Friday, November 9, 2012

Where are all the ladies at?

I'm writing to you from 30,000 feet--ah, the wonders of technology. Actually, maybe it's not so great after all...the wifi many planes are offering carries with it a feeling of obligation that one should be working. And what do you know, that is a nice segue into today's topic. I've had a lot of things on my mind lately, and I'd like to do a series of posts laying it out there and maybe get new perspectives from my readers. I've noticed I have a lot of female readers, and that's a viewpoint that I need on  one of the issues that I have with my career:

Where are all the women?

But are we?

I never felt particularly constrained by gender roles growing up. My family never seemed to label activities or interests as 'boy' things or 'girl' things--there were only activities and interests. I was active in sports, but I also was a dancer. My dad taught me how to throw a football, which I still can (albeit poorly) and my mom taught me how to cook (somewhat less poorly). I grew up with the notion that men and women could do whatever they wanted.The ski scene is male dominated, the knitting scene is female dominated, who cares? I love to do both.

I always enjoyed science and math, so it seemed reasonable to study engineering. I think the notion that not that as many women went into the field probably appealed to me--I've always been contrary--but it didn't factor too much into the decision making process. And it wasn't something I thought much about in college. I'm a materials engineer, which is one of the most gender equal fields of engineering. I was never involved with the Society of Women Engineers or their ilk, saying that I wasn't a female engineer--I was just an engineer. I spent some time working at a nuclear plant, where myself and two others who came in at the same time were the only women in the department. The guys took to us like fish to water, I think it really tickled them pink to have some young women working with them. Some of them took it as their personal responsibility to look out for us and I never felt like anything but an equal.

But as I have been moving further and further into academia and the research sector, the lack of women in my workplace is something that has progressively bothered me more. When I get bored at a conference, I'll sometimes count the number of women in the audience. It is rare that it breaks out of single digits. A friend who has taken a similar career path as mine, but in biology, shared this article recently. Some highlights of the study:
  • "Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills."
  • The professors were less likely to offer women a job, and if a job was offered the pay offered was substantially lower. 
  • Female professors were just as likely to discriminate against women as their male counterparts. In fact, "the bias had no relation to the professors’ age, sex, teaching field or tenure status."
Across the board, there was a distinct bias against the women scientists. And these small slights, accumulated over the course of a career, can result in serious setbacks. I think that the general mindset is that this was a problem that has gone away. It's certainly what I thought for a long time. But I'm noticing that at least in my field, which is a combination of nuclear engineering and materials, very few successful female role models are apparent. I literally have no one at work to discuss this with--I'm the only woman in the department (except for the secretary, natch).

Which has led me to two competing trains of thought. My career is an uphill battle: a field where I am going to be held back simply by who I am. I'm already a person who struggles with serious self-doubt sometimes, my scientific glass if often half-full as I realize just how much I don't know. Is it worth it? Would it be better to do something that I am more passionate about (something I'd also like to discuss in a future post), and where I have more opportunity for advancement? But! The second thought that creeps in--the situation is not going to change if women keep getting forced out. Do I have an obligation, even if I'm miserable, to forge ahead for the betterment of ladies in future generations? Is it selfish to move on?

What do you think?


  1. I'm also a materials engineer (BS MSE), and just graduated in May with my MS in ME. At some point during the spring, there was a speaker on campus, I forget her name (could look it up for you if you want), and the thing that stuck with me most was this- she basically said that it's not worth it to be a role model for the sake of being a role model, that it will be more effective for young women and girls to see you doing a job that makes you happy, that you are good at, and that you are successful at. Then, once you're happy with where you are, worry about reaching out to girls.

    I was super involved with SWE in college, and have read the article you linked to before. Last year I gave presentations to parents about engineering and the gender gap and what society can do to help fix it. If you're looking for more on this topic, I recommend reading 'Why So Few?' and/or 'Changing the Conversation.' Googling them will give you links.

    While those studies show that more women in academia helps to bring in more female students to engineering, I don't think that you're obligated to stay in the position you have if you aren't happy there. I know that anything gender-related wasn't why I chose engineering, I chose it because I wanted to do it.

    Also, I just want to say that I've been reading for a while, and that I do admire what you've done with your life. I know that I could never survive in an academic environment, but I have a lot of respect for those who chose that direction for their careers. Not to mention your knitting- that cardigan you posted about a few posts ago is awesome!

