This post has gotten so long I’m going to have to break it into pieces. Here’s the first installment.
You’ve read a million stories about the leaky pipeline. They all start out more or less like this:
It is no secret that women are under-represented at every level of the science and technology (S&T) system. Statistics clearly show that, much like a ‘leaky pipeline’, women steadily drop out all along the system.
Nor is it difficult to identify the causes of the leaks. They range from gender-based biases in hiring, evaluation, and promotion; to inadequate institutional support for women seeking to balance their work and personal lives; and a shortage of encouraging female mentors at the higher levels of academia.
Then they go on, as this one does, to identify factors that promote retention of women. This one is based on interviews with over 50 women in science in Europe, and it contains some heartbreaking anecdotes. There’s also a link to a (rather large) report on “Women in Science and Technology – the Business Perspective”. There are the usual calls to fix the leaky pipeline.
Leaking has the whiff of failure about it, and even though the leaky pipeline represents a system that is not working, a system that is failing women, somehow the stigma of the failure attaches to the women who leak, not to the faulty science pipeline. No matter the reason for a leak, it’s always the woman’s fault. She left because she just couldn’t make it. Absent some incredibly obvious and totally egregious, well-documented specific incident of bias and discrimination, if she had been able to succeed, she would have – but she didn’t, so it’s proof she just wasn’t good enough. In some cases, an individual woman is so talented you can’t ignore it, and she appears to have chosen the leaky path of her own free will. However, this just proves that she didn’t have a strong enough desire and will to succeed in academia, and therefore she wasn’t worthy of becoming a professor. She may have had the smarts, but she didn’t have the devotion, so in that sense she just wasn’t good enough.
To sum up: either she stinks, or she’s unworthy. Academic science remains desirable and good. Make no mistake about it, keeping a focus on each individual woman as a special case that is not illustrative of any larger issue is an important tactic in maintaining the status quo and avoiding engagement with gender politics in any substantive fashion.
Pipeline discussions generally seem to revolve around the pipe – what’s wrong with it, how can it be fixed, where are the breaks, etc. I’d like to think for awhile about the leaks. What does it mean to be a leak? What’s the experience of dripping out of the pipeline like? Who are the leaks, and what happens to these women outside the pipe? What’s the meaning of the leak once you’re outside the pipeline? How does a “leaker” come to understand her experience and her identity in science, in relation to science?
When you are inside academia, it’s clear you can claim the label of “scientist”. But once you’re on the outside, do you still get to call yourself a scientist? In the interview I did for Scienceblogs, one of the questions I had to answer was “Do you consider yourself to be a working scientist?” I answered
Well, first we’d have to agree on what “working scientist” means. I used to joke with my friends that according to the standard prejudice about what it meant to be a “real” scientist, the only real scientists in the U.S. were postdocs and post-third year grad students. They were the ones doing actual lab work, collecting and analyzing data, keeping up with the literature, etc. The professors had all, as far as we could tell, been gradually transformed into proposal-writing and grant-maintaining machines. Also, postdoc and grad-student slave drivers. And people in industry didn’t seem to count at all. Let alone anyone doing something so garish as public policy or administrative work – those were “used-to-be” scientists. My opinion: if you work in any capacity in which you draw upon your science/engineering education to perform your work, you are a working scientist/engineer.
Graduate school is the time when you are being initiated into the discipline and learning to take on the identity of your profession, learning to identify with your tribe. Who are you? I am a biologist, I am a chemist, a physicist, etc. And to some extent that identity formation is wrapped up in the expectation that you will become a professor someday. Others around you have that expectation, and you internalize to some degree, whether or not you actually want to become a professor yourself. It is the marker of success in your tribe, even if it’s not your personal marker of success, even if you know quite well there are a dozen other careers a highly educated technical/scientific person is qualified to do.
So, what does it mean to be a leak in the pipeline? To step off the path to the Holy Grail, professorhood? Maybe, like X-Gal Jana Kincaid, you redirect your scientific aspirations from research into administration, because life circumstances don’t allow you to commit the amount of time that the “greedy institution” of academic research demands. Maybe, like X-Gal Meg Murray, you accepted a lectureship instead of a tenure-track offer because the tenure-track offer didn’t work with your marriage. Is Jana still a scientist? Is Meg headed for failure? Who gets to decide these things?