Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Women’s Issues’

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

What the Hell?

I need a laugh. Don’t you? I am super stressed about the election. I am working on my third of five federal proposals due this fall. Why are all the deadlines in Fall semester? Today, we had an awesome woman seminar speaker for one of the interdisciplinary programs I am in. I met with her, and we discussed politics and science. I probably should have worked harder to impress her, but she was too cool, and I was just happy to talk.

I had my normal back-to-back meetings, but I did get to go into the lab this afternoon and work with my students. It was fun, even if nothing works when I go in to work with them (somehow it works when either they or I am doing it, but not together – no idea why).

After that, I went to the late afternoon seminar. I set my stuff down and went into the women’s room. There was a few privacy switchbacks and then three stalls. I opened the first one and saw this:


I wasn’t exactly surprised to see this. My building and several others that were built at the same time all have these in the women’s rooms (same wall tiles, stalls, and floor tiles, too). I made an out-loud comment, “Ugh, stupid weird potty,” or something like that.

I didn’t realize that there was anyone in the far stall. It was the speaker, and she had heard my muffled complaint. She commented, “I noticed that, but what is it? I have never seen anything like that in all my life.”

And honestly folks, I have no Earthly idea what this is. Here are our best guesses and the rationale for each.

  1. It is a men’s urinal. But, if so, why is it sideways and filled with water? Why not a urinal on the wall? Let’s assume there was a time when the women’s room was a men’s room. That makes sense in some buildings – the graduate tower, for instance that only has one bathroom on each floor. If, when built in the 1960’s people did not expect ANY women (not even secretaries?) to use the bathrooms, then all the floors would only have men’s rooms. In the tower, the bathrooms alternate if they are for men or women, but I think they have the same type of toilets in the stalls. Here is another weird thing about this. In my building and the building where I took this picture, on the other side of the wall is a men’s room. I can only assume it is a mirror image of the women’s room. So, does that mean it was a double-sized men’s room they split in half? If so, why were the stalls back-to-back? How could they have been adjoined? I find this very weird.
  2. It is a women’s urinal. Is it possible that this is a urinal for women? If so, how are you supposed to use it? Are you supposed to face it? Sit on it like a regular toilet? In all honesty, I have used it. I literally just sit on it. It really just needs a 3D printed seat to sit on top, and it would be perfectly fine. Since no one uses it, this urinal/toilet is very clean in the women’s room.

Other questions come to mind, like:

  • Why have them at all? Even if all the bathrooms were for men originally, why have urinals? Why not have stalls only?
  • Which company made these? When and where? Are there instructions?
  • Finally, in a business setting, why do we even have men’s and women’s rooms? I know everyone says men’s rooms are gross, but seriously, if all the toilets are in stalls – even the urinals – what is the difference? I know I might be in the minority about this, but it would make things easier for our transgender students, if they didn’t have to choose – and give women more stalls.

The point of this post was to entertain and talk about something that wasn’t the election. I hope it made you smile. Comment or post, if you feel like. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Guest Post: Raise Your Voices

GuestPostThis post comes from an awesome WomanOfScience friend of mine. I hope you enjoy!

This post is about one of my first real experiences with gender bias, as a new PI in {life} science.

During my first year of being a new PI, I was invited to participate in a small workshop in my field.  There were only about 80 of us, with most of us being PIs.  It was an intense 4 day meeting alternating between talks and long, open-ended discussions about important issues in our research area.  In many ways, it was fantastic.

However, I quickly noticed something that I found to be a bit concerning.  While the organizers commended themselves for ensuring that almost half of the participants were women, I noticed that women almost never spoke during the extensive questions-and-answers sessions after each talk, nor did they ever participate in the lengthy “open” discussion periods.  As a new PI in my field, still trying to get the lay of the land, I was hyper-aware of what my female role models were doing.  And I was a bit dismayed that even the full professors who were women were not speaking up.

At first, I wondered, “Am I right about this?  Am I just not noticing when women speak?  Is my own unconscious bias coming through by dismissing their contributions?  Or, are women really not speaking?”  So, during the second day, I began to keep count.  I made a tally every time someone spoke up, whether it was a male or female.

