The Weaker Sex


Looks like Larry Summers is finally resigning. I can’t say I’m surprised. He sure made a mess of things PR wise. But whether you think he was right or he was wrong, one very good thing has come out of this situation; the academic community is working even harder to make things better for women in science.

Given that I’ve been actively working towards going to grad school for more than a year, and that I am 26, I’ve given a lot of thought to the whole “women in science” issue. It is my impression that most incoming grad students are no more than a year or two out of college, and not married. Therefore, having been out of college for 5 years, out of grad school for 3, and married for almost 3, my focus is a bit different from the typical incoming grad student. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that is part of the problem.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but by far the majority of science students finish their ph.d. in their late 20’s. By then, the biological clock is ticking pretty strongly (forgive the cliche). Additionally, one becomes more aware of any sexual bias in the field, since graduate studies revolve around the lab instead of in classes. Combine those two factors, and the harsh road that leads to tenure, and it’s no wonder that women like Amber Post are opting to turn away from academia. Why should we subject ourselves to being ignored by our peers because of our sex, to wrangling for maternity leave and feeling societal pressure to be primary caretakers of our children, in addition to the normal grind of being in academia? It’s much simpler to opt out. Even my own mother, who has always wanted me to succeed in science, told me last year that “one ph.d. in a family is good enough” and advised me to take the easy route.

I’m not saying that a woman in her young 20’s doesn’t realize such a dilemma exists. But I don’t think one can really comprehend it until one has reached the point where one can actually start planning for a family. Which I have. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not implying that I am some font of wisdom. It’s just that there are some things you can’t comprehend till it happens. A couple I know lost their child halfway through pregnancy. I certainly feel some amount of empathy for them; I want to have a family, and I can imagine what a horrible blow this must be. But I dare not say I KNOW how they feel.

So I imagine that the majority of women start their ph.d.’s without really thinking hard about the issue until they’re almost done. By then, it’s too late; they’re bitter about being treated differently, they’re unused to thinking about the family vs career dilemma which till then was only a phantom of the future, and there isn’t a sufficient setup to accomodate women starting families and careers simultaneously. And so most women finish their ph.d’s, and leave.

Unlike other science grad students in their late 20’s, I *haven’t* started my ph.d. yet. And so coupled with the disadvantages (being limited to certain cities because of R’s job possibilities, having to readjust to student life), is the advantage of some additional foresight. We know we want to start a family before I’m 30. We know we want to find a community that is friendly towards people like us. I know to be keeping an eye out for universities that have safety nets for its women grad students, which are cognizant of the choices we have to be making.

I couldn’t help but notice that Amber Post is at Princeton… I have heard that the environment at Princeton can be old-school, misogynistic. Would she have chosen to attend if she’d started at age 25? I’m not saying that all women who want to go into science should wait till they are older to start their degrees. However, I think that this situation does behoove those who ARE older, those who are already in academic positions, to think a bit more about where they choose to work, such that we can begin to foster better communities for women in science. In that manner, places which aren’t as friendly are either forced to change, or fade away.

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