Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dr. Ellie Corigliano on Women Leaving Science

Women Leaving Science:

A conundrum awaiting a solution.

By Dr. Ellie Corigliano

Allow me to paint a picture of the current situation in the scientific community today.
Several studies have been done in order to address the issue of women leaving their scientific careers, especially after they have invested so much time in their graduate degree.
A recent article by Natalie Angier, reports on several of these studies that focus on issues of having children and being/staying married. According to these studies done by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden of the University of California, Berkeley, women are more likely to be single or divorced, and report to have had fewer children than they intended. They also report on the timeline of obtaining a tenured position, usually in your early 40’s.
Establishing your career currently requires the following;
scientists spend 4-7 years earning their Ph.D. (during their 20’s),
the average postdoctoral term is another 7 years (until their mid-late 30’s), and
then one year lecturer positions are held until you can find an assistant professorship position.
It doesn’t stop…you have about 5-6 years of proving yourself worthy of being tenured. The stress involved is immense. A side story to all this, is the pay scale as you're going through these rigor’s: Ms. Angier refers to it as being “poorly compensated”. I can attest to all of these claims, and report a few more. The low pay scale during grad school and postdoctoral work usually instill a couple of behaviors not often talked about. The first – the morale of the environment one has to work in, and second – the personal self-worth that gets embedded as one receives such low compensation for such highly valued information.
So far all of these things mentioned affect both men and women, so why then do the men stay and the women leave? An answer everyone is trying to resolve.

Programs encouraging women to stay in science are popping up everywhere in ways of funding.

While I was in grad school women would talk about the right time to have children. Many women spoke of how that had to wait until grad school was over. By the end of the conversation the conclusion was to wait until they were tenured! Women just don’t have that biological leisure to wait until their tenured (recall - in their 40’s).
I entered grad school with a 5 year-old son. I was 27 at the time, single and wanting to remarry and have more children. My career objectives were questioned and my dedication to research was questioned. I found myself having to defend my pursuits, my parental position, and my scientific “place”. Ultimately, I was able to convey my commitment to science and that being a mother only contributed to my ability to be time efficient and productive.
I truly believe that in spite of challenges or bumps in the road, as long as you walk beside yourself, soon enough your strength will prevail.

As scientists we don’t often make great demands, or disagree with the timelines of career development, or challenge the administration for better working conditions. In fact, most students enter grad school straight out of college eager to start research and follow the rules that have been outlined. However, mid-way through students begin to find discord with their environment and end up feeling powerless, and voiceless. While the complaints are there, no one wants to stick their neck out to initiate change.
In one of the below articles of this blog written by Patty DeDominic, Santa Barbara based Executive Coach and Business Consultant, titled “It takes a team to make a better you” outlines what is also necessary to this very situation. While the above timeline for a scientific career may seem unchangeable and bleak, it is instead a call to all scientists to take ownership of our endeavor. It does take a team to make a better you, and to do that we must recruit our colleges, our advisors, the administrators and the scientific community at large in order to redesign our profession.
The career timeline has reached a point of disbelief and has become a great deterrent for the pursuit of science in this country. I especially want to call to women. The more you set aside your personal life and wait for the “tenured position” to have children, the more we feed the current system. A career in science is not just a man’s profession, it is also a women’s profession, but as women we have to initiate the change that instills our needs to better suit OUR lifestyle to make this a workable profession.
Ask yourself why we always feel the need to accommodate what is set in a work place, rather than thinking about making adjustments? Being part of a scientific community does not mean that you have joined a fraternity and that you should hope you can fit in. We have every right to organize ourselves and create an environment that is financially compensatory for both men and women and offers extended maternity leave with health care for both the mother and the child, and further provide on site childcare. From one of my previous articles, I want to re-state, “In the right environment, everything is possible!”

At the forefront of change the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University are now offering five-year term fellowships to newly graduated Ph.D.’s in science, where you are given a salary that is double most postdoctoral salaries and monies to conduct independent research along with additional money to hire a postdoctoral candidate and use housed technological services. This type of position bypasses the 7 year postdoctoral term and places you in a “pseudo-assistant professorship” with the possibility of being hired in a more permanent position. They are highly encouraging women to apply for these positions! These top two Universities are the trend-setters and their initiative for change should be applauded!
As women and scientists we need to make our demands heard, instead of leaving, so that more Universities will offer this type of fantastic program for scientific success!

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