Where are my sisters? Isolation and achievement in Academia

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!).

Somedays, I feel like this. From Gail Simone's Wonder Woman, DC Comics.

Somedays, I feel like this. From Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman, DC Comics.

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?

Women academics: pretty and tough! Or not. That's okay, too. Gail Simone's Wonder Woman, DC Comics.

Women academics: pretty and tough! Or not. That’s okay, too. Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman, DC Comics.

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.


36 thoughts on “Where are my sisters? Isolation and achievement in Academia

  1. I hear you! One thing that has been helping women in pure math cope with isolation during the last few years is that we started organizing workshops for women in specific pure math fields (such as geometry, number theory, topology, etc). The key of these workshops is that all the participants are women and there is a very special emphasis in fostering research collaboration. People are put in collaboration groups according to their research interests in advance of the workshop, and each group has mentors that find problems to work on during that week and beyond. Participants are encouraged to report on the progress they made at the end of the week and to continue working on them with their group after the workshop.

    The thing is that collaborations allow you to meet people and eventually form mentorship relations and it comes very naturally if you start the discussion on your field of research as opposed to “we’re in the same minority group and therefore we must help each other”. (I have nothing against the later frame set, but I think it’s easier to start by talking about research as it gives you an excuse to approach the brilliant, flawless, strong, and capable women that you talk about in your post without having to go into personal details in your first conversation!)

    • We have indeed done as you suggested and we meet as women working in academia (but not exclusive) once a month for a meal. There’s something about women getting together that leads to that feel good factor! I have also decided to make it my goal to help, support, do something for each individual woman and potential woman in academia. Its my responsibility!

    • I love this idea! It’s nice to get together to talk about work, and not always the plight of women in academia. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for writing this. I like your idea of initiating more informal gatherings especially for women. Even as a mother, I totally agree that the conversations can’t be all about having kids! Children or not, women have a harder time. It’s so important to feel like you aren’t alone. I’ve been struggling with that a lot recently as an unemployed PhD.

  3. Thanks for such a wonderful post, Acclimatrix! I have felt so many of those same conflicts, especially on the path towards my current job, and I love and totally relate to the phrase “multiple personalities of being a high-achieving woman”.

    One key difference between us is my current level of isolation. I feel isolated a bit in terms of my research topic (though a new postdoc and grad student have helped with that), but I haven’t been isolated within my department due to my gender. One amazing thing about my current job is that the faculty in my department are evenly split between men and women, even at the senior levels, and all of my current leaders are women. It has gotten to the point that I don’t even think about it anymore (isn’t that amazing??), except…the situation in other departments around me isn’t so rosy. So now when I attend meetings with people outside of my group, all of those little microaggressions, and feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome, creep up. I can actually observe myself responding to it, and am currently trying to decipher how much of my difficulties with some groups is due to personality differences and how much is due to gender (intertwined issues to some extent).

    I like your idea of cold-calling or emailing other women at your university. I’m in a writing group dominated by women, and am often the lone scientist among sociologists. Its been great to get acquainted with the larger intellectual community at my university, and despite differences in fields, we often share the same basic issues and can call upon one another for support or advice. It seems like something like this might fulfill your need for local support. The other type of support is research support from like-minded individuals, and if you don’t have this at your current school, perhaps you could form an online reading group that meets once every other week or so? (easier said than done, I know.) Several of my sociologist friends have formed a reading group, where they agree to read and critique each others work before it’s sent out for review. Are there others in your field who can act as your trusted readers, and generally be a resource for you to bounce ideas off of or collaborate with? (and who you provide the same resource for in return?)

    Now that I am writing these out, these are good ideas for me too, so I might be in touch 🙂

    • I’m in an interesting situation, too, in that I’m affiliated with two groups that have totally different cultures — one very macho, the other much more low-key and mixed. The difference is huge, and I don’t feel at all like I’m in a safe place to start improving the climate of the former. Yet. 🙂

      I like the idea of an online group, or a campus writing accountability group. I’m also thinking even just a once-a-month lunch or something would be great. There’s not a big happy hour culture on this campus, but that would also be nice. Yeah, these are just one more thing to add to the place, but damn it, you have to have a social life, too, right!?

