women in STEM


A day in the life:

  • 6:30-8:30 Morning routine (lunches, drive Eldest to school, wake/feed the Littles, make self presentable)
  • 8:30-9:00 Morning commute (w/ possible drop-off of 1-2 of the Littles)
  • 9:00-5:30 Work
  • 5:30-6:00 Evening commute (w/ possible pickup of 1-2 of the Littles)
  • 6:00-7:00 Dinner prep, dinner
  • 7:00-8:30 Playtime with kids (DH is the bomb!)
  • 8:30-9:30 Bedtime routine (baths, books, PJs)
  • 9:30-10:00 Cleanup
  • 10:00-12:00 (or 1:00) More work and/or some TV


So here’s a handy comparison between how much I spend versus how much I would like to spend on different tasks (below, 0<x<2).



Clearly, what my day is missing is 8 additional hours.  My hope is for the humanity to populate a planet with a 32-hour day ASAP.

In other news, it’s finals week…



A Chemical Imbalance — The Movie

A Chemical Imbalance — a film, a book and a call for action

The movie (below) and project are about women in STEM and their continued under-representation. The movie illustrates the issue through historical data and interviews with several faculty from the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry (recipient of the Athena Swan Gold Award).

April Showers Bring May Semester End and Thoughts on Learning New Things

For faculty on the semester system, there are only a couple of weeks of teaching left. This is probably the busiest time of the year, due to the sinister convergence of the semester ending and the conference season approaching. Program committees of many conferences are working hard these days to evaluate the abstracts; I am on three. On top of it, I am about to go to DC, again, for the third time in the last six months. This year has, so far, been very busy for me.

With perpetual busyness, how does one find the time to learn new things? I mean, where does the time come from to learn new techniques or the tenets of new fields of inquiry, but learn them really, really well?

I am working on topics that are somewhat but not far removed from my core expertise. You pick up related stuff along the way, as you work with students and postdocs, listen to talks by others, read up on papers in order to write proposals. But I feel I am not really an expert in any of these topics, as what I know about them has been acquired in a non-systematic fashion, by assembling the bits and pieces from various sources over time. I always worry that there are things I am overlooking, the literature I am missing.

There is something to be said for being introduced to a topic through taking a class or reading a textbook. Yet, the only way I have the time to read a textbook is if I teach a class based on it, and even so I may not get to read the whole thing. There are several topics that I find interesting and where I could potentially have something new and nontrivial to say, but the time to properly learn about any of them is just not there. I am itching to venture further out, to learn more and seek challenges and connections with fields that are more foreign to me.

I have been asking people how they find the time to learn new things, and the answer they often give me is “sabbatical.” I don’t see that happening with me; having small and school-aged kids and a working husband, I don’t see us leaving this place for a real sabbatical any time soon. During my previous sabbatical, I had a kid and also organized a major conference; I wrote several proposals, of which a major one got funded; I worked with students and wrote papers, and I think I did quite well keeping my head above water on all fronts, considering that my brain was mush due to no sleep and out-of-whack hormones. My next sabbatical is years away, and I need/want to learn and do some new things sooner than that. But there is just never enough time to pick up a book and work through it, for real. On top of teaching, I continually have students to work with, papers to edit, grants to write, service, travel. Summers are prime-time for conference travel, writing papers, and preparing fall proposals (this fall is really important for me grant-wise, I really need to do a good job with the NSF). There always seems to be something more urgent. Yet learning new things that can support your long-term research vision is important, like investing in education and infrastructure is important for long-term economic growth.

Now, I have a pretty good system for getting uninterrupted blocks of time. There is one day of the week when everyone knows I am MIA, and I have been successfully blocking out a second day in recent years; this also means that the other three days are chock full of teaching and meetings and I feel positively drained after them. My 1-2 blocked-out days are spent on writing papers or grants or whatever else needs tending to urgently; for instance, I spent a whole day grading last week, because that was the most urgent thing to do.

Being a working parent means that your time is always maximally obligated. Becoming older, I find that I can’t keep the pace of little sleep and burning the candle on both ends, which I used to be able to pull off when I was younger to squeeze some extra time for work out of the stubbornly 24-hour-long days. For instance, after a day of wrangling the Littles, like today, I can barely blog, let alone read something technically challenging.