    Something else to consider- if you want women to discuss this with, find your local SWE section, I'm sure they'd love to have you. Or just email me and we can chat (I know I'm not at the same point in my career as you (actually currently unemployed), but this is a topic I love talking about).

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  3. It is ALWAYS worth it to do something you:
    1. love
    2. are passionate about.
    The happiest people manage both! Blazing this trail doesn't have to be your obligation. Besides, who is to say you haven't done your bit just by getting a PhD in your field? Perhaps a career break is what you need right now (yes, already), perhaps this particular company at this point in time is not the place for you. I've known misery for more years of my life than I've known happiness and strongly believe one's happiness is worth a lot more than most things.

    Like you, I grew up consistently straddling the boy thing/girl thing line. I enjoyed playing with my train sets and mechano as much as having tea parties, playing with my Barbie and Sindy dolls, my little pony...all with my father! Looking back, I think my father's participation was the single most important factor in blurring the lines.

    I also was good at maths and science so I studied physics with (funnily enough: materials) engineering. I see and hear the subject of today's topic ALL THE TIME!

    Something in this article ( struck home for me so I thought I'd share it. During my a-levels (2 years pre-university), I was one of 2 girls studying physics in my year. I recall that when we got a question incorrect, the teacher often said to both girls, "Why don't you go study home economics or fashion"! He also believed and often said "the lab is no place for girls". Thankfully, I went on to a university where lecturers believed in gender equality and not only supported but pushed women to succeed! Alas, this is not a true representation of the world of science.

    You see, I think the problem starts much earlier: it's in what high school teachers say to female pupils, how male pupils absorb this and in turn behave towards their female counterparts...throughout their careers! It's society's constant (but oh so subtle) reinforcement that science isn't for women (after all, why else would it be dominated by men?). Then there's all that talk of science programmes bending over backwards to increase the number of female students taken on; something I feel is harmful to women in that it sends the message that we are in some way different (perhaps even sub-par?) and so require 'special' concessions to get us through the door. For the most part, 'women in science' is still spoken of as a bit of a novelty and until the day it is as commonplace as women making up the vast majority of secretarial staff - we will continue to second-guess and question the fit of women in science.
    Furthermore, I believe that as funding for science and engineering (teaching and research) becomes increasingly scarce, the work place becomes more dog-eat-dog, an atmosphere that men thrive on more so than women.

    But I believe this issue in science is mirrored to a larger extent in society. It's seen in the marked difference in pay between a man and a woman doing the same job; From the top jobs right the way down to menial jobs. It's apparent in the discrepancy with which society regards a woman that sleeps around for pleasure and a man that does the same. Oh, don't even get me started on maternity/mat leave and mothers in science!

    Today's blog topic is the most engaging I've come across anywhere in ages. I look forward to other perspectives and to the rest in this series of posts you're laying out there :-)

    p.s. Sorry if I got a bit "ranty", this blogpost really hit a nerve. Also, my academic career has taken me from the UK to the USA, Canada and back so my points of view may be a little all over the place.

    1. *slow clap* Bravo! This (and the blog post!) has been great to read.

  4. Oh this is a tough one. I don't think you have to think of future generations when you make a decision about YOUR career. Trail blazers are people who feel they HAVE to do something. It has to be something you are passionate about or it will just lead to you passing on the wrong message - it will be about how awful academia is for women and it's not worth it.

    You need to be fulfilled as a person in what you spend your life doing. If you are not fulfilled you will be miserable and it will spread over into all aspects of your life. It is not just the responsibility of the women at the top of academia to make it seem possible for future generations, it is the responsibility of the whole of academia and the whole of society to make any subject feel accessible to both genders.

    I personally hope we are coming to a tipping point where the old guard are retiring and their replacements are more open minded about gender equality. I also think that it is not just science and academia where this is an issue. You will find it everywhere. In some places it is more subtle than others but it is there. Whatever place you work in, you will be part of the progress forward towards equality, but you will have to fight prejudice in whichever sphere you work. Until pay is equal and no one blinks at a stay at home Dad then there will be equality. You can do your bit for future generations wherever you end up working, and you will do it throughout your life. Fighting against prejudice will always be hard, but it is much easier if you are doing it in a place where you LOVE what you are doing.