By the end of that second day, it was clear.  Less than 10% of the questions or comments were from women, despite the fact that over 40% of the attendees were women.  And several of the few questions from women were from me, the most junior female PI in the room.  (I have always been pushed to ask questions of speakers, by my graduate and post-doctoral mentors, so I try to speak up as much as possible.)

But I was disturbed that women were not being equally represented in the discussions.  One thing that I noticed was that, oftentimes, the men in the room seemed completely unfazed to spout some random off-the-wall idea that potentially made no sense at all, just to get conversation started.  They weren’t concerned that their idea might sound idiotic.  They weren’t concerned that their words might mean that they were incompetent.

In my (limited) experience, WOMEN DO NOT DO THIS.  Women are careful to only state ideas that they perceive to be “important”.  And since women appear to be uncertain whether their ideas actually are important, they rarely speak up at all.  Why is this?

One answer comes from a really interesting article that I read just before I went to this conference.It discussed how transgendered people who have transitioned can provide interesting insights into how men and women are perceived differently.  My favorite quote in the article comes from Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who used to be male until late in her career.  She says “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case.  I will admit, I was not nearly as aware of this bias when I was a graduate student at a top tier research university.  In my class of around 30 students, 75% of us were women.  I was not even aware of gender bias when I was a postdoc.  Of course, I had heard of and read about unconscious bias.  But I had not seemed to experience it myself or noticed any impact on my own career.  It was only once I became a PI that I began to notice gender bias in my workplace in any real way.

I have long heard that one way to combat gender bias is to make sure that more people are aware of it, when it occurs, so we can at least pay attention to our unconscious bias and figure out ways to deal with it.  Thus, at the bar at the conference that second evening, after I had discovered that only 10% of the questions were from women, I decided to bring it up among a small circle of friendly colleagues.  It seemed natural to do so.  It was a group of just a few of us, people in my sub-field who have known each other for years, a mix of 1 man and 3 women.  Someone else had brought up the fact that women and men were almost equally represented at the meeting, and “Wasn’t that so great?”  So I then replied, “Yeah, it’s great that the organizers did such a wonderful job.  But you know what’s a little funny?  Women are only asking about 10% of the questions, and they aren’t participating at all in the open discussions.”  The women in my group made no reply.  But the man said, “Are you sure?  That can’t be right.”  And I answered, “No, I am right.  I actually counted today.”  The guy was silent for a moment, looked at me right in the eyes, and said, “Well, then I think that you should spend more time thinking about science and less time counting how many questions are being asked by women.”

I was dumbstruck.  I had asked more questions in that group than any other woman in the room, and his response is that I should be asking even more?  And that it wasn’t possible for me to think about science and tally male/female counts at the same time?  And that he didn’t see that it was an issue that women weren’t speaking up?  And that he didn’t respect the fact that I might see it as an issue, as a new woman to the field?  Two years later, this guy is still a close friend and colleague, a true supporter of me and my career.  But he appears to be clearly unaware of gender bias in the scientific world, and how its insidious nature can undermine the confidence of women scientists.

My own response to my observation has been to continue to do what I can – to speak up when I can – to try to be a role model for other, younger women scientists to speak up and not be afraid.  My students are REQUIRED to ask questions at seminars and meetings.  And I teach them to not be concerned about sounding stupid.  That I prefer them to be perceived as engaged and perhaps naive, rather than silent.  Because if you are silent, you aren’t bringing anything at all to the table.

So, my call to other women scientists is to speak up.  Speak your mind.  Even when you are unsure of your ideas.  Share your questions with others.  Isn’t that what science is about?  Asking questions that we don’t know the answers to?

More recently, now that I’ve been a PI for longer, I’ve become even more comfortable asking questions and speaking up.  At the last meeting that I went to (about 300 attendees), I was again the most visible woman.  I probably asked 2-3 questions each day of the 3 day meeting.  I thought that most of my questions were pretty stupid.  But I asked them anyway, especially when no one else seemed to be interested in doing so.  At the end of the meeting, a huge leader in my field came up to me and told me that he had to meet me and share with me that he was so impressed with my “wonderful questions” and that I had been “more impressive than any junior female PI he has ever seen at a conference before in his 30+ years” of being a PI.