How does one find the time to learn new things for work? I suppose this somewhat extends to — how does one find the time to exercise or have a hobby? People will offer answers that I have always found irritating: “You just have to make it (or yourself) a priority.” When you have kids, that means (1) you take the time from your work, (2) you take the time from your sleep, or (3) you take the time from your family time, which means your partner or additional caregivers bear the brunt of you taking the time for yourself or your new endeavors. I want to learn new things to do my job better, so I don’t think I should be sacrificing too much from (2) or (3), because I don’t have the stamina to skimp on sleep any more and the kids are only little once and my DH is entitled to weekends too. I want to find the time during my work day to accommodate more learning.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you find the time to learn new things for work, and learn them well?


I have been a professor for nearly 10 years. I am good at what I do and respected within my community, as small as it is. I am well-funded, although that’s always a temporarily accurate statement. As I do theory and computation, I don’t bring in oodles of money, but I have always been able to support a viable research group of between 6 and 10 people. I publish in well-respected society journals, interspersed with some high-profile papers. My students are good and have been able to get good jobs after graduation. We look at interesting problems and publish papers that I would like to think are original, insightful, and well-written. I am successful, but I don’t think I am wildly successful. I would not classify myself as a hot commodity. Perhaps only a hot-as-a-hot-shower commodity, say 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yet, over the past few years I have been getting “feelers” from other institutions with increasing frequency. Usually it goes along the lines of me going to give a talk and then several people asking me if I am happy where I am and what my husband does and if I would consider moving/leaving my university. I used to think people were just making conservation; I was very naive. Nobody ask you about your happiness and well-being unless they are your mother, a close personal friend, or they have a very good and far-from-selfless reason to ask.

So far the feelers have been from places that would present a lateral or even a slightly downward professional move, but with potentially a lot of money. A few came from places that are in a growth mode. In contrast, my current place is good, but uncomfortably stagnant. Declining state support has everyone tightening their belts, wondering what comes next. The college has lost a number of successful mid-career faculty.

For me, the biggest reason for not considering moving at this time is my family.  If it were up to me alone, I would move. I hate the freakin’ weather where I am now, the endless winters, and I would honestly move for the sunshine alone (several recent feeler places are in very warm locales, such as the one I am visiting at present). Another reason is that, as much as I have been willing myself to love the city I live in, I just don’t. We don’t really have good friends here like we do, for instance, where my PhD alma mater is (yes, I got a feeler from them, too). Have I mentioned the endless cold weather where I am now? I know, it sounds very shallow even considering moving for the climate, but I will ask you how you feel about it after you have been snowed in for 6 fuckin’ months. We had a new snow fall snow earlier this week. (Note: DH greatly prefers cold to hot; DH may be crazy.) As for friends, we have several couples whom we see on occasion, but I doubt any of them would be shattered if we left. We are situational friends — friends only because life threw us together, not because we are particularly compatible or drawn to one another — and, after 10 years here, it’s likely that situational friends are all we will have. They are basically someone to kill a bit of time with, but nothing deep by any stretch. We are too foreign, too accented, and too godless for the locals, so we are not even bothering any more with anyone whom we don’t know from work.

But with crappy cold weather come good public schools for my children. And my children have their friends and their memories tied to this place; they have real childhood friends here. I have a colleague who’s from a fairly traditional culture who says that his kids get no say in what he does professionally; if he gets a good offer and decides to move, they move, end of story; he says he doesn’t care what the kids think or feel about the ordeal. With my eldest starting high-school, I could not bear to destroy the comfortable life he has now by moving; he is such a happy, well-adjusted  kid, and I think moving him cross-country would hurt him.

I would love for the place where I am now to become a place I am content with both professionally and personally. It’s a very good place professionally, but it could be better. For instance, after I had visited my alma mater, I was reminded how nice it was to have several faculty in the same area, who could collaborate and go for bigger grants and even take care of each other’s students. I remember loving the fact that I was part of a large, probably 30-student group of all these different professors together when I was in graduate school. In contrast, my students are somewhat isolated, in that there is no one else at my current place of employment who does work similar to mine. While I can have my pick of experimental collaborators, being the only one is quite limiting — I don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things I could potentially do. It’s also quite taxing on me that I am the only source of technical knowledge in my subarea. Where I went to school, there were several professors and a much wider variety of courses was offered between the 3-4 of them; here, it’s just me. And being that I am a well-liked teacher, I end up teaching undergrads a lot. Which does actually shaft my grad students, as the graduate courses they need just don’t get offered if I don’t teach them, and these days I rarely do.

