Promoting women in STEM--what do we discuss?

While I loved Jeanne Garbarino's recent post, "Want to promote women in STEM? Leave home life out of the discussion", and agree with probably 90% of it, I think it unfortunately goes from one extreme to another with some of her recommendations.

Garbarino notes several reasons why she thinks it's counter-productive to discuss home life issues when trying to promote women in STEM careers: 1) it is rare that home life situations for men in STEM are discussed; 2) not everyone shares the same home life experiences or goals; 3) it doesn’t move the conversation forward. Very true for 1 and 2 (though I'd argue that rather than shutting down this conversation for women, perhaps we open it up more to men, who are increasingly worried about work/life balance as well), but 3 is where my disagreement centers. She writes:

As someone who frequently moderates panel discussions on careers in STEM, I have come to realize and value the types of information that truly move the conversation forward. Let’s face it – finding a job in STEM is not easy, and having a PhD no longer equates to job security (at least, job security in one’s area of research). I’d be happy to discuss my tactics for finding quality time with my children as part of a parenting forum. But ask me to talk about this when the focus is on securing a job, and I will no longer do it – it just doesn’t seem relevant.

Instead of discussing home life, I think it is better to talk about individual strategies for networking, recognizing opportunity, being your own advocate, and negotiating skills. These are the types of anecdotes that are the most valuable.

And while I support that, the reality for many of us is that finding a job necessarily includes a discussion of family life within that search (again, noting #2 above that clearly, for any panel such as this there will be people for whom that doesn't fit). Personally, I had a secure job, was tenured, loved where I was, but *because* of family issues, it just wasn't working out, so back on the market I went. For women in particular, we're much more likely to have a partner who's also in academia or a similar career. From NSF, note that women in STEM are much more likely to have a spouse working full-time, and to be married to another scientist or engineer. Thus, even when looking for jobs, women are more likely than men to have to deal with dual hire situations, or to need to look for some kind of accommodation for a partner.

Admittedly, I don't have data for those Garbarino points out may feel alienated by husband/wife language, such as lesbian couples, but that brings up other issues of knowing whether a campus/town/area is LGBT-friendly, or can also find a position for their spouse/partner. And for those with children or planning to have them, knowing how to find out about childcare arrangements, for example, isn't just theoretical, and can again be a factor in securing a job and may come up during  job negotiations. These *are* family issues, but also critical ones when "the focus is on securing a job," or at least one where you and/or your partner won't be miserable--and they shouldn't be relegated to just a "parenting" or "family" panel in my opinion.

I think that instead of steering women-in-STEM panels away from topics such as partners and children (which she notes that certainly aren't goals for everyone), it's important to note that some kind of support system is important for *anyone* in academia. That may be husbands and wives, it may be a circle of friends you can vent to and troubleshoot problems (personal or professional), it may be other family or relatives in the area. Truth is, it's very hard to go it alone in STEM, but it's true that a spouse/partner isn't the ideal solution for everyone. Similarly with the child issue: we all want balance. Just because one chooses to be child-free doesn't mean s/he still wants to work 80 hours every week and have no kind of life outside of science. So perhaps rather than referring to balance in only a child-centric manner, it would be better to open that up to a bigger variety of ways that one has a life outside of work.

Finally, while I love the "Finkbeiner test" cited, I'm not sure this is appropriate for many *discussions* of women in STEM, rather than write-ups of such as intended. Coverage of women STEM figures in the media is quite different from an advice panel on job-seeking or tenure strategies, in which cases participants or audience members may be seeking just the information that Garbarino suggests leaving out.

Overall, this is a tough and touchy topic. No one wants "women in STEM" to equate to "must always discuss family issues and cheesecake recipes," but at the same time we have to be realistic that women, even in academia, still generally are doing the lion's share of family work, and that these are legitimate questions and concerns for many of us, especially for those heading toward the job market. We also know that many women still are turned off STEM careers because they're seen as incompatible with having some kind of a life outside work, spouse/children or not. I'm not convinced that limiting discussion of these is any better than having the focus solely be on these types of topics--either strategy is bound to be alienating to one group or another. Personally, I can only emphasize what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

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Work that requires flexible hours, working shifts, or "stay-until-solved" is always demanding on the family. Theatre nurses or network engineers or airplane technicians (and a host of other jobs where the life, well being or merely comfort of other people depends on a job with unpredictable occurrence and duration) simply cannot arrange their work around the needs of spouse and children. The compensations offered by the employer (extra time off or extra money) are difficult to translate into compensations for the family. People in these jobs will always need to rely on the help (and understanding) of their spouses and families.

The real problem is that today, a person's identity is most strongly associated with their employment, rather than with their family (both core and extended), so even if the income of one of the spouses is enough to provide for the material needs of the family, there is a lot of social pressure (like high divorce rates) on both spouses to have careers and the concomitant financial independence. If both spouses attach more importance to their career than to their family, they will be under considerable pressure to end their relationship (thereby contributing to the social pressure on other couples).

Maybe the time has come to put job convergence as high on the list of compatibility-criteria as love, especially when considering a "family-with-children" arrangement.

By Bill Openthalt (not verified) on 20 Jan 2014 #permalink