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Many of us learn the hard way, through bitter experience, to pick up on signals that suggest hostile environments or chilly climates that indicate potential problems with a position we are considering. After a negative experience as a graduate student, followed by a positive postdoctoral experience, Sue knew what to look for when she went on the job market.

Biologist Sue Durant (pseudonym)

Sue Durant believes her focus on research rather than institutional status has been the key to her success. Sue has observed that childcare becomes a significant barrier for women scientists, although she herself does not have children. She has also seen evidence of other more subtle barriers such as those revealed in the MIT Report, where women obtain fewer resources in terms of space, start-up packages, support for and access to graduate students, and pay equity compared to their male peers.

After negative experiences colleagues and I had at prestigious research I institutions and large companies, I chose a position in a small liberal arts college, where I perceived circumstances that would make them committed to me. I thought that someone would be watching out for me because I hold a Clare Booth Luce Professorship, which I believe will make the institution feel accountable to the Luce Foundation. I also received a POWRE award from NSF.  I have attempted to attract other women to science by having women graduate students and holding summer science camps for girls.

When Sue entered graduate school, little research on the experiences of women scientists and engineers existed. Now a large body of literature has documented those experiences and the types of environments and situations in which women are more or less likely to succeed. Numbers of tenured women in the department, percentage of women graduate students completing the Ph.D., and transparent policies regarding tenure and promotion serve as indicators at the departmental level.

At the broader, institutional level, presence of a strong women’s studies program, an ADVANCE grant from NSF, an active committee on the status of women, and a suite of family friendly policies including stop the tenure clock and parental leave mark overall climate factors. When scientists and engineers become familiar with the research on women in science and engineering, they can use the information gleaned from the studies to avoid pitfalls in their own careers and those of their mentees. Some women scientists take this research a step further, applying it to test out the potential climate for women when considering a position or institution.

Physicist Betsy Forest (pseudonym)

After an undergraduate major in physics, Betsy entered graduate school in physics at a prestigious public university on the West Coast.  In selecting an adviser who would be supportive when she had kids in graduate school, she applied the office test — students sleeping in the office/lab was a negative omen. Clearly  pregnant with her second child as she searched for a postdoc, she used people’s reactions as another test that she applied to determine the suitability of a lab. This test also successfully placed her in a private institution in the Northeast  with a supportive adviser during the two years of her postdoc.

When searching for tenure-track positions, I sought departments that did not require having continuous grants to fund research. Although my college does not have that requirement, the heavy teaching load,  committee service, and lack of graduate students make it hard to build the research and publications needed for tenure while balancing work and family.

The Stanford Clayman Institute study of dual-career academic couples documents that a major factor that causes individuals to leave an institution or the field altogether results from failure to find an academic position in the same location as their partner or spouse:  "A full 88 percent of faculty who successfully negotiated a dual hire at their current institution indicated that the first hire would have refused the position had her or his partner not found appropriate employment." (Schiebinger, Henderson, and Gilmartin 2008). Frequently the woman leaves; in the case of mathematician Joan Berry, her husband left the field.

Mathematician Joan Berry (pseudonym)

Joan Berry married  another mathematics Ph.D. just before she finished her Ph.D. They decided to coordinate their careers and move together. Although both put their family first, their first move favored her career, since she received an excellent postdoc. She studied with another woman with a husband, child and similar interest who was the perfect mentor for her. Unable to find a suitable position, Joan’s husband left mathematics and changed to computer science.

After the postdoc, I took a tenure-track position at a small coeducational college, where I had two children within three years. Although my husband worked full-time initially, now he stays at home with the children. I still find balancing career and family as the biggest challenge for women scientists. Despite policies to stop the tenure clock, too many semesters with reduced loads before tenure make it difficult for women who have children to accumulate a strong record during their pre-tenure phase. Childcare near or on campus also presents a challenge.

Institutions with policies that permit or encourage dual-career hires facilitate balancing career and family for individuals. The institutions themselves may also reap benefits not only by attracting two well-qualified professionals but especially in retaining them. If one member of a couple has a less-than-satisfactory position, this may lead that individual or both to look for a better situation at other institutions. When both have satisfying tenure-track positions, the couple becomes much more likely to commit to the institution and stay, since quality of life issues appear to be increasingly important for junior faculty.

Positive Interventions of Mentors

  • Encourage students and postdocs to seek career opportunities that would benefit them and their long-term goals, even when losing them would cause a temporary setback in your own research.
  • Encourage women students, postdocs and faculty to affiliate with women focused groups such as Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) and female-affiliated fields such as women's studies.
  • Provide visible signals in the laboratory, on the website and in conversations, of family-friendly policies and support, recognizing that students, post-docs and junior faculty seek signals of such supportive environments when interviewing.

Positive Choices and Interventions Women Scientists and Engineers Can Make

  • Seek affiliations with women in science and engineering, status of women committees, women's studies, or the women's caucus of your professional society to obtain support needed for your career.
  • Realize that having a spouse/partner supportive of your career is equally or more important than having a supportive mentor.
  • Look for evidence of women-friendly and family-friendly policies, lactation stations, women's studies programs and other institutional policies and practices that may facilitate your career when interviewing and considering whether to accept a position in a particular laboratory or institution.


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