On the other hand, there are many good experimentalists where I work now, and they bring in money, and the money raises the profile of the place, which in turn brings in good students. Indeed, the students here are pretty good, both undergrads and grads. Or, I should perhaps rephrase — one can hand-pick very good students here, those who have a good background in math and physics, and are motivated — and these students come for the school’s name.

If I didn’t have a family, I would move someplace warmer, where there are other people doing what I do and where they would pay me a lot. Actually, if it were just me, I would probably move every 4-5 years, as I tend to get very restless. But I have a husband who is very happy with his job, kids who are very happy with their schools and friends and one of whom would be devastated to move. I could potentially move in 3-4 years, as the eldest starts college and the middle one (who is currently very much on board with moving to someplace with hot weather) starts middle school. But even so, I feel heartbroken — even if just in theory — for my eldest to not be able to see his childhood friends when he comes back home during college.

This whole feeler business and the possibilities of going someplace are making me restless; they are enticing, and possibly even more enticing since I can’t really act on any of them. I don’t want to make the people interview me formally and give me offers when I know I am tied down (although plenty of people do precisely this, make the other institution interview and make a formal offer just to get leverage with their home institution; I think it’s douchey to do unless you are seriously considering moving). I am not unhappy or unproductive where I am; the feelers don’t come from the places that would be a blatantly obvious step up (do you hear it, MIT and Stanford? I am still waiting), i.e. they are not something nobody in their right mind would miss. There is no pressing reason to move, except my restlessness, dislike of cold, and a lack of good friends. There are reasons to not move, such as uprooting my family from a good situation, which includes good public schools and a solved two-body problem, for essentially no reason.

Yet, I wonder…

What say you, blogosphere? Is it hopelessly shallow to want to move for the weather and because you just don’t feel love for your place of employment? Should I just target to move in 3-4 years and let people know that’s when I will be available for wooing, and in the meantime just work my butt off? Should I just take a chill pill and bury my head deep into work and not concern myself with foolishness, waiting for the global warming to bring tropical heat to my cold cold place?

Ah, possibilities. And at the same time, impossibilities.

Interview Season Fatigue

I am fortunate to have a faculty job at a great public R1 university. Owing to the high research activity, there is always someone here to give a talk. There are three seminar series, associated with three departments, that I usually attend (generally biweekly), and another 1 or 2 where occasionally an interesting seminar comes up. (Which begs the question: what’s the ideal seminar attendance frequency? Too many, and you infringe upon your work time, too few and you start getting out of touch, missing potentially important info about trends somewhat removed from your immediate expertise, which is where juicy inspiration for new projects comes from!)

On top of that, we are interviewing for multiple parallel searches, so we have been having 2-3 guests every single week over the past few weeks. Considering that I am involved in the search, I am supposed to not only attend each talk, but also formally meet with every candidate as part of the committee.  And let’s not forget that candidates have to be taken out to eat, several times per visit. I know I am supposed to enjoy department-sponsored meals at nice restaurants and the chance to talk to smart new people, but I am mostly just resentful. My family doesn’t care for me repeatedly staying out and disrupting their evening routine either.

The face-time fatigue during interview season is brutal for job seekers, but if it makes you feel any better, it sucks pretty fiercely for the people on the other side who are  involved with the search. As exciting as the prospect of bringing in bright new colleagues is, all the meetings and chit-chat and the extra seminars are simply… exhausting.

Good luck to all who are interviewing! If an interviewer dozes off or their eyes start to glaze over, don’t take it personally.

Double Bind

Career women face a double bind: the more competent and assertive they are, the less liked they are (these traits are positively correlated with likability for men, negatively for women), and reduced likability makes women less effective as leaders . If they are not very assertive, they may be  well-liked but they are not perceived as very competent, so their effectiveness suffers again. So damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

For the geeky among us, here’s a handy illustrated guide to women’s careers. Comic7_DoubleBind

Honorary Dudeness

This semester I am again teaching a class with zero girls (as I wrote before, I feel silly calling 19 or 20-year old girls women; based on the fact that I didn’t consider myself a woman well until after kid No 2 and past the age of 30, I am sticking to calling them girls).  Lecturing to a 100% male audience happens occasionally, once every couple of years, and while you’d think it’s not that different from teaching a class with 1 or 2 women, it actually is different.  It doesn’t feel uncomfortable, but it’s not entirely comfortable either. I am a middle-aged, female, dog-and-pony show with vector calculus, waving colored markers in front of  a whole sea of mostly half-asleep young dudes. Being  that I am the mom of multiple young dudes, my general feelings towards my students are warm and motherly — mostly, I realize they are just oversize kids. But the whole experience is ever so slightly more weird with zero girls in the classroom than with at least some.