While I was glad that he noticed me and complimented my participation, and I am hopeful that my visibility might be a good model for the many, many young women in the audience that asked no questions at all, I do still find it a rather sad state of affairs that this guy had never seen a junior woman ask multiple questions at conferences before (or, at least, not recall seeing it).  I will note that he (and everyone else that I spoke with) was also incredibly impressed by my grad student who accompanied me, as she asked several questions, as well.  She was the only female graduate student to ask any questions during this meeting.

And while I’m hopeful that other women saw our examples, I also am concerned that most women are still too insecure and uncertain to ask questions themselves.  Or, they simply do not realize just how valuable it can be to be visible.  But one thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in academia (and life, really) requires me to confront my fears head on – to run into them.  I used to be terrified – terrified – of public speaking.  My fight or flight response was on full blast when I asked questions, when I spoke in front of people.  But I forced myself to do it anyway.  When I commended my student after she asked questions by telling her how brave she was, she replied that she was not brave, that rather, she “was terrified.”  I explained that being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave means you do something EVEN THOUGH you are afraid.

So, I now make it one of my main goals to talk about my own insecurities, my own fears, and the importance of speaking up and being visible, whenever I have the opportunity to speak with students and postdocs. I am hopeful that the more times women hear it, the more likely there will be change.  And that someday, when I go to a meeting, there will be just as many women asking questions as men.

Thanks so much for this awesome post! What do you think? Comment or write your own post! To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

New Broader Impacts Statement

catenary_bikeThis week, I just got my fourth of four submitted proposals rejected. I am not unhappy because I am already revamping the first two, which were reviewed quite well, and I think they will be written even better and get even better reviews (and perhaps some money?) in the next round. I also got a really nice WomanOfScience friend to help me jazz them up. They were good science, but quite dull-sounding. She just batted 1000 on her last 7 proposals, so she knows her sh!t. For the most part, I agreed with the criticisms of the reviewers. They were valid, and there are ways to make my proposals better. As I have always said, “Criticism: Take It.” I will take it and gladly ask for more.

But, I have a bone to pick. Let me quote one of my reviews (I know people don’t usually do this, but it is important you see what was written to understand).

The PIs have an outstanding record of mentoring students from underrepresented backgrounds.
The broader impact work is already ongoing, and new efforts are not described.

Notice this weakness. It is a weakness that I am already strong in broader impacts. THAT is a WEAKNESS! How? What should I do? Invent yet another class to take up more of my time so I publish fewer papers every year? Or should I mentor more than 6-10 undergraduates in independent research projects per year? Should fewer of these students be from under-represented groups? Because those students take longer to mentor because they are worried their parents will be evicted or deported while they are away at school, and that takes up too much of my time? Or perhaps I should do yet a 5th outreach activity to encourage women and girls of color to join STEM – maybe invent my own because the ones I am doing with established groups, such as Girls Inc, are blasé. I mean, everyone does it, right? WRONG! No! I will not take this criticism. This is NOT a weakness. I am not weak in broader impacts because I am doing so fucking much already, and to say this is a weakness is asinine and ridiculous.

But, I take criticism… Maybe there is another problem that I can solve? Maybe they don’t realize how much I do. I mean they have my name and record (and they can easily find me online), but I can only list FIVE synergistic activities in my 2-page long biosketch. My full CV is a whopping 25 pages long. The parts describing my teaching and service take up 10 pages of real estate and include 6 separate funded grants just for teaching and mentoring activities – that are in a separate section from my research funding. But, I can’t include all that in my biosketch. I can only include 5 synergistic activities. FIVE! That doesn’t even cover the funded teaching/mentoring work I do – let alone the unfunded work.

I could list all this in my proposal, but there isn’t really space. And if I did, I would be using up space I should be using for the more serious endeavor of science. I could put a link to my website in the proposal, but that is actually not allowed (despite having seen it in so many other proposals). I am afraid to not follow the rules and have my grant rejected for such a stupid reason. So, I don’t put in a URL to my lab website that lists all this work.