  4. I hear you. This is a very thoughtful post. I never realised i was lonely, or that I didn’t share some of my feelings, fears, joys etc with anyone (I thought all academics acted like me and kept these things to themselves) … UNTIL I shared an office with a slightly older woman. There were also a few other women around, with vastly different personalities and ambitions – people from other fields all in the one Department in a small place. It was then that I started to share, and discuss personal things to do with both private life and professional attitudes that I had never realised were also felt by others. It was a total revelation and changed my attitude to others; both students and colleagues.

    I also found that contact with my professional society, which had several high-achieving women actively involved, provided me with a peer group and support network that wasn’t available in my small Department. This was greatly facilitated once email became commonplace (imagine the extra loneliness of life in an outlying place without email!!!).

    An afterthought .. it is not *only* about encouraging women to stay in the pipe, although every person should be encouraged to aim for their maximum potential. It is *also* about – as Acclimatrix has mentioned – supporting and trying to understand those who decide to leak out and do something different, or do it a different way, or just mooch along the same level instead of trying to climb any ladders (mixed metaphor there … can’t think of one that involves flow through pipes). I was one of those last-mentioned. But I found other useful things to do within the Department such as organising high school lab workshops, involvement with my professional society, and man other non-academic stuff. I often found I was totally looked-down on because I was seen not to be ambitious; an sometimes gently humoured like a little girl would be.

    • Thank you, d. As always, I really appreciate your comments here. Your point about professional societies is a great one.

      I always struggle so much with the leaky pipeline idea, as I mentioned. I know that when I talk about being dismayed to see my fellow women “leak” out it’s harmful, but I also have to feel what I’m feeling, you know? There’s a lot of focus in blog posts and articles lately on supporting those women and validating their choices, which is great, so I was hoping to reach a different subset of us women PhD’s out there.

  5. typo … went to write ‘many’, it came out ‘man’ but on re-reading it should be ‘much’. Sorry about not re-reading before submitting. Lesson for others – re-read first.

  6. Thanks very much for writing this. I was nodding along in agreement as I read it.

    I feel so much more comfortable building a network of people with shared technical interests than I do building a support network for life, but it is so important to have “life support”. I know that I need to do better with this. As you mention in your post, one major obstacle for me is the “bulletproof” image of many successful faculty (not just female faculty). It’s hard to break away from the notion that you must always be decisive and purposeful to be a success (show no weakness!). Any major decision in life and career comes with uncertainty and anxiety. I’m facing one now. Even though it makes sense to seek out advice or support, I’m hesitant to do it.

    I like your suggestions at the end of your post. It takes effort, but it is worthwhile to make these connections. You mentioned making better use of online networks, and that made me wonder how to nurture support networks online. I think Twitter can help with this, although some things aren’t easily discussed in 140 character bursts. I’ve had minimal experience with Google Hangouts, but I’ve seen some groups use it effectively to foster discussion. Hmmm….

    • One of the hard things about being a Year 1 professor is that you’re usually doing it without your social safety net near by. It’s hard!

      I like the G+ idea!

  7. also see the manifesto from Morley who has published beautifully about this in 2014 Lost leaders: women in the global academy, Higher Education R & D, 33:1, 114-128.
    Lost leaders – Women in the global academy
    Louise Morley10 January 2014 Issue No:302

  8. I’m feeling pretty isolated right now. And being so busy, there isn’t really time to reach out to others or form bonds. I’m new, no family around, and no kids or partner, it can be a lonely life.

    • I hope you make some intellectually-suitable friends very soon…. in the meantime, this cry from UL should be a notice to all of us to reach out to new people around us – not only those in our immediate department or group. As she comments, they may feel like she does – too busy, or too shy, or just not knowing the local culture. Anyway, it never hurts and we may make a new friend and friends are treasures forever.

      Doing ‘social’ things outside the academy isn’t always satisfying, because those people do not necessarily talk the same intellectual language as our work colleagues. There can be loneliness in the head, even if we are surrounded by other people physically. Several people have mentioned being more comfortable talking about their profession than social issues, and that is certainly how i have always felt. That makes reaching out to those around us in the wider workplace more important, if they are new or if we know they are alone.

    • I’m so sorry you’re feeling isolated! I have to say, I have found Twitter to be a really powerful tool for networking (under my real name, mostly, though I also tweet as @Acclimatrix). I urge you to check it out if you haven’t. It makes a huge difference.

  9. As I sit here with waves of anxiety washing over me, reading your essay puts a knife through my heart because this is the third season of trying and I keep hitting a wall I cannot see.