  5. I can't speak about your career field because mine is in accounting.

    But what I can tell you is this: you should NEVER stay in a career that makes you miserable. It's not worth it for your health and happiness because those feeling will trickle down to your relationships with friends and family. Take it from me. My friends and family were the first to notice how miserable the Office Manager from Hell was making my life and it caused a lot of tension between Hubby and I.

    I would not want to see that happen between Co-Pilot and yourself.

  6. Well, I do have a little bit of experience with this (although in a different field - but I will say that I too have an advanced degree). At the end of the day, I cut out all the "chatter" and just listened to myself. I just kept asking "what will make me happy?". Even that approach is difficult for women, because goddess forbid you should be selfish in this, one of most basic and important aspects of your life. People will attempt, at every turn, to put their own spin on what they think you're feeling and the reasons why you're making the decisions you will be making. Don't listen to it. I can tell you with absolute confidence you will never be a rolemodel in a career in which you are not fulfilled. It's up to you to decide how to define fulfillment.

    The other thing I can say with confidence is it's definitely a process, this figuring it out. You will evolve. Some people might not like it. Too bad. So sad.

  7. I imagine women who could be referred to as trailblazers didn't forge ahead in an area of study they weren't interested in. They tended to be people who loved their area of study or work and chose not to listen to people who said they didn't belong.

    If you enjoy what you do, keep doing it. If you need a break to gain some perspective, then take it. And if you need to be done with the whole thing, be done with it. But it seems to me that you have started to carry a weight that no one expects you to carry.

  8. My career was management in a traditionally male-dominated field: when I started, I was often asked if they could speak to my hubby, rather than me, as I was only a woman.

    I found that finding the right employer, that *one* progressive company who not only said they treated women as equals but actually did so, including pay, was vital. I returned to that company after I had kids to find that they had morphed into amoral sharks who talked the talk about equality, quality time with your family etcetc. but it was only lip service.

    I managed to hack the average 60 hour weeks including every.single.weekend and nights for 2 years (at the beginning with a 6 month old, and 2 year old) before I had to leave: it was affecting my health, my marriage, my family. My stresses now are all normal ones :-) and I have evenings and weekends with my family like a normal person.

    Do not feel you must burn at the stake as an example for others; I am afraid I would advise you to do what makes you happy, as opposed to doing what might be considered 'right'. Life is too short for anything else.

    Big hugs xx

  9. AC - I have to agree with the others. If you're not happy with what you're doing or not passionate about it you will only serve to be a negative role model and it will be very difficult to mentor anyone in a good way.

    The fact that you have a PhD in your field tells me that you are passionate about what you do, or at least extremely tenacious and goal-oriented.

    My guess is that you may just not be crazy about your current job... that's not the same as not having passion for the thing that you do.

    I am a Mechanical Engineer... I was well into school before I realized women were a minority and the only real discrimination I felt was from my peers, not my professors. Well, for the most part... there was always someone in an authority role who thought women didn't belong. But they were the minority and in my opinion, not the best skilled in their role.

    I have worked in the Space Program, Defense, Energy and Aircraft and was a minority at every company... no matter the age or size. Now I am in IT in the Health Care sector and have worked primarily with women on most of my projects. It was a strange thing when I realized since it only happened when I started to receive some dissonance from another woman... again, perhaps not the best at her role.

    I should tell you that my first job out of school was working on the Space Shuttle... completely amazing experience. But after I started feeling comfortable with my job, I had this overwhelming feeling of "so, this is it?" It's difficult being a goal-oriented person and not knowing what your next goal is.

    You have my email, I'd love to chat more. :-)

  10. I'm not an engineer, and have had the contrary experience of working in fields that mostly involve women (not because I chose a gender imbalance but because the work I needed to do was there) and consequently struggling to earn a salary that reflects the depth and experience I bring to the work (including a terminal degree in a related field).

    So first I'll agree with everyone here who's saying that if you're not happy, find another location or do something else. Your education will serve you well, although perhaps not in the way you thought it would. You may end up doing something no one else has thought of, being happy, and being the best kind of role model.

