Adventures in Ethics and Science

In recent days, there have been discussions of conditions for postdoctoral fellows, and about the ways that these conditions might make it challenging to tackle the problem of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science.

For example, in comments at DrugMonkey’s blog, bsci opines:

Most people start a postdoc between the age of 25 and 30. Even in the academic world, a substantial portion of people are married by that age and a smaller, but non-trivial, proportion have children. How these people are supported on post-doc stipends is definitely an issue even in the first years of postdochood.

When you consider, even in academia, women are more often the primary care provider, having salaries too low to support children forces researchers, particularly women, to choose between a research career and having children. If gender balance in science is your concern than wages that would be able to support childcare should be your concern (even if it means paying everyone more).

You’re right that this is market forces with pay. It’s say to say, but you’ll be able to fill a lab up with postdocs at pretty much any salary above minimum wage. That says nothing about their quality. It’s nice that you’ll hand pick individuals to pay more, but if you care about selecting postdocs from the best possible pool of candidates, you should absolutely be concerned with paying a wage that will discourage a huge chunk of potentially superb applicants (male and female) from applying for the job.

Later in the same discussion, Sab notes:

[R]elatively low wages can and do turn perfectly good researchers away from postdoctoral research. The need to support a family is simply the most common reason I have come across for fellow postdocs either leaving academia or turning toward other types of job opportunity.

But then Dr. Feelgood suggests (at least to my eye) that American Ph.D.s may simply be overly picky:

It is hard to find a US postdoc for any position. My department currently is advertising 3 positions at a Tier 1 MRU in a specific area of neuroscience (not too specific). The positions are fixed term assistant professorships (that can convert to tenure track based on predefined achievement of goals) with startup and full salary funding, lab and office space in a brand new building and in the first two weeks we have received 12 applications….Zero from American postdocs. Where are all of these sad jobless postdocs looking for faculty positions?

Dr. Feelgood follows this up with:

What do you think is a livable wage for postdocs with families? Are you geographically limited? I see alot of problems with many postdocs who have so many geographic requirements or limitations, that they are not going to pick a place where the pay and the living situation are a match for them.

Meanwhile, at Myrmecos, Alex Wild offers:

In my limited experience, I’ve seen more women than men decide to forgo the Lost Postdoctoral Decade. It isn’t that they aren’t capable of the work, or that the meanies on the hiring committees are sexist. When faced with an uncertain number of uprooted, poorly-compensated years, the men I know are somewhat more likely to plod along and the women somewhat more likely to seek more satisfying alternatives. In short, women opt out of the system more frequently.

It’s been more than a decade and a half since I’ve been a postdoc in science, but let me suggest a possibility worth pondering:

Women who have gotten all the way through their Ph.D. training in fields whose faculty and superstar researchers are still largely men are likely to have some experience of systemic inequalities. To the extent that they have noticed how such systemic inequalities waste a lot of the time and energy that one might otherwise be devoting to something fun (like doing science), they’re generally against them.

As well, these women may be highly resistant to the message that they need to choose between having a serious career in science and “having a life” (which might include having a partner and children). After all, the members of their cohort who are men are much less likely to be bludgeoned with this message.

But, if one is striving for a workplace that is more egalitarian, it is very very hard to believe that your personal relationship — especially with a partner with whom one intends to raise children — should not also be egalitarian. This, necessarily, means that your decision-making within such a relationship must take account of someone else’s interests, too, rather than being driven entirely by your own interests.

This is where geographical limitations come from. This is also where constraints around pay and living situations come from.

Male partners who decide to plod along may be taking one for the team. However, if they are always the ones taking one for the team, that’s not very egalitarian. Which means, frequently, that the women partnered with them are sometimes passing by opportunities that would be perfect for them professionally — otherwise one partner ends up doing all the giving while the other ends up doing all the taking.

There is an awful lot that committed early career scientists will do in order to stay in the scientific game and keep doing rewarding research, but asking them to forswear all human relationships outside the lab is unreasonable. And, as inconvenient as those human relationships may be for the PI on a budget looking to hire some postdocs, those relationships constrain the choices of a lot of early career scientists.

Maybe it’s easier to succeed as an unattached young scientist who doesn’t ever have to sacrifice her interests to those of anyone else (besides her PI). But that assumes that the goal is to find career success in the scientific arena as it currently exists.

I submit to you that there are many early career scientists whose aspirations aim for something higher than that.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex Wild
    April 22, 2010

    I agree. The egalitarianism, or lack thereof, in the personal relationships of academic couples strikes me as a large part of the issue. It seems that nine times out of ten it’s the female partner who sacrifices her goals so that the male partner can continue along his planned trajectory.

