Friday, August 10, 2012

Words from an Ecologist - Exploring Career Paths II

The next entry in my series on career options is from one of the most influential women in my life – no hyperbole. She is an ecology and environmental science professor at a mid-sized liberal arts college, and I wanted to be a scientist because of her. I found her answer to the first question to be interesting in light of this: she helped fill the void of women scientist role models, and is one of the eponymous ‘giantesses’ of this blog. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and for being a great role model!

When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Although I was always very good at math and science, I never even considered a science career until after college. This makes no sense in retrospect, especially since I was radically on board with the feminist movement way back in the 1970’s.  But it was a time of separate male and female job ads, a time without role models or mentors, a time of deeply sexist advertising, television, humor, and culture.   I had no dream job as a child that I recall, perhaps because the options seemed so very few.

How did you decide to start on your current career? 
Are you happy with your current job in relation to what you hoped for? After a college degree in environmental studies and geography, I worked in a cubicle writing environmental assessments that no one would ever read.  I yearned to escape to the woods and learn about the complexity of nature. I took night classes in physics, calculus, and organic chemistry, and went to graduate school.  I’ve now been a biology professor for 26 years, and it’s great. But as a child I never would have imagined this life for myself.

Did/do you have to worry about when/if to have children?
Absolutely.  I will always regret not having more than one child, and recent studies show that many women scientists of my generation were shortchanged in this way by the structure and expectations of academia.  There is no reason why tenure track must be full time; no reason why physicians or attorneys or other professional careers should not be family friendly.  For me, I skipped the post-doc because I heard my biological clock ticking.  I chose a liberal arts college career – I love teaching and at the time I believed it would be more family friendly.  In reality it’s just as many hours as the research-oriented academic job, and less flexible because class times are fixed.

What role does/did your spouse or partner, if you have one, play in your career development? 
My partner quit his job to follow the geography of my career. That was unusual in 1986 and is still unusual, I fear.

Did you ever experience a ‘glass ceiling’ or discrimination as a woman? Are you willing to share your experience?
Despite early promotions and merit raises, somehow my salary is lower than that of comparable male colleagues.   As a department chair, I learned to send male colleagues to negotiate with our patronizing dean on behalf of the department; the answer to me was usually no.  I still notice in meetings that women are more likely to be disregarded or interrupted (directly or with side conversations),  especially women of color.  I want to mention that affirmative action rules made a huge difference.  One of my professors, a famous and eminent scientist, was like other women of her generation blocked from holding a faculty position because of her gender. She was a research associate without benefits or permanence despite her renown until laws changed in the 1970’s. That was a ceiling of cement.

How can we encourage women to pursue their dream jobs? 
We must address the fear that Ph.D.- level science or medical practice is incompatible with having children, having a committed relationship, having a balanced life.  Many of my undergraduate students carry this concern. Having it all isn’t simple, but any interesting career (any career) with children is complicated. Most universities now have maternity and paternity leave, day care on campus, an optional family pause for the tenure clock, and ultimately I believe that academia has become much more accepting and flexible even though things aren't yet perfect.  Just be sure to talk with other women in the grad program, postdoc lab, or faculty group before signing up – do women thrive? Do they finish their degrees? Do they get tenure?  It makes a difference.  Encouraging girls and women: let’s ban the stereotype of the scientist as a white male loner with evil intentions!  And let’s give legos to our nieces and daughters.

Editor’s note: I loved legos as a child. Heck, I recently spent a few hours playing with them. Ahem. I mean, engineering with them.

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