    I have an MS, good GPA, good recommendations, and I’m working on revising my fourth publication in two of which I am first author but I have experienced nothing but rejection from various PhD programs.

    Application Season One: the chair of the department of the program to which I applied asked overt questions about my age.

    Application Season Two: A comment was overheard in which I was “too old”. When I sat down and discussed my failed application, one of the professors mentioned my age and suggested I work in industry. I made inquiry about my application at another institution and the person who answered the phone offered to check my application packet on file. “GPA looks good, recommendations are good, publications are great, hmmmm, the personal statement is a bit short.” Right, as though I believe that.

    The irony is I would have likely been told, to my face, that females would give up careers to raise families as an excuse to discriminate against women when I was the normal traditional age but now I am finished bearing children, I am suddenly “too old.” so for women of my generation, dammed if you do and dammed if you wait until you do.

    Application season three, we’ll wait and see.

    I might put another birth year on my applications for Season 4.

    • Your experience sounds incredibly frustrating. I admire your persistence, and I really hope you hear some good news.

      You may already be doing this, but if you are applying next year, I would strongly recommend that you cultivate connections with potential faculty advisors at your target institutions. It helps a lot to have an advocate on the faculty to argue for your admission, especially if you aren’t a “traditional” graduate student. It may be that departments are wary of how to fund older students (I think quite a few fellowship programs have age limits). A faculty ally could help you design a plan to get funding, which you could then include in your application.

      Good luck!

    • Don’t give up! I’m 45 and wrapping up my PhD this year in biomedical engineering. My advisor is encouraging me to go the academic route, and I’ve spoken to a number of profs, both at my school and at others, who seem to think that my age won’t stand in my way. (I came into grad school with significant research experience, which has allowed me to really excel in the program.)

      Some things to ponder: If you’re still in contact with your MS advisor, what does hir think? What do the other profs who’ve written letters for you think is the problem? Are you applying to the right set of schools?

      @Laura: which fellowships programs have age limits? Is this even legal? I am funded on my advisor’s RO1 grant (NIH).

    • I’m so sorry, openmine. That sounds really awful. Ageism is a real thing in Academia. I can say that I -have- seen successful non-traditional and older students in graduate school, and I think the key is to reach out to potential advisors and develop a good relationship with them so you have an advocate– good advice for ANYONE applying to grad school, but especially if there’s something that others perceive as “off” about your CV. Good luck!

      If you’d like to write a guest post about this for us, please contact tenureshewrote@gmail.com.

  10. Ages ago in my dept. we had a women’s lunch group. This is inspiring me to re-create that! Especially now that we have a couple new women, lunch even just once/month would be a breath of fresh air.

    • I bet if you did you’d have a ton of people who feel just like you coming out of the woodwork, thanking you for taking that initiative!

  11. Amazing post. I am 8yrs in and have tenure. The isolation is still very much there. I struggle with how to be taken seriously and respected without being seen as ‘intimidating’ or ‘mean’. Why is there no middle ground? I am connecting more and more with other females in my uni and dept but also enjoy the online community for support. Posts like this are so important! Thank you.

    • Thank you. I hear you — the double-standards are really, really frustrating. The internet has helped me so much in general — especially Twitter!

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  14. I struggle very much as a PhD student in Europe. There is no solidarity between women at my uni and so much competition in the Humanities between candidates, that it rules out friendship. Sad, because we are all so far from our families overseas. But perhaps support for each other cannot come before we feel secure in our careers, which puts me off finishing my PhD.
    I’m not sure if any of us will get through it, our male colleagues whose wives wait for them each evening have a much better chance. I cannot believe that in my generation women have to choose between an active social/family life and a career- sorry for the rant, but is it because we have accepted that status quo??
    I hope things are not as hopeless in the US.

  15. Thank you for writing this! I’m a second year PhD student and aspiring academic and already feel the pangs of isolation…

  16. Love the cold call strategy. I am going to do
    The same. I was in Academia and left for STEM industry and it is in a sense worse. Not to enter any form of competition/comparison. Having a PhD in science, and being at a managerial role and a woman has been a huge hurddle to building community and making connections with colleagues. Like you, I sit alone at a table
    Of white men, like you I am given “feedback” in all annual reviews to work on my communication skills and be less “aggressive”. It hurts to see this feedback every year. But this is our work to do.

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