Day: September 5, 2016

Why Women-in-Science Panels Aren’t Very Useful

Based on my experiences with women-in-science panels, as a member of the audience as well as a panelist, these events tend to be a nearly complete waste of time. I don’t think these panels achieve very much and have left me wanting every single time, regardless of the role I played. Recently, I have been thinking about why that is so. (If you think these panels are awesome, I would definitely love to hear about what you found useful.)

Maybe these panels are like intro-level textbooks, useful for a novice, but once you’ve struggled with certain issues for a while and are ready for an advanced course, they no longer suffice. These panels are also a cheap way for organizations to pretend they are doing something for young women, without actually having to do much of substance.

The women in the audience come with two sets of questions: 1) succeeding professionally (perhaps as woman in a male-dominated field) and 2) work-life balance (which in practice translates to “how to have kids and still succeed”). Panels tend to spend most of their time on the second type of question, which I think it at the core of the low utility of these panels.

The young women who have been very successful thus far and have great pedigrees come in ready to kill it in the professional arena. Often, they don’t believe that the issues of bias will apply to them and are largely convinced we live in a post-sexist society. In contrast, no midcareer or senior woman in STEM thinks this. So there is a disconnect between what the older women say will be an issue and how to overcome it, and the fact that younger women don’t think this will apply to them because they themselves are excellent and academia is a meritocracy (Honorary Dudeness etc.), or they really believe sexism is a thing of the past (so everyone but the dinosaurs is enlightened). In reality, they simply haven’t had enough experiences yet to convince them that sexism is alive and well, thriving in many young guns, and more insidious than ever.

Then there is the issue of work–life balance (again, this is usually a euphemism for kids–work balance). Whether you are the primary caregiver (which most women are, whether they work or not), whether you breastfeed, whether you have multiples, how flexible the spouse’s job is, whether you have a nanny or use daycare, how long your commute is, not to mention whether your baby is healthy, are all issues that can cause considerable disparities in the stress levels of new moms in academia. There are young women who are approaching motherhood with trepidation and come to these workshops to brainstorm logistics, but there are women who may or may not have kids on the tenure track, or ever, but are definitely not interested in talking diapers or breast pumps right now.

There are young women who want to discuss the details of childrearing and associated challenges, but these are really better addressed in a peer forum rather than a panel. For the most part, panelists do not give these women the details they crave; mostly, panelists come off as women who have it together, much more together than what you want to see if you have just become a new mom and your world has been shaken to the core. I am not sure panelists mean to seem cold and calculated, but in my experience they almost always appear that way, often because these topics are something they dealt with in the past (we always seem much more together in hindsight than we really were in the moment  of crisis), but also because a woman’s work persona in STEM is one that always keeps it together.

As a panelist, I always feel that there are things I wish I could share, but they don’t seem to fit with where the moderators are going  or they seem inappropriate because the rest of panel has already driven the discussion in a different direction, and I never want to take up too much panel time (in contrast to some other panelists; there’s always someone who drones on). I always  feel that these panels are way too short and that we barely scratch the surface of what awaits people on the tenure track, let alone beyond. Many senior women seem eager to be done with the obligation and on to the next meeting of the day. The dynamics of wise and worldly and busy panelists talking at (as opposed to with) young and uninformed audience is not really conducive to establishing rapport, especially since the young women are not incompetent. The little time we do have is spent on things we all know already, and we never get to the things that are really at the core of the issues. And there are never many questions, which means the panel didn’t resonate with the audience and that there wasn’t enough time to do it right.

The oldies (I guess I am among them now) and the young women both know how to be tough in their professional arena, and that’s how they interact among themselves, yet these panels are supposed to address issues that are generally quite personal, and that’s the source of a serious disconnect — everyone is posturing, everyone is talking to strangers, and nobody really wants to (nor should be expected to) share really personal anecdotes; when they are shared, they are either trivial, featuring some minor drama that of course ended well, or, on a rare occasion when someone touches upon something really personal, everyone is embarrassed.

I am not sure how to best support young women on the tenure track, especially in the physical-science STEM fields, where the percentages of women are ridiculously low. You cannot force people to genuinely share their struggles and fears with virtual strangers; you definitely cannot force guarded overachievers, whose work persona has been toughened up specifically to not show weakness, to all of a sudden act all vulnerable and nurturing in front of a roomful of women who are also smart and competitive, and who are perhaps showing signs of doubt, weakness, or indecisiveness, but only because their protective armor hasn’t had the time to fully harden just yet.

You cannot expect women to relate as nurtures to other women in a professional context. This type of support has to come from a place of personal connection, and cannot be forced by the institution. Putting a whole bunch of women of different ages together, pretending they would make fast friends, is bullshit and a waste of everyone’s time.

What can institutions do? They can make sure to bring in women as technical speakers, have clear guidelines regarding maternity leave and tenure-clock stoppage, improve access to affordable childcare for students and faculty and staff. They can be unapologetic about affirmative action and relentless about educating the people already there about the massive body of research on implicit bias.

The institutions could also not hire a$$holes, but rather both men and women who will seek work-life balance (with or without kids) and will be interested in helping younger colleagues. This will never happen, of course, because research institutions in physical and biomedical fields want to hire first and foremost the people who can raise lots of grant money; hotshot prodigious fund raisers tend to prioritize work over all else.

Departments could create mentoring committees that include colleagues whom the young faculty member actually will not be afraid to ask questions. For example, of my two assigned mentors, one was never around and I never asked him a single thing; I was also afraid of him, as he struck me as someone who’d weed me out if he perceived I were a weak link. The other mentor was nominally friendly, but in practice so elusive and impossible to meet up with, that I gave up. I got most mentoring from two male collaborators, one midcareer and one very senior. We obviously never discussed breastfeeding and the like, but they were very helpful regarding strategies for grant submissions, interactions with program managers, department politics, etc.

As for women-in-science issues, among my female colleagues across the college, I found that there were very few who organized their lives similar to how I did. First, my female colleagues on average seem to pay for much more outside help than DH and I do (e.g., multiple nannies, often in addition to part-time daycare, appears to be a typical arrangement) or have spouses with very flexible occupations (some had stay-at-home spouses for a while). It’s hard to discuss these choices without judging or being judged, even with one’s close personal friends, let alone with peers who sit with you on committees and who are your competitors for internal awards.

So what do we all do in terms of support for junior faculty, especially women? I think panels, and generally any advice-giving interaction with colleagues, should be focused on troubleshooting for professional success, without connecting it with childcare. Professional success and the challenges on the way to achieving it are (largely) common to women and men, people with kids, people with elder care, people with disabilities. For instance, it is okay to talk about how much travel is necessary, how to best accommodate periods in which you cannot travel, the strategies to maximize publication output and your record in general when you are temporarily grounded — this can be because of kids, because you have a disorder that periodically flares up, or because you have elder care. I think we underestimate how many people have challenges other than childcare and who would benefit from brainstorming how to navigate their career just as much as a temporarily zombified breastfeeding mom would, yet they self-select out of these work-life panels. (One perk of being senior and partaking on university-level committees is that you meet many people across campus, see many CVs, and realize that almost everyone has had some personal stumble at one point or another.) Everyone would be better served if we refocused these panels on success in the face of professional challenges: dwindling grant support, amplified need for travel and exposure, increased pressure to publish, all with raised tenure bars and diminishing safety nets in terms of intramural funds. There’s plenty to discuss, without ever mentioning diapers.

And for emotional support? Friends and family, in meatspace and on the Internet.