Call for papers: Personal stories from women in science

Me and my daughter admiring a penguin at the Calgary Zoo.Diving headlong into motherhood this year has meant less blogging (obvious to anyone who subscribes here…), but it has also made me think a lot more about the scientific life that I would hope for my new daughter and girls like her. Currently her research interests include ceiling fans, her toes, her soother, the dogs and the penguins at the Calgary Zoo. But should she be interested in pursuing science as a career, what would I want her to know?

Despite tremendous change in science over the past decades, making a scientific life is still difficult for many women. There are strong institutional and personal biases in place, chilly climates, difficult job structures and sometimes daily aggressions that women face. If my daughter were heading off to grad school (rather than daycare) in the near future, I would want her to know this up front but also know that women find many different ways to follow their scientific passions. Some do it by finding ways to succeed in the academic system and others make completely new career paths for themselves. Anthropologist Jessica Brinkworth and I are working on just the kind of book that I would want to give my daughter as she packed her bags to head off for her first fieldwork or her first position in a lab, a book of stories of what women have faced in their careers and how they’ve made a scientific life work, inside or outside of academia. We’re hoping to provide support, hope and the closest thing to mentoring that a book could offer.

The full call for papers in below. If you have a story to share of how you live your scientific life, please consider sharing it with us or passing this on to anyone who might have something to share.

Women in Science: Call for personal experience essays
“Surviving the Sexodus: Practical advice from women in science”
Edited book, 2016 (tentative)

Many young women dream of a life in science, inspired by the opportunity for a meaningful and rewarding career involving curiosity, passion, mentorship and discovery. Indeed, a desire to reap such rewards can help explain the representation of women in the early stages of some scientific careers (e.g. graduate enrollment), especially in biological and life sciences. Women are, however, very underrepresented in senior research positions. It is fair to say that the proportion of women employed at the senior research level does not nearly reflect the numbers of women who initially express interest in science career.

The reasons behind women staying in science, progressing through the academic/corporate hierarchy or leaving science entirely are complex, but we likely can all point to pivotal moments and challenges that we faced over the course of our experience with the scientific lifestyle. For some of us, these are singular standout moments, for others it is the accumulation of small aggressions that wear us down. Whether it be low pay, long work hours, the pressures of publish or perish, loss of potential retirement fund years, new career interests, spousal career conflict, change in family arrangements or responsibilities, difficult job searches, bullying, harassment or exclusion, there are a myriad of reasons that
women are not proportionally represented in science jobs. Those of us that have worked in science have, however, found one way or another to deal with these challenges and have something valuable to share with our peers and those who are coming up behind us.

The aim of this book is to present the shared wisdom of women who have worked in science to girls and women contemplating or actively pursuing scientific careers. We are collecting personal essays describing the challenges, large and small, experienced by women over the course of education and career development and the strategies they developed to cope and move forward, including finding other avenues for their scientific passions. The overall goal is to provide a collection of relatable stories that can offer support and hope to those at all stages of pursuing a career in science.

If you are interested in participating, please send an email with a provisional subject/title by September 10th, 2014 to Jessica Brinkworth and Marie-Claire Shanahan at jfbrinkworth@gmail.com and mcshanah@ucalgary.ca. Provisional abstracts (250-500 words) are due to us by September 30th, 2014. Essays will be approximately 1500-5000 words long and can include images if desired. The suggested topics below are a guideline only. We are willing to consider any essay that describes challenges and negative experiences and specific strategies and coping mechanisms that you used, even if it changed the direction of your work or life.

We are sensitive to concerns about privacy and will work with authors to ensure that their stories can be conveyed fairly while preserving their personal and professional security.

Please forward this call for essays to anyone you think might be interested in participating in such a project. We are seeking authors from a broad variety of fields and backgrounds.

The publication timeline is as follows:

September 10th 2014 – subject/title due
September 30th 2014 – abstract due
June 10th 2015– essays for review due
September 10th, 2015 – revised essays due

Hope to hear from you,

Jessica Brinkworth
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology (starting 2015)
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, Illinois, USA

Marie-Claire Shanahan
Associate Professor
Research Chair in Science Education and Public Engagement
Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Potential starting areas for essay topics include, but are not limited to:

Real life
Starting a family early or late career
Real life interruptions of science career
On being an adult student in grad school
Finding work life balance
Mixing family and field work
Mental or physical illness

My friends are buying apartments and I’m pipetting for my dissertation at 3 am
The wrong mentor
Poorly funded grad programs
The wrong program
Being interested in another life completely
When your advisor doesn’t make tenure, or leaves

Underrepresented
Being an ethnic minority in science
Being LGBTIA in science
Being alternatively abled in science

Pocketbooks and suitcases
Personal financial challenges during study/career
Life of the scientific spouse
Working in a place where you do not speak the language
Working in another country/culture

Thievery, loss and recourse
Not making tenure/losing tenure
Failed job searches
Loss of funding
On getting scooped

