It’s not you, it’s your environment

I recently had a conversation with a male friend at another institution. While he is successfully advising graduate students of all genders, he was concerned because two women students had quit after their first year and he’s not had a man quit. My friend told me that they had good reasons for quitting, unrelated to his advising, but he just didn’t like that pattern and feared that maybe he was also doing something wrong that made it harder for women to succeed in his lab.

Having watched my friend in professional settings and knowing that he’s pretty plugged and conscientious about issues of women in science, I don’t think my friend isn’t doing anything egregious. In fact, I’d like to believe that he’s one of the men exemplifying how our society is changing for the better. Nonetheless, it probably wouldn’t hurt my friend to review Acclimatrix’s “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” to up his game.

But knowing my friend and knowing his institution (having spent a few years there myself), my response to my friend’s fears was “It’s probably not you, but it might be your environment. Look around at the climate for women in your department and university.”  Even if my friend is running a great, supportive research group and doing a superb job mentoring students of all genders, that won’t completely counteract a male-dominated, sexist broader environment. Continue reading

Where are all the award winning women scientists?

With increasing numbers of women completing PhDs in science, it’s only a matter of time before major scientific awards reflect the gender diversity of our world, right? Not so much, when women still earn much less than 50% of PhDs in some fields, so we have a whole lot of progress to make to even get a candidate pool that truly reflects the world around us. (Here and throughout the problems are even worse for women and men from other under-represented groups.)

If we shift our standards to having scientific award winners reflect the gender diversity of their scientific fields, we still fall significantly short of that benchmark. Nobel Prizes still go dominantly to men, in the past two decades, newly elected members of the US National Academy of Science are only 10-20% women, and the UK Royal Society does even worse. Look at the list of fellows for your favorite professional society, and you’ll probably find similarly dismal statistics. These overwhelmingly male roll calls aren’t just because of the long lag times built into that sort of late career recognition, but all of the large and small barriers and slights that women accumulate over their careers.  Seemingly small things like women being less likely to be asked to speak at conferences and having lower rates of self-citation accumulate over time to produce less impressive CVs and lower H-indices for women than men at similar career stages. Continue reading

How do you spend your breaks?

My big kid spent spring break in another state, with my ex-husband. Early in the week, we were talking on Skype and we had the following conversation:

“What are you doing for spring break?”

“Nothing too exciting. I’m going to work, pretty much like usual.”

“But don’t you get a vacation?”

“Yes, but I’m just using it to work.”

“But does anyone at your work take a vacation?”

“Yes, some do. I know some people are going to visit their families. One person is going to Disney World with his family.”

“So how come you aren’t doing anything fun?”

“Well, I’m trying to get caught up because of time I’ve spent with you, and your brother and doing family stuff at other times. And I’d like to get a bit ahead so that we can spend time together when you’re around.”

[Noises of not really buying my story. I try again…]

“You know how we’re planning to go on a couple of trips this summer? To Big City in the US? And foreign country?  I’m working now, when others are on spring break, so that I can take longer vacations during the summer, when you can come too.”

“Oh. OK.”

So that’s how I spent my spring break. Continue reading

Big kids take time too

Oftentimes, when we discuss mixing motherhood with an academic career (or a professional careers more generally), our discussion and anxiety center on pregnancy and babies. “What will happen if I get pregnant during my PhD?” “If I wait until after tenure to have children, will it be too late?” I think this baby-centric view of academic motherhood comes from the clear physiological demands of parenting an infant (the sleep deprivation! the leaky breasts!) and is compounded by the absolutely abominable lack of paid leave and support for new mothers in the US. But children don’t magically start taking care of themselves as age 1… or 2… or 3… or… even though their mothers are back in the classroom and lab pretending to have it all together and maybe even trying to make up for “lost time” or “low productivity” during their child’s infancy.

It would be nice if we did a better job of acknowledging that big kids take time too, and that even as our children grow older there’s still a strong time demand on parents. Continue reading

Now what?