So how do I let them know, succinctly, yet firmly, that: No, I will not be doing any NEW Broader Impacts to satisfy their twisted idea that every new NSF grant must have yet another mentoring, outreach, or teaching activity to accompany it?

I am thinking of writing a statement such as this (let me know what you think)…

Broader Impacts:

In this section, I describe my commitment to teaching and mentoring women and under-represented minority students to train them to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, educators, and creators. The criticism that these efforts are “ongoing” and that “no new efforts are being established” is true, and I will likely get that critique as I usually do. But, I would like to point out that I participate in 15 other broader impact activities that cannot be fit into the 5 allowed in the biosketch nor in this document. I do not see the need nor the reason to create another mentoring or educational activity for myself in order to obtain this grant to perform research when I am already, as a woman in a male-dominated field, so over committed to teaching and outreach. Indeed, in a recent survey of my male colleagues in my department, I participate in 10x as many outreach activities as they do. So, there is no need for me to create anything new to make sure I am disseminating my science, educating the youth, or have a high quantity of mentoring and teaching activities. I am already doing what you want me to do.

Further, the criticism that I am not creating anything new or unique is not correct. I train 6-10 students per year. That is approximately 2-10x as many undergraduates as my colleagues (actually, some take zero undergraduates, but one should not divide by zero), creating research opportunities that are unique for each student. My students present at national conferences and many have published their work. To each of these students, their work, commitment, and time in the lab is unique and new for them. Together, we are creating new science and new experiences. Many of them have never solved a problem without a known answer prior to this work. So, I reject the critique that my broader impacts are not “new.”

Additionally, the fact that my laboratory is a diverse environment in terms of gender, religion, race, and ethnicity is also novel. Each new student adds to that novelty, that flavor, and that uniqueness. So, I believe that it is incorrect to say that my broader impacts are not “new.” Perhaps the idea of undergraduates performing research in a culturally diverse setting is not new to you, but it is certainly new to them (and it is unique within my institution).

Finally, if the reviewers need me to do something new for every NSF proposal, I will inevitably have to do one less thing that I am already committed to and maintaining through shear force of will. The activities I do are not complete in 3-year increments. I do not complete them with the completion of the grant. My goal is to sustain these activities. Thus, I cannot start something new every three years with the start of each new funded proposal unless I stop doing something else. If I did drop something, that would mean one less committee would have a smart, strong, female required for diversity. One more program will be lacking a woman to represent my entire field and gender to local middle school students. One more student will not be given the opportunity to try her hand at research despite her mother, her society, and yes, even herself, telling her that she should not. The things that I describe, that I am already committed to, are not mere whims to me. They are not things I do to pad my CV or to make you happy to fund me. They are part of the service I do to the community and to society to educate the young people of this country. I am sorry if what I do is not enough for you; if my students are not enough for you, but this is about all I can do.

So, what do you think? Perhaps I won’t write this after all, but maybe just put a link in my proposal to this post. (wink) Let me know what you think. Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Guest Post: Rant and Meta-Rant

GuestPostEvery now and then a friendly WomanOfScience graces me with a guest post. This is one of those times. I think it is interesting and funny. The advice is buried in self-reflection, so please read deeply. Enjoy! (BTW: to get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button).

Rant and Meta-Rant (a personal diatribe by a woman of STEM currently up for tenure in a research-intensive Engineering department)

PART 1: Rant (in which I say many wrong things)

My immediate reaction to the tenure vote in my department (about two weeks ago) was anger and rage and sadness.

I’d made a concerted five-year effort to network with the right people who would support my tenure case in an alien field; I’d taught classes mere weeks after learning the required content; I’d written grant after grant, which returned rejected with a constellation of insightful, occasionally deprecating, but usually all-too-apt criticisms; I’d spent uncountable hours training the students working in my lab while feeling that progress was painfully, glacially slow; I’d written and rewritten manuscripts to the point at which I’d lost faith in our work; I’d carefully circumnavigated the departmental and college politics as one of the very few women; I’d toiled (albeit not uncomplainingly) in the shadows of my colleagues who received internal accolades and support for their successes in publishing and grant writing, and regularly congratulated them on their successes; I’d organized seminars and the occasional party as the good wife of several organizations; and, most notably, I’d managed a time-consuming internal service duty for two years that was above and beyond what was typically asked of junior faculty. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was angry. Why had I bothered with any of it?