Another interesting thing is the relationship that I end up having with the occasional young woman in my class. Either they really like me and we develop a nice connection, or they are squarely at the “this professor sucks” end of the spectrum. Here’s an example. Last semester I had 2 girls in an undergrad class of about 30. I had a great rapport with that class, one of the top 2 or 3 experiences overall, and I received really high teaching evaluations overall. I had a lot of students in my office during office hours, the whole class was very upbeat. Of the two women, one did great, was very active and I got to know her through office hours, we talked about the follow-on courses, graduate school, etc. The other didn’t particularly care for me or the class . When I got the  student evaluations back, most of the student scores and comments were glowing, but among the unenthused ones, one mentioned that I was sometimes 1-2 minutes late to class. What I thought to myself as I read it was “Wow, how petty. And not even true.” While I cannot be certain, I am pretty sure the comment came from the second female student, because she has very distinctive hand writing.

Unfortunately, I think that it’s not very uncommon for women in the fields where they are underrepresented to develop one of the polar opposites of relationships  (this may also be true of other underrepresented minorities, I don’t know), with the relationship where other women are kept at an arm’s length or are being looked down upon actually being the more common variant. I know that, when you are a young woman in a field dominated by young men, and you are competent and confindent, you can often seemingly blend in by becoming an Honorary Dude — HD for short (I thought I had first heard this term from Zuska, but upon further digging it turns out she used Almost D00d; I remember a little light bulb go on in my head as I first read her articulation of this concept and it felt so familiar). I spent much of my youth in this mode, cherishing my HD status, because I was smart and meritorious and not like those other women. So I can see that competent young women often do come with their own small group of dude friends (who are usually either comparably or less competent than the girl) with whom they work and study.  I have yet to see two young women in the same circle/study group in any of my classes — it’s like no one wants to work with girls, not even other girls, and certainly not the HD’s who are “smart and cool, not like other girls.”

It’s a stereotype that women are often weird to other women, the “mean girls” syndrome and all that. Perhaps geeky women and their relationship to other geeky women are no exception. What I know is that I took me a long time, which I presume entails growing up, to understand that being an Honorary Dude is bullshit, that I am a girl/woman, and that no one ever forgets that for one second regardless of how much we all pretend. I also realized that other women really don’t need me to crap on their parade and that I should instead help them if I can. Unless another woman has really done something bad to me, I should get over myself and whatever insecurities I have and not demonize her for being successful or having different priorities than me. I am now that woman of whom I used to make fun, who is counting the female speakers at conferences and female participants on grant review panels and female interviewees during faculty searches. Why? Because I grew up and took off my HD badge and realized how disheartening it is to see to what degree my male colleagues — especially the good guys — really believe that 100% men is the norm, and that any women present are really either veritable superstars (even if most men are far from it) or are believed to be a token used to satisfy some political correctness requirement. This pisses me off, and it’s exhausting, but unless I bring it up nobody else does.

We often talk about female students needing female role models and mentors. But I think we need to be aware that we can’t a priori count on a female student establishing good rapport with a female teacher. Maybe that female teacher being lame or fat or  having an accent or being a minute late to class or however else unworthy of the female student’s admiration will actually do less to retain that student than the all-male professorial cast that the young woman expects. For young women, wearing the HD badge and placing even female instructors with all the other women may well be a necessary survival adaptation. I am established and fairly secure in who and where I am, and I am also older, so I have the luxury of consciously dismantling my Honorary Dude status among my colleagues or my male students, because I know the status is fake and it hurts other women. So as easy as it would be to continue wearing my HD badge, I keep electing to wear the potentially lame female prof one instead, and I keep trying to be nicer, more open, and more helpful to other women than even my gut tells me to be, and in spite of some young (or not so young) women looking down on me, as they think they know better or that I am weak or silly or matronly for being all female. But the benefit has been that I have also managed to establish better, deeper connections with other women than I have generally had in the past, and I have hopefully become more attuned to and more helpful with the struggles that women in STEM face.

If you are a young woman in STEM, ask yourself how your view your scientific elders. Do you have different, perhaps unreasonable expectations of your female instructors? InBetween had a really nice summary of how students view male and female TAs. Are there some female instructors you just don’t like without being able to point out what it is that you dislike? Do you feel the same way towards your male instructors? What about your peers — are there other girls/young women with whom you study? Ask yourself if you judge your female peers more harshly because they are girls.