On Sacrificing Reproductive Fitness For Career Advancement…

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | January 21, 2009 9:18 am

As Natalie Angier rightly points out, women are making tremendous strides in science and engineering earning 40 percent of U.S. doctorates in 2006 (up from eight percent 50 years ago). But we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field after graduation.

Angier references a recent survey of 160,000 Ph.D. recipients that found 70 percent of male tenured professors were married with children while only 44 percent of their female counterparts were. Further, twelve years or more after receiving doctorates, tenured women were more than “twice as likely as tenured men to be single and significantly more likely to be divorced.” Another California study reported nearly double the number of female faculty agree with the statement, “I had fewer children than I wanted,” compared to men. Angier sums it up:

From a purely Darwinian point of view, expecting a young woman to
sacrifice her reproductive fitness for the sake of career advancement
is simply too much, and yet the structure of academic research, in
which one must spend one’s 20s and early 30s as a poorly compensated
and minimally empowered graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, and
the remainder of one’s 30s and into the low 40s working madly to earn
tenure, can demand exactly that.

Geek chic NYTimes.png

This one hits home because it’s a conversation I regularly have with female friends in and out of academia.  Particularly interesting as I inhabit the space between both worlds.

Consider: The number of academic positions is limited and thus it behooves universities to
hire those who they feel are the most prepared and readily able to
contribute.  Perhaps it’s wrong to ask ‘can women have it all?‘  Some canMost definitely
But it’s also necessary to acknowledge that many ladies simply fall out
of the pipeline as priorities understandably change between ages 21 and 36.  While anecdotes are not evidence, I’ve spent the past several years observing the drop off firsthand as friends and
colleagues transition into other professions as they attempt to balance, well, life.  Hence, if we are to encourage women to stay in the system, then the system will need to undergo fundamental changes to accommodate more of us.  Is that a fair expectation? For that matter, should it be?  I’m not sure. What do readers think?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Workforce

Comments (18)

  1. Its true. The entire system would have to change. I’m not sure either. Does that mean we accept that STEM is not pragmatically gender neutral?

  2. catgirl

    I think it would be beneficial for everyone to change the whole system. Certainly men would benefit from spending more time with their children, and their children would benefit from having their fathers around more.

  3. Fjord

    I hope someday the academic research “lifestyle” changes, though it will be too late for me. My goal from the time I was 11 was to be a college professor, though the field changed from time to time. However, when I was finally two years into a masters/Ph.D. program, I realized that I would never be able to have the life outside of work that I wanted and do well in that profession. And it wasn’t just what life was like as a grad student. My professors were pouring themselves into their research, teaching, clinic hours, etc., and few of them seemed able to balance that and life outside of campus. There was an atmosphere of school/research first, EVERYTHING else (my health, my relationships, my sanity) second. I left academia all together after that, despite still missing pretty much everything about it. I’m a database administrator now, which keeps me well amused and allows me to have the life outside of work that I also want/need (though I should point out that it’s sad when IT is the lower impact job choice). Out of five women devoted to becoming professors/researchers I knew when I started grad school, only one of us made it through. The rest of us bailed so that we could have a life. So it goes.

  4. rb

    men don’t have it all….many simply have all that they want.

    Anecdotally, of my grad school colleagues, only the unmarried males and married females with children are full profs at major research institutions. Married males with children (like me) are at PUIs or industry. (N=10, 4F and 6M)

  5. Can you think of a related reason that locates more women in the biological sciences compared to the physical sciences? In fact as far as lab work is concerned, the biological sciences are much more strenuous and therefore I would expect, at least in light of this argument, to see more women in the physical and computational sciences. Then why don’t we? Is there a contradiction at least with respect to this argument?

  6. pelican

    I don’t know *anyone,* male or female, who “has it all.” I think that the belief that one can “have it all” is inherently destructive. Even the stereotypical “have it all” situation- a man with a challenging and rewarding career married to a stay-at-home wife who allows him to “raise” children while rapdily advancing his career … most of the men I know like that aren’t particularly happy with their family lives. They are often distant from their children, particularly their adult children, and as they age, their marriages frequently dissolve.