I suppose that I have should mentioned first that my colleagues voted to give me tenure, right?

Dear readers: as the doyenne of wildly inappropriate emotional reactions, I wasn’t happy or proud or pleased. Instead, I lost my shit completely for two weeks.

I was sad that my department had not noticed that I was doing sound scholarly work; I was angry that said scholarly work wasn’t rewarded; and I was enraged that the non-scholarly demands on my time would only increase in the future. I grumbled (nay, raved) to anybody who would listen — and to the friendliest and most supportive ears (and in particular to one close friend, a junior superstar colleague who had tried to give me helpful advice for navigating my less-starry academic career) I was cruelest and most cutting. I wallowed in misery, loudly.

Then I ranted to two friendly WomenOfScience (the blogmaster and a colleague of similar status and seniority) and got walloped by a clue-by-four.


PART 2: Meta-Rant (in which I analyze the wrongness and try to refocus)

Long ago my graduate advisor told me that I was going to have to learn to live with myself; that, like it or not, my outsized over-the-top reactions were apparently hard-wired, and that I was going to have to figure out how to manage them whilst staying productive.

My mien is not that of the logical, dispassionate ur-scientist. I am enthusiastic and elated, then morose and melancholy. Charming, then churlish; articulate, then profane. (A colleague once asked me: “Is it a taxing effort to speak as precisely as you do?” My response: “No, but it’s overwhelming for the audience— that’s what the profanity is for.”) Bluntly, my disposition is not stereotypically “male.” (Neither is that of many men. Conversely, some women are dispassionate. YMMV. This is about my reactions.) To manage this roller-coaster, I relied upon my generation’s snark-and-irony filter: snide comments about rejections and failures generated the needed emotional distance. I made frequent comparisons to bigger / faster / stronger / greater accomplishments by others to openly disparage anything I’d done — and I used those comparisons to justify not seeking the support that would help me to further my career.

When I ranted to my Women of Science friends, I was hoping for validation — I wanted to hear that I’d been poorly handled by my department, that I had a case for complaint. Instead, I heard that (minus the sturm-und-drang) many academic scientists experience similar feelings during and after tenure. My WoS friends also had similar issues, but had gauged what they needed to further their careers and hence were more adept at asking for and receiving support.

This is all to say: I fucked up like whoa, dear readers.

I agreed to write down my rant for the Woman of Science because I think it is useful to identify those features of my larger-than-life emotional reactions that did not help me during the first five years of my career. I write this with some trepidation; my stylistic choices may be an obvious identifier for close friends and colleagues. I note also that many of my issues are more likely to arise in the context of research-intensive tenure-track positions; my colleagues at teaching-focused institutions or in adjunct positions may have very different sources of sadness and anger. Nonetheless, I hope that, by talking about my sea of troubles, I can help others of similarly non-stereotypical dispositions more readily navigate the slings and arrows of an academic scientific career.

(1) I had let the incessant and vocal self-criticism become unhealthy. Unhealthy for my career: I refused to put myself forward because I could always find a reason to not do so. (Similarly, I used my inclination to not self-promote to whine about others doing so.) Unhealthy for my well-being: I have destroyed several long-standing professional friendships in the last year through my litany of constant negative chatter. (This I deeply regret.)

(2) I had let stress dislodge my horse sense. Academic careers can metastasize; and mine had engulfed much of my sanity and physical health. (I get vigorous exercise several times per week, but less regularly than I had five years ago. Similarly, I eat more foods of convenience and cook less than I used to, due to time demands.)

(3) Most deleteriously, by focusing on external markers of success I’d forgotten the joy in doing my science. About five days before the tenure vote, one of my graduate students produced data that strongly supported a tentative physical picture that we had suggested. The data clearly and uncontrovertibly confirmed our speculative picture and suggested a range of follow-up studies. I was thrilled! And yet, five days later I’d completely forgotten how happy and rewarded I’d felt by careful, detailed, dedicated work.

