Sunday, August 7, 2011

Are Female Scientists An Endangered Species?

An article recently asked this question based on the observation that fewer than 10% of UK professors are female.  The problem posed is the familiar one of retention of women in science after graduation, rather than engagement of girls at earlier stages.  Statistics quoted for the UK are similar to those in the US: around half of science students are female (even higher for biology).  So, there seems to be less of a problem attracting young females to science.  After graduation, however, the numbers shrink as women, facing the realities of balancing a career in a highly competitive field with family obligations and other interests, begin to drop out.  The article goes on to discuss what might be done to help women stay in science.

Viewing women in science as endangered is an interesting way to look for solutions.  Using the endangered species model as a guide, we can immediately focus on the habitat as a critical factor in species survival.  Just as an endangered plant or animal requires certain environmental conditions to maintain a healthy population, women in science also require a supportive environment to not only survive, but to thrive.  For example: sufficient resources and space (habitat) as well as ways to support recruitment and minimize losses are necessary to have a viable population.  From an individual's standpoint, it means everything one needs to compete with others successfully.  It's not a perfect analogy, but perhaps useful to ponder how one's work environment, especially support from superiors, staff, and colleagues, can be a major factor in whether a woman chooses to remain in her career or drop out. 

Just the other day, I was talking with another member of a Women in Science group at a university where I am an adjunct.  I've been attending the meetings of this group off and on for over a year and providing some insights about being a woman in science, basically saying that there will be bumps in the road, but it gets better if you stick it out.  One or two other senior female faculty had also been attending and providing the same type of message, in various ways.  This was not a planned strategy on our just came across that way. 

I had been wondering if the students and postdocs who belonged to this group were getting anything out of our meetings (I had never really gotten any direct feedback from them, positive or negative). Anyway, she had been talking to one of the students who belonged to the group and who had told her that these meetings had greatly influenced her.  The student had been having some problems and was thinking that she was not cut out for a career in science.  Hearing from some senior female scientists and seeing how we had succeeded convinced her to persevere.  It seemed that hearing stories about what issues we had faced and how we dealt with them essentially sent the message that they were not alone in their experience, i.e., it was normal to occasionally feel inadequate or uncertain about a science career, but it would pass.

It's important to have a support group, whether you are having problems or not.  Perhaps you are supremely confident in your capabilities and are sailing through your graduate program or postdoc training.  However, you never know what might change tomorrow to throw a wrench into your plans.  I find that those students who have rarely (or never) faced real difficulties are the least prepared to deal with a major setback. They are so accustomed to things always going their way, that they are left confused and shaken when things go wrong.  Instead, those who have had to work hard expect difficulties and usually have developed good coping mechanisms and especially a support network. 

Having a support group can be a life saver in such instances.  I didn't, and struggled to maintain my confidence and to see my way forward when those obstacles occurred.  Even my spouse (a science professor), who provided emotional support, really didn't understand from his perspective as a male in a male-dominated field.  Consequently, much of his encouragement missed the mark.  He really could not grasp what it is like to be marginalized or even actively discouraged by superiors and coworkers.  He was always accepted as rightfully belonging to the science club, assumed to be competent (or had the potential), expected to be ambitious and to advance up the career ladder.  He's never really understood what it was like not to have that kind of underpinning. 

I'm convinced that it takes someone who has had similar experiences to provide you with the right kind of support or encouragement.  Peers (male or female), who are not experiencing problems, may even be dismissive or critical of you, believing that the fault lies in your inability to deal with everyday issues (or even that your behavior is the source of the problem).  This attitude, whether voiced or not, can be extremely damaging...perhaps more so than the problem itself. 

Anyone who is facing a problem, especially one that shakes an individual's confidence, needs reassurance that they can overcome it.  Yes, in some cases, the victim is part of the problem and needs to do some serious reassessment of their interpersonal dealings.  But the way to help them (if you are their friend) is to assure them that others have had this same problem, but succeeded in dealing with doing x, y, or z. Hearing a true story from someone who lived through it is a safe way to get the message across without blatantly blaming the victim, which will only make them more defensive. 

In recounting such a story, a veteran might say, "I didn't realize initially how I was viewed by colleagues, but once I did, it seemed obvious that they would continue treating me badly as long as I continued my behavior.  I finally realized that they had no incentive to change, but I did. Once I modified how I (fill in the blank), their attitude toward me began to change." 

Stories are excellent ways to teach others.  They convey real (or sometimes imagined) situations and describe how the heroine overcomes obstacles and goes on to a successful career in science.  Perhaps we need more of such stories, including the emotional and gritty details, to help prepare those starting out to expect and conquer impediments....and eventually, women in science will be taken off the endangered species list.

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