Where have all the women gone?!?


Where have all the women gone? Long time passing… where have all the women gone, long time ago?

Perhaps this version of Peter Paul and Mary’s song “Where have all the flowers gone?” should become the anthem of women in science.

This morning I stumbled across this interesting article in the Harvard Business Review.  It draws attention to the fact that after obtaining a PhD women in science tend to simply disappear from academia.  So why is this???

Interestingly they found that women are actually significantly MORE LIKELY to get first author publications (albeit in slightly lower impact journals), but are LESS LIKELY to obtain the last author publications which are essential for career advancement.  This is reflected in the lower rates of R01 grants obtained by women (R01 grants are provided by the NIH and reflect the growth from a junior scientist to a principle investigator). However, I think the most striking finding was that women seem to receive less credit for their work, as explained here:

“For example, while doubling the number of citations per paper reduced the transition time from postdoc grant to R01 by about 20% for men, the same increase in citations per paper only reduced the time to R01 by roughly 13% for women. Even after controlling for a large number of other attributes, such as the journals they published in and whether they specialized in particular areas, a woman will take about one year longer to receive an R01 grant than a man with the same number of citations.”

This is somewhat reminiscent of the good old male/female resume study demonstrating the systemic bias still present in the STEM fields (along with most other fields to a certain extent).

It will be interesting to see the results of the authors’ future study looking at women’s access to mentors and organizational support, perhaps this will shed some light on where the women are going.  As a young woman in a STEM field I for one certainly do notice the lack of female mentors.  This also extends to the culture of “talking science over a beer” at the local pub, something which I’ve noticed male professors are much more likely to do with male junior scientists than female junior scientists.  I doubt this is intentional, however regardless of intent these  habits certainly add to the barriers faced by women trying to work their way up the academic ladder.

Hopefully one day there will be true equality in STEM fields.  We have certainly come a long way, but there is still so much work to be done.


Approaching the end of the tracks

Sometimes a PhD feels like being stuck on a train with faulty brakes, parked on a steep slope.  Initially there is no movement, then gradually the train starts inching forwards, so slowly, leaving you wishing it would just hurry up and get you through this degree.  After a painfully long  time things are moving at a nice speed and progress is good.  This period of bliss lasts about 3 seconds.  Then suddenly things are moving too fast, hurtling out of control towards a completely unknown future.  Perhaps there will be beautiful scenery at the bottom, or an uphill to catch you… or perhaps there will be a dead-end, or worse a cliff launching you into a void.

DSC01953At my most recent committee meeting my supervisor sprung the question on me.  “So, what do you want to do once you finish?”  

Quick, think on your feet.  I have no idea.  But you must say something intelligent and thoughtful sounding, your committee members are watching closely.  Gulp.

I decided this moment was as good as any to tell him that I’m done with academia.

Now I’m not one of those disgruntled, bitter grad students who feels like they were tricked into a degree with the promise of being a fancy professor, relaxing into the safety of a comfy tenure position.  I simply am no longer interested in participating in the struggle simply for the “greater good” of scientific progress at my own expense.  Does that make me selfish?  Maybe.

I still love science.  Nothing compares to the thrill of finding some (little) piece of information in an experiment and realizing you’re probably the only person in the world who knows this.  Nothing compares.  However, I believe I can still have this and contribute towards the “greater good” without sacrificing my own life and personal happiness.

What does this job look like you may ask? I don’t know. But I do know it doesn’t look like academia.

In the meanwhile the end is still hurtling towards me, with only a few more experiments standing between myself and writing up.  It’s a very funny predicament where one minute I can’t wait for those experiments to be out of the way and forever gone from my life, while the next I desperately hope there will be technical delays or further experiments required to slow my launch into the foreign post-graduation world.

Sure, I’ve gone to all sorts of career preparation events.  I have a nice professionally prepared CV, packed with extracurriculars and accomplishments.  I’ve taken a look at various job postings.  I’ve talked to people in various fields.  But I still can’t put a finger on exactly what I want to do.  Or if it will even require a PhD.

So, for now I will just have to content myself with the unknown and have faith that if I do hit the end of the track I will somehow catch myself.  Until now I’ve always landed on my feet, hopefully that won’t change.

And just remember, you’re never alone on the train.