    I think we all have to make choices about how we will prioritize in a world that moves too fast and demands too much for most people to truly thrive. I, albeit unconsciously, made my choices when I was younger. I’m a woman. I kept saying I would decide about kids “later.” Later is now “too late.” I don’t have kids, but I have a career path I love and that allows me some security. I’ve done only “one” thing, perhaps, but I’ve done it well and I wake up happy just about every day. Many of my friends, both male and female, by chasing the dream of “having it all” have, in fact, lost much that they value. They find themselves in their thirties, forties, and fifties facing sudden unemployment, the loss of a home, the loss of a marriage, or and watching their children suffer. These issues are not limited to academia vs industry decisions, and may be even more prevalent among people with less education and thus fewer financial opportunities.

    I am hopeful that American society will eventually change to a more livable culture. I recently immigrated to Canada, and I think if I had started my career here or in Europe, I may well have made different choices about starting a family. The pace is slower, and things like a year of paid maternity leave, universal health care, and subsidized education don’t hurt.

  7. Academic job expectations may be fair (i.e., applying equally to men and women), but that does not mean they are reasonable for either men or women.

    Similarly, academic job expectations, as much as they might like to exist alone, do not exist in a vacuum. People face social expectations, and those social expectations may not be fair or reasonable, either.

  8. Roi des Foux

    You go catgirl! I’m a male planning-to-be-a-grad-student who’s seriously questioning his career path because he’s concerned about his ability to be a good coparent AND a good scientist. (According to his definition of “good coparent” and the world’s definition of “good scientist”.)

  9. I think this includes but extends beyond academia. Workplaces are not family friendly. And they should be.

  10. Miss Sheril,

    Since I’m happily away from the university research community, I’ll offer my usually pithy sentiments. I think part of the problem, for both genders, is that your earliest post-graduate research is most often funded by grants. Thus, a researcher in her mid-20’s has to rely on really soft money just to live. That sets up a cycle of mad grant writing and publishing, hoping to settle the money stream as time goes on. If the same researcher is also teaching, she may well be hired as an assistant professor, with a ridiculously low salary – thus necessitating further grant writing to both cover research and the cost of living. These economic forces are huge drivers, and they often cause grad students to seek other lines of work.

    What I find most ironic is that many of the Research 1 universities where this occurs are also the recipients of huge athletic endowments. That says a lot about priorities (and I am an SEC football fan – full disclosure). One would love to see the money directed to support early career professors on many disciplines, but I fear it will never happen.

  11. literarydeadkittens

    Whilst there is definitely a shift in society over the issue of working mothers, and the issue of a work-life balance, no one seems to be looking the other way.

    I worked, my partner stayed at home and looked after the children. As a consequence, his career propects have suffered. Potential employers, and I’ve heard this directly from managers with the power to hire and fire, consider that a man taking time out to look after children isn’t a legitimate reason for them not to work. It’s frowned upon.

    The system, and attitudes in general, need to change to accomodate men AND women to both work and take time out to raise their children.

  12. http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/men-can-have-it-all-women-cant/

    I posted about this as well, you might be interested in the comment thread.

  13. Bob

    There are women and men who have been successful and reasonably happy in the academic workplace and lots who have not been. The workplace will only change if it is no longer able to secure researchers and teachers in sufficient numbers and quality to operate. If you don’t fit in, try something else but stop whining.

  14. It depends a lot on advisors. My advisor gave his female students so much flexibility if they wanted to start a family (short working hours, alternative desk projects, paid leave) that our lab has the highest number of pregnancies and kids in the department.

  15. Superstringy Indian

    This is just not true.What you’re saying,in essence,is “change science to accomodate women”.Sorry to break your fantasy,but I don’t give a rat’s ass whether women can or cannot achieve the same level of work.What matters is that science demands an optimal amount of work.The problem is,you don’t want to do it all,cause you wanna have babies.Well,I am sorry but getting both is simply not possible,and it is preferable for society’s sake that you focus on reproduction.One male can impregnate over 10 or 12 females,creating a large male surplus which can conceivably go into massive work and the society will still have healthy reproductive rates.Yet females have no such surplus.It is the reason behind the degenerating birth rates of the western world.Don’t violate mother nature-her laws have a harsh punishment once broken.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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