    And then I'll comment on another statement that I noticed in your post: "I'm already a person who struggles with serious self-doubt sometimes, my scientific glass i[s] often half-full as I realize just how much I don't know." HURRAY! Not for the self-doubt, although it's part of the whole package here, and therefore it's good. Self-doubt hurts. I deal with it a lot. But hurray for for realizing just how much you don't know! Frankly, that's where life is exciting. It's hard to come out of academia as the sort of person who doesn't "know" (or pretend to know) it all. You've managed to get a Ph.D. while retaining both curiosity and humility. THOSE will serve you very well, whatever you do. They're not failures, but huge strengths, although sometimes hard ones to embrace. (I'm thinking of the Zen concept of "beginner's mind" here. It helps.)

    I send you much support from my position at what "should" be the retirement end of the career path, although I won't be retiring any time soon. (1) I've been in these "women's" fields and retirement wasn't part of the financial program, PLUS (2) there's still so much I don't know that I want to figure out!--or at least learn more about and think about. Fortunately, my current, completely contrary, work life makes retirement unappealing and lets me do a lot of new learning, so while there's still more that I don't know than that I do know (of course), I get to keep filling in the endless hole and enjoying the process.

    So . . . go where your heart *doesn't* ache. Wherever that is. You will almost certainly find out by setting out on the journey without knowing your exact destination. It's pretty much *about* the journey, not the destination, so look for a journey you can enjoy and you'll do fine.

  11. Last night Kathryn (the commenter above) mentioned this post at our knitting group. As a group of science minded women (not all engineers) we were keenly interested and she emailed us all a link to your blog.

    I have a BS EE - arguably one of the least female areas of engineering (at least it was at my university). I've rarely worked as an engineer in a dept/team where there has been another woman. I could talk forever about all the various experiences I've had (both as a female engineer and as an editor at a 90% female company when I left engineering for a brief stint to work at Interweave Press). But, to answer your question - don't let your gender factor into whether you stay or leave your current position. It's whether or not you want to be there. If because of your gender you aren't getting a fair shake - you can leave because you aren't getting a fair shake. *You* aren't factoring in your gender, *you* are making it about your treatment. Regardless of why you are treated the way you are. I think that point of view might help you make less emotional decisions. I try to always look from the standpoint of logic "does it make sense?"

    As for the study you pointed at over the treatment of women in academia...I think the same might be true (to some extent) in industry. My theory is that this is at least in part due to the fact that women get (or can get) pregnant. The toll that can take on a company is huge. Not only might the woman miss more sick time or be less effective during her pregnancy (distracted, disinterested, sick etc) but once the baby arrives she'll likely take some sort of leave. And if she returns to work inevitably there will be days to stay home with a sick child, or when daycare/school is closed, etc etc etc. Of course, fathers will bare this responsibility to some extent. But, poll any group of mothers and chances are the majority feel that even if they have "equal partners" the moms are more likely to stay home with a sick kiddo. The moms (I think this is due mostly to a cultural pressure) are more apt to feel like *bad* parents for any missed opportunity with their child. Where as a father (I think) is more likely to brush it off as an unfortunate situation. This is mostly supported by my own experiences with friends/co-workers - not any scientific study. And of course, say your a childless matter, when you first entered the workforce there was no telling that you may remain childless for your future worklife, and therefore you were probably treated as a breeder. I think some of this is so subconscious even that not all employers even realize what they're doing.

    For me...having endured being "mommy tracked" didn't make me bitter. In fact, being a mom has made me realize that although unfair...I don't really care. Do I get paid penny for penny the same as the men around me? No, but the double standard often works to my advantage too. The men around me accept that I will leave early when my kid has a rough day at school. And they cut me slack when I'm up all night trying to get a cranky toddler back to sleep after a bad dream. So, as much as I'd like to think equality would be awesome...our culture really isn't there yet. And a lot of the time, that's okay (for me).

    All that said, when I entered the work force - had I fully understood what being mommy tracked was, and how to play the game, I think I'd be earning about 20% more right now. Fresh out of school, my offer matched those given to the men. But, for a woman, you need to really up your wage BEFORE having kids because those years when you have a birth and are out on maternity leave you will miss review cycles while on leave. You'll have gaps in productive work due to your leave and that all counts against least during that cycle. Would I trade in those 3-5 mo leaves that I spent with my newborns? No.

  12. This was really interesting to read, so thank you for that. I don't really have much to add, though I think these discussions are worth having. I hope you find something fulfilling in itself, though. If we put ourselves in unhealthy situations solely to make a point, I think we would sort of miss the point.