The solutions are easy to state and difficult to implement (for me, least):

(1a) Be passionate about my work. Toot my own horn when appropriate.

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

(3b) Tired of some annoying aspect of my job? Do my science.

(3c) Frustrated with politics? Do my science.

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.


PART 3: Going forward: I hope that my tenure case will be successful, but it’s out of my hands. I’m working on repairing the friendships that I’ve damaged in the past years of self-focused misery. I’ve asked for aid with the more onerous service tasks. I’m writing positive emails to my graduate students to reinforce good work and professional development. I am taking joy in a friend’s recent announcement — as a sign that thoughtful scholarship can indeed be valued. And finally I’m focusing on my science when I feel the urge to rant and rave, trying to redirect my passions towards healthier outlets than my native pessimism.

Miscarriages Happen

ICSI_WebAlthough a lot of the advice and stories on this blog are not necessarily for women only, there are some issues that are specific to women. For instance, I should have taken more bathroom breaks during my recent seminar trip. I was saved by wearing very dark jeans… The women know what I am talking about.

During my seminar visit, I had an explosion of women’s issues emails from 3 different women. Many of these were really specific women’s issues, and this post is one of them. Please enjoy!

I’ve had three miscarriages. There, I said it. I asked to write this guest post to highlight the cultural taboo against discussing miscarriages and infertility, and argue that this is a BAD THING. It’s a double standard that hurts women, especially those in academia with the special time pressure associated with being on the tenure track.

I am an assistant professor at Average Private University; this is my fourth year on the tenure track. Overall I really like my job and my department is great and friendly. My husband is also an assistant professor at APU, so we managed the two-body problem, which is a whole separate post. I have one wonderful daughter who is a year and a half old. Between her and the three miscarriages I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for about 3 of the 3.5 years I’ve been on tenure track.

Only two of my department colleagues know this. I have generally been fairly sick during the first trimester of pregnancy: vomiting, dizziness, extreme fatigue. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling most work colleagues about these issues, because you’re not supposed to tell anyone you’re pregnant until the second trimester. Why? Because what if you miscarry?

All three miscarriages also happened late enough in the first trimester that my doctor recommended surgery. In some sense I was lucky; I can’t imagine having a miscarriage or stillbirth in the second or third trimester. But in any case, I had to go in for outpatient surgery three times over the past three years. Of course, all three had to be scheduled during important faculty meetings. Did I feel comfortable explaining to my colleagues why I was absent from these important faculty meetings? No. Now I wonder how many of them think that I’m flaking out on faculty meetings and shirking my responsibilities as a faculty member.

This is bull. If my non-pregnant colleagues had the same symptoms I did, they would definitely go see a doctor, perhaps even take a few days of medical leave, and most of them would be perfectly willing to explain to other colleagues that they were behind because they weren’t feeling well. They would certainly tell a colleague they missed a faculty meeting because they had surgery.

This is not just academic. I know of a colleague who struggled with infertility (which can also be a taboo subject) and missed a lot of department functions/meetings while dealing with testing and treatment for that issue. Her department did not strongly endorse her for tenure, and the tenure process turned into a mess. While of course there’s a lot more to the story, I think the fact that she was dealing with infertility instead of a different medical issue made it more difficult for her to get the time off of work and the empathy and understanding of her peers.

And its not just work colleagues. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve turned down countless social invitations and opportunities to have fun because I was too “morning sick” to go or I didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t drinking alcohol or I was too emotionally/physically exhausted from the miscarriages themselves. In many cases, people have just stopped inviting me because I never say yes, and I don’t blame them. I’ve also heard more than a few stories of women who went to great lengths to hide the fact that they weren’t drinking due to pregnancy; one friend would fill up an empty beer can with water and carry it around for an entire party. Can I just say that THIS IS INSANE? I – we — should be able to explain to social acquaintances and potential new friends that we are sick and/or pregnant and provide some context for our absences or behaviors.

Why are miscarriages and infertility such a verboten subject? Many reasons, of course. It probably ties into our society’s general ambiguity about the human status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. I think it mostly ties into the fact that for almost all of human history, women who couldn’t (or chose not to) have babies were third-class (or worse) citizens. Women were supposed to have babies, and if they couldn’t, it was due to an inherent flaw in their womanhood. While most of us would acknowledge that this is complete crap, that narrative persists in our collective inability to discuss miscarriage and infertility.

