Robin’s comment). One of the eminent (male) faculty members in the BILU grad program I attended in the 70s actually invited a female classmate to join him and a group of male grad students in a gang bang (yes, his own words). Things are subtler now, but the attitudes of entitlement (and chauvinism, racism, misogyny, etc.) inherent in the system remain–in part because they’re shared by some of the non-white males who made it, because they’d rather try to feel like members of the club (even if they really aren’t, quite) than wannabes.

    As for the Second Generation Academics, I think some drift because they grow up to emulate their parents without thinking much about what their career will require (just as do children who become doctors or lawyers or whatever else because both of their parents are). Some of these folks change direction soon after they hit grad or professional school, but others press on rather than cut their losses.

    There are also 2ndGens who learn all about academia from their two-bodied parents and consciously decide to go for it anyway. My best guess, judging on the basis of my own AcademicChild, is that they see and hear as much about the good bits as they do about the bad, and go into it eyes wide open (or at least as open as being a member of a younger, more optimistic generation permits). For better or worse, they caught the passion of loving to figure things out. Getting paid to think one’s own thoughts, outside of a cubicle and the ordinary nine to five, is not a bad gig (at least if you don’t analyze the size and trajectory of your retirement account).

    Still, for academic women, there is resistance, and the physical and psychic toll it takes, especially in research universities. The only advice I have to offer (which is completely infuriating) is for pre-full professor women to recognize the existence of the system and, to the greatest extent possible, emulate the stereotypical SuccessfulWhiteMaleAcademic who would warm the cockles of any BILU prof’s heart. Make it known that your primary focus is your research (this will NEVER be assumed of women). Just say no to extra teaching or committees with a gracious, “gosh, that’s sounds so interesting, but I really must focus on getting x experiment finished, x paper done, x grant submitted, etc.” Get tenure, get promoted to full, and then try to change the system, if you have the gumption to reject the comfort of belonging to the club and have enough energy left.

  3. This is a powerful post. Really enjoying your blog.

  4. […] a department is the constant fight just to maintain normalcy. I have written about this previously here. Because, frankly, shit does happen and it does happen more to minority-status people. Add on top […]

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