This was going to be a Friday links contribution, but I got a little carried away, so now it’s a whole post on its own. It is inspired by the newest round of discussions about women in ecology that have been occurring on the Ecolog listserv. For whatever reason, Ecolog seems to periodically feel the need to tackle the question of whether women are qualified to do ecology. For example, last spring, there was a long, disheartening (to me, and I know to others as well) discussion that started when a graduate student asked, quite reasonably, for recommendations for carriers to use with her baby when doing field work. Some people replied with their suggestions, but others replied with admonitions against bringing an infant into the field. One of my favorite replies came from Lis Castillo Nelis, who pointed out (correctly, in my opinion), that, if a colleague over 50 had asked for gear recommendations, people would not have replied with warnings about the potential for heart attacks in the field; she then suggested that perhaps we should also assume that the original poster is an intelligent adult who has already evaluated the risks and benefits, and, being a competent adult, had come to the conclusion that bringing her baby into the field was the right decision. The discussion quickly devolved into one related to women and parents in ecology; the full threads can be found here, here, and here. Some of the most troubling replies, in my opinion, came from Clara B Jones, and were summarized and countered in this post on work-life “balance” from Prof-Like Substance.
With that as background, when I was skimming through the “topics of the day” list in the ecolog daily digest while eating my oatmeal a few days ago, it caught my attention that there were several posts with the heading “Gender issues”. These had spun off from a thread on “A Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Landing a Job”; unfortunately, that thread isn’t grouping nicely in the archives, so you’ll have to go here and then scroll down. Once again, Clara B Jones plays a key role in this thread. Just as important, though, is the way the discussion evolved from there. This newest round of discussions of women in science have led to great posts from Prof-Like Substance and Jacquelyn Gill. Both of them tackle a key point: how/whether to respond when statements like this are made.
How have I responded? Last spring, I wrote the original poster off list to say that I was dismayed at the turn the discussion had taken and that it is indeed possible to have an academic career in ecology with children and to be happy while doing so. I also took the discussion over to twitter; I’m pretty sure that’s how PLS originally found out about it. But I didn’t engage on Ecolog. I imagine it would be a very frustrating experience. But that thread was definitely in my mind when Jeremy approached me about writing for this blog, and when I agreed despite knowing that I would be insanely busy this year (with, among other things, a move to a new university, teaching a giant course, new baby on the way, and submitting my tenure dossier this summer). This is a topic I hope to cover more in the future (when I magically get more time – that will happen, right?!) For this round on ecolog, I once again haven’t replied to the list, but once again brought it to twitter. And now I’m writing this post.
But there is another way that I “reply”, in a sense: I try to do good science. I haven’t been as active with the blog recently in part because we are trying to get a bunch of papers out the door, to get new experiments going, and, in general, to do good science (along with departmental service, some guest lectures and seminars, etc.) It’s not a direct reply, of course, but I do think it’s a reply of sorts. As a postdoc, when I first started reading data about bias against women in science [pdf] (that we – including women – have), rates of women with children getting tenure (as compared to men with children or to women who do not have children), etc., I found it totally depressing. And at first I was pretty bummed about it. But then I decided to be a bad scientist and ignore the data. Instead, I focused on women I knew who had children and did good, interesting science. Keeping those women in mind was very encouraging to me.
I now receive emails from grad students and postdocs indicating that, for them, I am now a person that they look to as an example that one can have a tenure-track career with children. This also comes up quite often when I give seminars – especially this semester when I am very obviously pregnant. It’s a little scary – and definitely humbling – to me that some people view me as a role model for this sort of thing, but I can also very much understand how they feel (in terms of needing to have particular people in mind to use as examples that it can be done). Unfortunately, when they ask what the magical secret is to having children and a tenure track career, I feel stumped. I know that, for me, having a partner who fully shares parenting and household responsibilities is essential. And I also know that, while I may look like I have achieved the mythical work-life balance from the outside, that’s only if you take some sort of long term average. Certainly last fall was very much skewed towards work (which, again, was only possible because my husband took on extra responsibilities at home); once I have baby #2, things will skew towards life for a bit. So, I agree with PLS that, really, work-life balance means not dropping the same ball too many times in a row (or, I would add, not dropping a particular ball at an especially crucial stage).
So, to finally get on to those links I had in mind: I wanted to link to PLS’s and Jacquelyn’s posts, as I already did above. I also wanted to:
1. remind people that we ALL have biases. One reply to ecolog indicated that Clara B Jones couldn’t be sexist because she’s a woman. The data – including in this recent paper – show that women are biased against women in science, just as men are. As I’ve posted on here before, I have found Project Implicit a really interesting tool towards beginning to evaluate and think about the biases that we all have.
UPDATE: In the comments, Karen Lips pointed to this video of a talk by newly elected AAAS president and Yale astrophysicist Meg Urry. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but Karen reports that it is full of data and case studies on the ways we all show subtle biases. Sounds very interesting!
2. remind people that we still have problems with women leaving science and academia. This is not simply an issue of demography that will work itself out as current grad students move on to academic positions. This post by Curt Rice focuses on why women leave academia, and why universities should be worried.
3. point to some biology- and ecology-specific data. For example, there is this preprint of a new paper in BioScience that focuses on reasons why women leave the biological sciences (especially as compared to medicine, where women are retained as physicians). There is also this interesting way of looking at data on gender & publications, where you can zoom in to look at Ecology & Evolution. If you do that, you will see that women are quite underrepresented as first- and last-authors on papers.
So, to conclude: Do I think the comments of a few posters on ecolog represent all ecologists? Of course not. But it does serve as a reminder that there are still real problems to tackle related to women in science in general and in ecology in particular. There are no easy solutions, of course, but hopefully making sure that the issues remain in the spotlight will help remind people that there is a problem, and that we need to work towards a solution.