It’s certainly not uncommon; unfortunately about 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage. To me as a scientist, it’s amazing that something as complicated as human development works out at all. (Of course, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) According to the US Department of Human Health and Human Services, about 10% of women struggle with infertility.

The statistics on miscarriage and infertility especially suck for academics. As discussed elsewhere, we often have to make difficult choices about when to try to have children, if we want them. Many folks (including me) decide to postpone until we get a tenure-track job (typically late 20’s, early 30’s) or get tenure (typically mid-to-late 30’s and beyond). This puts us at greater risk for miscarriages and infertility issues, and it also puts an increased pressure to keep trying NOW despite the emotional and physical toll of dealing with these medical problems.

So, what can I (we) do? I think that if I do have another pregnancy, and I have medical symptoms, I am going to openly tell colleagues early in the first trimester. It may make them a bit uncomfortable, and it will be difficult if I have to tell them that I miscarried again, but I think it beats the alternative, which is worrying that I might have a problem with tenure because of it. It also means that I can finally explain to people why I’m turning down social invitations, and say that I’d sure like to be invited again in about three months.

In general, I think women (and their partners) should be more willing to talk about our miscarriages/infertility and the way it affects our lives. By talking about it, we can make sure that women who experience these issues get the support they need instead of falling behind. Miscarriage or infertility is not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly shouldn’t hurt a person’s career.

So what do you think? What would you do? Tell early so people understand your medical conditions? Or not let them know because it is really none of their business. It is a tough call, but one we all have to make. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

All the Small Things

Post from another WomanOfScience about some of the little things that drive us nuts as WomenOfScience. Enjoy!


Silverback (Photo credit: bergeycm)

I have a Departmental Dirty Little Secret (DLS). An ongoing source of discontent, a small sliver that festers and lies always just beneath the skin. It is not fatal but the “Silverbacks” (my term for the Male Sage Older Faculty) of the Department do not lean over and pull it out.

The Silverbacks agree “‘Tis a shame, how annoying,” they murmur as they pull their beards and stroke their pearls, but still. It is just a sliver (man up!).
“It will work its way out, in time, we have seen worse,” they say, “In our day they proclaim there was….”
But, it is infecting me, bit by bit.

Does each of us have a Department DLS? That small, shameful slight that we may read too much into due to convergence of where we are in time and space that is simply drawing our focus off research, or is an indication of something much worse that must be focused on and would be negligent not to?

Here is mine:
I have never had a graduate student from my program talk to me that I had not had in my courses as an undergraduate. They have never talked me about research, about serving on their committees or just about life. So, our undergrads have been socialized to see us, but why do we find this acceptable in a student coming into our graduate program from the outside?
I think it is a human resource issue as well, all these students are provided stipends. Not being seen is a direct loss of resources.
Worse, even our young DepartmentalGraduateStudents (DGS) is a Silverback in the making and already murmurs, “How unfortunate but what can be done?” Ahh, students, they will learn in time.

What is yours?

Here is my DLS: There is an older male faculty who runs much of the department including class assignments and committee assignments who constantly passes me over for leadership roles. My department gave me pretty much no committee assignments this year – the first year after I have tenure. This is supposed to be the year when they stop “protecting me” from service and really let you have it.  But, nope!

He even had to make  special effort not to give me a chairmanship of a committee. A crap committee that he doesn’t even care about! The department publicity committee! He gave the chair position to an Assistant Professor over me. I specifically asked to be given the chairmanship after the assignments were made, and he said “No.” I pointed out that other committees have chairmanships given to the senior person on the committee, which would be me. He said, “That’s not true.” I gave him several specific examples of when this was the case. He said, “No.” I then wrote him an email that said directly, “When you don’t give me leadership roles, it makes me feel like you don’t trust me, because I am a woman.” He still said “No.”

This Silverback – in the literal sense – is about to retire after Spring semester, so I am looking forward to a future without his presence in the department, but I can’t be lucky all the time.

So, what about you? Comment or post…

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