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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Gender equity in academic science?
October 29, 2008 - 9:30am

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Most typically, this has been used to “equal the playing field,” so to speak, for high school and college athletics programs; however, it should also be true for other areas of academics that receive federal funding.

Are women being discriminated within academia because they are underrepresented at the highest levels of academia? Are women who want to have families being subtly (or not so subtly) discouraged from pursuing tenure-track positions, particularly in science, where there is a long history of gender biases? There are many stories out there to be told.

Recently there has been a federal investigation of Title IX, in the context of potential violations in mathematics, science and engineering departments. Women tend to be very underrepresented on the faculty (particularly tenured) of many universities, and particularly in the sciences, engineering, and math. Not only are women’s numbers low, but their marital status and family status are also different from their male counterparts: Among scientists who had tenure, 72% of men were married and had children, while only 50% of similarly situated women were married and had children. For a truly gender-neutral number of professors in a given field, there should not be differences among those that have kids vs. those that do not. In other words, women who successfully earn tenure, tend not to have kids, while the same is not true for men. Conversely, women who want to have kids tend to be less likely to pursue tenured positions, particularly in the sciences (or maybe they are discouraged, dare I say discriminated against, somewhere along the line.)

Getting a PhD in science is different from getting one in the humanities, and sometimes a much less flexible process. Further, different science fields are different from each other. Some science research depends on lab space, large coordinated efforts, and much external funding. Some science experiments require precisely timed events over periods of days, weeks, or months. For science PhD’s to get a tenure track position, most individuals take one or more post-doctoral positions, each for one to a couple of years, to get more experience, publications, and perhaps most important, more collaborations, than if they had only completed their doctoral work. By the time they compete for academic positions, even if they have gone straight through college, graduate school, and post-doc positions, they are in their mid- to late-thirties, when women’s biological clocks start to tick quite loudly. It is not necessarily wise to wait until after tenure to have kids, because of infertility issues.

Personally, I saw how much time and effort was required for me to succeed through my graduate studies, and the prospect of moving 2 or 3 more times to find that great post doc position(s) and then a tenure track position, combined with the break-neck pace hard work and long hours, made me choose something other than straightforward high-powered academia. What I loved was the high-caliber experiments, research, and colleagues of a top-notch university. However, I knew I wanted to have a family, and wanted to choose where I lived for life-style reasons, not just position availability. I chose to satisfy my academic yearnings in a hodge-podge fashion. A traditional academic position would not have allowed me the time and energy to spend with my children that I so valued. While I do not doubt that I could have been a very good professor at a top-notch university, I do doubt that it would have been compatible with my family life. Was I discriminated against? Subtly, I guess so.


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