Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Woman_standing_next_to_a_wide_range_of_tire_sizes_required_by_military_aircraft._-_NARA_-_196199A wonderful post from a WomanOfScience friend on women’s leadership. In particular, women in academic administration. Choosing to go the administrator route may be an exit from the research track.

Enjoy!

I’ve always recognized the advantages of being a female faculty member in a male dominated field and try not to dwell on the instances of overt or subtle discrimination. For example, when I entered grad school (15-20 years ago), there were few women in my field that my gender alone made me memorable. Certainly I did good work, but also it was likely that a member of a faculty search committee was likely to remember me which no doubt helped my job search in a subtle way. When I was an assistant professor and gave birth to our first child, there were obviously some disapproving glares from some colleagues, but still I brought the 7 day old child into my office (in a cradle) and proved to my colleagues that this wasn’t disturbing to them and allowed me to maintain my productivity. Then the slippery slope began…

Some time ago, university administrators decided that one way to relatively painlessly reduce implicit bias was to have female faculty present on key committees (most importantly search committees, graduate admissions, and many policy setting committees). The result was that every female faculty member I knew was doing far more service than her male peers. The optimistic view, however, was that we made contacts and networks both within our home institutions and nationally that were far more expansive. Down the road a decade, we had far more administrative exposure and experience and were therefore ideal targets for administrative/leadership roles (at a time when many institutions would like to showcase their strong female leaders)… except that we were/are too young (many of us in our late 30s and early 40s). It is flattering to be asked to take over a high profile chair or deanship at a young age. And I wasn’t unique in this respect. Looking nationally, female chairs and deans are trendy.

This is where the glass is half full perspective ends… Our male peers are hitting their strides as full professors and racking up the high profile awards and kudos that will allow them to build their scientific reputations. While I was able to maintain this level of creativity and productivity through the births of my three children, there is no way to do the same in the face of the unrelenting distraction of running a large organization well. The inevitable result is to take the research hit in favor of building an administrative career. I am fully aware that I am complaining about an opportunity that women just 5-10 years older than me were denied simply for their genders. On the other hand, I worry that we’re complicit in self-imposing a glass ceiling. In my experience, great scientists look down on administrators that do not have scientific stature (I would contend that young female full professors have credibility, but not yet stature). Worst yet, one of my most creative, deeply thinking graduate students informed me she was leaving my group to join that of a male colleague. She said she joined my group because she loved the atmosphere of teamwork and close mentorship that I had a reputation for, but in the last couple of years (since she joined the group) she’s watched that decay exponentially as my administrative duties increased. I am deeply ashamed that I allowed the day to day fires of running this organization get in my way of educating my students! Worst yet, she cited my case as a reason to _not_ go into academia. That talented women get duties loaded on them until they drop the ball (she described it almost as a form of titration). I’ve sadly become the anti-role model.

This summer, my family and group will be uprooting to move to a new university. Everyone (my extended family included) keeps asking what job I will have there and I have been glorying in telling them that I will be “just” a professor again!

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