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    April 22, 2010

    I may attempt a bit of synthesis here:

    Assume that “academic success,” defined as “tenure track appointment,” is differentially enabled by having a partner willing to make sacrifices to support the academic career goal. It follows that a sub-population with a greater supply of such partners will have a differential advantage (“fitness”) than one which doesn’t.

    Is there a gender differential with regard to the availability of such partners?

  3. #3 ambivalent academic
    April 22, 2010

    WORD.

    I am always a little surprised at how often this must be spelled out for people (which you just did a bang-up job of, by the way). I think I’m just going to bookmark this page and refer people to it whenever this argument comes up. As it does frequently. It will save me a lot of time and headache. Thanks.

  4. #4 Namnezia
    April 22, 2010

    I was curious about your remark about how a large proportion of women scientists opt out at the postdoc stage, so I looked at the applicant pool during our last faculty search. Of about 160 applicants, I counted around 40% women. So while there were more men applicant than women applicants, it didn’t seem like there was mass attrition by women scientists. Of the top eight candidates, six were women.

    That being said, our graduate program has more women than men (slightly) so proportionally it does seem like more women leave science than men do.

  5. #5 DrugMonkey
    April 22, 2010

    The egalitarianism, or lack thereof, in the personal relationships of academic couples strikes me as a large part of the issue. It seems that nine times out of ten it’s the female partner who sacrifices her goals so that the male partner can continue along his planned trajectory.

    The question then becomes…why? Your phrasing implies a slant, a lack of choice on the part of the “female partner”. I submit it is much more complex than this. Janet’s post emphasizes the *preferences and choices* of women scientist. I think this is a more accurate way to consider the point. We can debate the patriarchal culture that inculcates people to the point of making said choices, but in a proximal sense it is wrong to imply that it is only women who are “sacrificing” their “goals”.

    I notice a tendency in people to under credit and dismiss the sacrifices of others (“if it was *really that important to you* you would have chosen otherwise, therefore it isn’t a sacrifice”) while transforming their own *choices* into externally imposed truths (“having children is right and good and necessary for the species and you all menz benefit too so there” or “we menz have to work to bring in money because that’s what we do, work. booyah”). It is well worth considering the entire scope of goals, choices and sacrifices before concluding anything about “planned trajectories” and “sacrifices”. What seems externally observable and/or what arises from what people complain about is not always the full truth.

  6. #6 Miriam
    April 22, 2010

    Great post. It is even possible to enter a competitive graduate school knowing about these limitations beforehand. My husband HATES where we live, but was willing to put up with it for 6 years so that I could go to the graduate school of my choice. After graduate school, the second part of the deal kicks in – we have to live someplace that he likes & can pursue his career. I have no doubt that this will substantially limit my career opportunities, but yeah, that’s life in an egalitarian relationship.

    Should I not have gone to graduate school because I knew my spouse would refuse to live in the southeast or midwest? I don’t know many 25 year olds in love with science who would make that decision.

  7. #7 Pen
    April 23, 2010

    Another factor, and one that impacts on the female partner’s lack of choice, is that women often partner slightly older men, who are therefore slightly more advanced in their careers. You know, getting paid more, or with less time to go before they can potentially look forward to getting paid more.

  8. #8 Isabel
    April 24, 2010

    “Maybe it’s easier to succeed as an unattached young scientist who doesn’t ever have to sacrifice her interests to those of anyone else (besides her PI).”

    This assumes that having a family is sacrificing your own interests, while it could equally be looked at as something which is IN your own interest.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable in a competitive field to expect personal sacrifices early on; the issue here seems to be the extension of the concept into middle adulthood. This is stressful for anyone who wants to build a social life, whether or not they want to have children.

    Thanks for pointing out that men may be willing to “plod along” because they are likely having a more satisfying and less stressful experience, even at the “sacrificial” stage.

  9. #9 Lamia
    July 31, 2010

    I find it a bit offensive that postdocs should be in their late twenties.
    In the humanities and some of the social sciences, the average time of completion is 7 years and not ALL people go directly from undergrad to grad school. Some do a Masters in a separate field, as I did, some people transfer schools, also as I did, and some work for several years before starting the Phd.
    I am now turning 30 and going to a three year postdoc. Does that make me an old postdoc? Maybe for the sciences or the British /European system where people get Phds in 3 years.
    Does it mean I have postponed my life so much that by the time I begin it I am old?
    I think not. Perhaps for having kids, which thankfully I never wanted-for personal reasons that have nothing to do with academia.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!