My tenure packet is wending its way through the nearly year-long process, and while I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, all signs point to me having a job here in the future. My teaching load and service load have already seen step function increases, and I’m starting to acknowledge that I am finally, well and truly, mid-career. It appears that this professor gig is what I’m going to do with my life. Now what?

With job security in the offing, there’s a world of possibilities out there that aren’t constrained by what my PhD committee, search committee, or tenure committee will think of my choices. With job security in the offing, I can make choices that aren’t simply to always push for that extra paper or next grant proposal in case that’s the make-or-break statistic for my tenure portfolio. It’s liberating to be able to make those choices, but it’s also daunting. What do I want to do with my life? Now what?

Now that I don’t have to simply calculate what the highest-short-term-reward-least-time-cost item is on my  to-do list, I can actually decide what I want to do with my research time over the next few years and beyond. Do I want to stay the course and continue to focus on the topic where I have been making progress over the last several years? Do I want to pick up some lost threads from earlier in my career? Do I want to pivot – slightly or acutely – and explore new directions? Now what?

Continue reading

19 things I learned when my husband took paternity leave

My baby started daycare this morning. My husband and I went to drop him off together, and it was not as hard as I had expected. When we left the room he was happily playing with blocks, and he didn’t even notice us leave. I’m sure he did notice at some point, but it wouldn’t have been me he looked around for. My baby would have looked for his primary caregiver, Daddy.  Really, I left him some time ago.

I’ve been back at work full-time since August, teaching, pumping, going to meetings, pumping, trying to find bits of time for research, pumping, and pretending my heart wasn’t across town with a little boy that was learning to crawl and clap. My husband (also an academic) has been home with our son, playing on the floor, exploring the outdoors, changing hundreds of diapers, feeding pumped milk and an increasing number of solid foods, and wishing our baby would nap on a regular basis. Now his time away from work is ending too, so its time for the baby to go to daycare and begin a new chapter of his life.

So it seems like a good time to reflect on what I, the mother, learned when my husband took over the primary caregiver role. Here’s a listicle. Continue reading

Pumping sucks – let’s make it better

I’m dashing off this post in a few minutes that I don’t really have to spare, in the midst of a workday that’s just as full of things to do as ever, but one that is shortened and dissected by my role as a breastfeeding mother.

Here’s how breastfeeding and pumping figure into my days right now. In the morning, when my baby wakes up, I spend 20-30 minutes cuddling and breast-feeding. It’s sweet and sad, especially now that we’re into the separation anxiety phase of babyhood and he cries whenever I leave. Before I leave the house, I make sure that I’ve got all of my clean pump parts, bottles, and an ice pack to store the expressed milk. At around 10:30, I stop whatever I’m doing, close my office door, pull out the pump, parts, and bottles, and spend about 20 minutes hooked up to an uncomfortable plastic sucker. During that time, I check email, read a paper, browse social media, or occasionally have a work phone call with another academic mother. (I don’t tell them I’m pumping, but I figure if they hear the sound they’ll understand.) As milk gets sucked out of me and into the plastic bottles, I note that one breast produces about 3x as much milk as the other, and I know that my pumping volume tends to go down over the course of the day. I start my day-long worry that the baby will consume more milk than I can pump and we’ll have to dip into the dwindling supply of frozen milk to get baby through tomorrow. I remind myself that we only have to make it 3 more months before baby can start dairy milk and I can quit pumping. When no more milk is coming, I detach, carefully combine the bottles into one less-than-full bottle, rinse the pump parts, tuck the milk and pump parts into the fridge and the pump into the corner of my office. Two to two-and-a-half hours later I repeat the process. I repeat it again two-and-a-half-hours after that. Then I sneak out of the office a bit early so that I can avoid having to pump again and I can spend a bit of time with my baby before baby crashes into bedtime about 6:30. Baby is still not sleeping through the night consistently, so between bedtime and nighttime feedings I spend another ~2 hours breastfeeding before the next morning. Either my partner or I also spends about 20 minutes cleaning bottles and pump parts before crashing into exhausted sleep.

What I’ve described above is about a best-case scenario for working mothers, academic or not. Continue reading