It may come as a surprise to some that, despite my fierce attitudes about feminism, I’ve actually had a comparatively easy time when it comes to overt sexism. While I grew up working class, I’ve always had people around who told me I could do anything I wanted to. Despite some major setbacks (a topic for another day), I made it to a really excellent graduate program, and I had a fantastic, supportive (male) mentor. Graduate school was difficult, and I struggled with my share of anxiety and depression, but I can honestly say that I never felt dehumanized, belittled, or objectified by my colleagues, students, or superiors. The worst I’ve had to deal with are the occasional arm squeeze, people who call me “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.,” or a meeting organizer who asked me to take notes and get coffee. In other words, micro-aggressions. I’ve had colleagues and close friends who have experienced much worse.
Setting aside how messed up it is that I’m considering myself fortunate that I’ve “only” experienced institutional sexism, for the most part (at least, in a professional setting), I wanted to focus on what, for me, has been the hardest part of being a woman academic. I want to preface this by saying that I love my job — even when it’s hard. I didn’t want to sit down this morning and write another post about how it’s difficult being a woman in science, because there are already too many of those these days (not because people shouldn’t write them, but because people shouldn’t have to write them).
So, what’s the hardest part, for me? Isolation.
I’m going to use the metaphor of the leaky pipeline, even though it’s flawed and misrepresents valid choices for “alternative” careers that are rapidly becoming the norm. What I like about the pipeline model is that pipelines have joints, and places where there are weak spots that need fixing. As I’ve gone further along in my career, I’ve watched my fellow women “leak” out, or choose another flow path, at each joint in the plumbing. Sometimes, women “leak out” because they decide that academic science in general isn’t for them; other times, women decide that the way academia works is the problem.
There are many reasons why women decide not to pursue careers in STEM, from toxic mentors to institutional sexism to hostile climates to lack of support for families. I don’t want to detract from or diminish those reasons, and I support my colleagues for making the (often painful) decision that works best for them. They didn’t fail: the system did. I want that to be absolutely clear. I’m not trying to detract from these women’s experiences, because they are important. We spend a lot of time and attention discussing the reasons for our retention problems, and for good reason.
But! I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about what it’s like to stay (warning: anecdata coming!).
When I left college, my friends and I headed off to graduate school or jobs, and we were happy. We were excited about our prospects, eager to work towards our goals, and filled with a sense of accomplishment and purpose. When I got to graduate school (in a top program at a large research institution), I was surprised to learn that most of the people I talked to — especially women — weren’t hoping for an R1 research professorship, like I was. I didn’t hold this against anyone, though I did feel as though I had fewer people I could talk to about my particular career path. I learned later that some people were intimidated by my drive, and assumed that I judged them for making different choices (which I didn’t, but I should have done a better job of making that clear).
Next came the Master’s degree, and I saw the leaky pipeline in full effect. Most people, in my experience, don’t leak mid-pipe; they leak at a joint. A number of people didn’t come back for a PhD, including people that I thought were just as gung-ho as I was. As I neared my dissertation defense, I watched more women drop out, opting for families or careers in industry or non-profits. By the time I got to my postdoc, there was almost nobody left, and many of the postdocs I met were embittered by the job market, stressed by their two-body problems, or were considering leaving for some other reason. I got a coveted faculty position, and now find myself at perhaps the loneliest point in my career. At every step, I’ve watched people leave. And while I outwardly support these women, inwardly, every time another woman “drips” out, I feel sobered.
As I write this, I realize that, especially early on, my fellow students and I never shared our anxieties with one another — maybe because we all had imposter syndrome, or because it’s hard to talk about mental illness (like anxiety and depression) in academia, or because the competitive nature of academia makes it difficult to reach out to one another for fear of showing weakness. I had a really excellent experience in my lab, but I never really connected with people in my department; most of my friends were in very different fields, in fact. Finishing my dissertation was so much more isolating than I expected, and I could feel my friends — the people who should have known what I was going through the most– withdrawing. When I got a postdoc and then a job, I felt something rather like survivor’s guilt.
Thinking back, I realize that I have had a lot of great mentors (male and female, peer and otherwise), but very few role models. Externally, the successful women scientists I knew from my grad school days were all brilliant, flawless, strong, and capable, with nerves of steel. Some had reputations for being aggressive, and hard (you’d hear words like “bitch,” especially from the guys). Others were rumored to be absolutely brutal to their female students, hardening them for a life of constant struggle. There are a lot of sexist double-standards when it comes to how women are perceived– too hard, and you’re a bitch; too soft, and you’re weak. But it’s also true that many senior high-powered women academics have had to fight twice as hard as the boys for their successes, and so they work to purge their students of self-sabotaging behavior.
I’m sure that those seemingly flawless, brilliant women I looked up to in graduate school have bad days, that they get depressed and aren’t always as productive as they could be, and that they feel lonely, or second-guess themselves. But their public persona is one of complete togetherness; in my mind, you ask these women for advice about a grant proposal, but they are not someone you go to when you think you’ve just had a panic attack in your office. And as I write that, I realize that I’m buying into that very double-standard, and that the programming is so, so deep. I think back to graduate school, and the people who told me I intimidated them, and wonder if I’m doing the same thing to the senior academic women, distancing myself from them because of my own projections?
So, now I find myself in a department where I’m one of three women, and the other two are young (but have tenure). Our faculty meetings are literally a table of old white men, surrounded by younger faculty. Most of my work friends are men. I find myself feeling lonely, sometimes. When I try to model myself after the scientists who inspire me, some days I feel as though I will never, ever be as together or successful as they are. And other days, I feel powerful, strong, and capable. Abruptly, then, I feel guilty about being too aggressive, or I worry that someone will think I’m loud and obnoxious for speaking up in a faculty meeting, or that my colleagues think I’m too much of a self-promoter.
The multiple personalities of being a high-achieving woman: you must be flawless, but you must be humble. You must be approachable, but you must be powerful.
There are no role models for this, because it’s untenable. No one knows how to gracefully navigate a minefield of second guesses, double standards, and shifting goalposts.
I’ve meandered in this post, but the theme has been consistent: isolation. I’ve felt isolated because women I care about have left to pursue other options, so when I look around me, I see fewer and fewer women like me (and if I feel that way, I can’t imagine what women of color, or transgender women, or disabled women must feel). When I look ahead, I see women that have had to make incredible sacrifices to get where they are, and who have helped clear the way for the women who came after — but often, I don’t know if I am capable of making those same sacrifices, or if I even want to. When I look behind me, I see women who are discouraged by the endless stream or articles and blog posts about the challenges we face as we try to follow our dreams, and so they decide it’s not worth the heartache. I want to tell them it doesn’t have to be this way.
In the STEM fields, at least, numbers of female full professors are stalled out, despite gains in undergraduate majors. The gender balance of my department is unlikely to change any time soon. I hate leaving posts without at least brainstorming some ways forward, so here goes: I think we all need to reach out and support one another. We need to be proactive about mentoring, and not wait for someone to reach out and find a chink in our armor of baddassery. At the institutional level, I’d love to see us having conversations about being women in academia that aren’t just about having kids (like mental health!). I need to start cold-calling women faculty at my university and organizing cocktail hours, or making better use of my online networks.
Early career, tenure-track women are at the interface between the pioneering generation that came before us, and the generation to come. It can be a lonely place to be, especially if you’re high-achieving or in a particularly male-dominated field. But I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.