Over the line
Bullying
Infantilization
Harassment
Racism
Sexism
Wrongful dismissal
When a mentor can’t seem to keep their nose out of your personal life

When we quit and where we go
The decision to leave academia
The decision to leave science
Adjuncting for life
Returning to academia

Leave a comment

11 Comments

  1. Jill M

     /  August 30, 2014

    I really appreciate you guys doing a book about women in science, and it is hard out there sometimes for reasons that are not fair: e.g. a scientist may also happen to be a woman.
    But science is hard for everyone, and as a woman in science, I’m embarrassed by your topic list. Everything is about our oppression, our missing out, our isolation. What about the joy of science? Seeing a student succeed? Discovering something new? Speaking to and interacting with other scientists? Is there any room for why women _love_ science and can thrive in science and that being a woman in science is not a prison sentence or death march? I really really hope you will consider including some of the great experiences women have in science too. I wonder if you don’t bias the sample with the current topic list, you might also get some joyful personal statements too.

    Reply
    • Thanks very much for the comment Jill. We are definitely aware that careers in science are challenging for all who pursue them and also that there is much joy and passion in doing science. I know the topic list might seem to emphasize difficult topics but that is because our intent is very specific. We are not trying to collect the whole of women’s experience in science through personal statements. We are specifically looking to create a collection that helps women see that they are not alone in these struggles and hear what other women have done to continue doing what they love and/or find new ways to pursue their scientific interests. We would be pleased to consider any submissions from women who worked through these challenges by finding ways to focus on or rediscover the joys of science. But the starting point for all of the entries will be the challenges individual women have faced and how they have dealt with them.

      Reply
  2. I am glad you included mental illness as a topic. For example, more women tend to suffer from clinical depression than men, according to numerous statistical studies. Depression affects a person’s ability to concentrate and think effectively. In addition, many people know that they are feeling bad, but they do not realize that depression is the reason—and it often goes undiagnosed and untreated because of it. It can hurt academic performance and get you kicked out of a Ph.D. program because of failure to perform. It is one thing to get kicked out because you are just plain old incompetent. It is quite another to get kicked out because you have an untreated disease that severely degrades your ability to perform.

    In addition, I hope some women will look at another issue that, quite frankly, really pisses me off. It has never happened to me personally, but I think it is a real problem with some male faculty members at universities—particularly department heads and chairmen that set an overall tone for a graduate program or a department.

    1) My view is that graduate school should be a nurturing place where committed young people can learn the ropes in a profession. I see faculty members as coaches who expect high performance from their students but are also on the side of the students, cheering for the students, and ensuring in a fair and honest way that they will have every opportunity to succeed as a result of their hard work.

    2) Some university departments dominated by males view graduate school in a very different way. A student once told me that her male department chairman had TOLD HER DIRECTLY that he believed the primary purpose of graduate school—above all else—is to “weed out the weak.” Apparently, graduate school was viewed as a grand show where gladiator students fought to the death in the arena against other students, their course challenges, their research challenges, and all obstacles thrown in their way by faculty members—and only the strong would be allowed to survive—indeed only the strong deserved to survive by virtue of natural/social selection—and become members of the profession.

    Number 2 has macho male BS written all over it. I hope someone will address whether they have encountered studying in or working in an academic department that is willfully designed by males to look more like “The Hunger Games” than a nurturing place to learn and grow. Wherever it exists, this BS needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your comment and you are right about the importance of discussing mental illness. Depression, anxiety and other illnesses can make graduate school so much more challenging, even more so because they are often undiagnosed.

      Reply
  3. I’d like to echo the first comment. It’s great that you’re doing this, and this can become a really important book. I first thought that maybe I could submit a paper – being a female scientist, now young faculty, working in a male-dominated field of genomics, and also living and working far away from my home country.

    But apparently my story is not wanted in your book, because it would be a positive one: I have never felt that my gender has been a major issue in my career. I have hardly ever felt discriminated against or unfairly treated. I love my work and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

    I’m aware of the problems that many of my female peer struggle with, and I too am trying to help to battle them and be part of building a more equalitarian world and academia. There’s a long way to go, not only in science but in other professions as well. But I’m afraid that by publishing a book exclusively of people who had to deal with major issues, you’re sending out a biased, discouraging message that this is what it is for everyone: a jungle of harassment and discrimination. And that is not true. I know that I might be an exception, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. In addition to survival tips, I think young girls and women also should know that it can be OK. It’s not necessarily that terrible. A career in science, even as a woman, can be a great choice.

    Reply
    • Thanks very much for your comment. I understand where you’re coming from, of course there are many positive experiences that women have in science and those stories are very important too. This book, however, is not a chronicle of all possible experiences in science. There are other projects that do a wonderful job of highlighting positive and affirming narratives, for example: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn/news/podcasts/celebrating-women-in-science.aspx

      Our book is meant to serve a very specific purpose. As you say, there are many women who experience very difficult struggles for many different reasons. The book is meant to be a volume of personal stories that can help women in the sciences when they meet with those obstacles. Stories like this can be very valuable for helping them know that they are not alone. Further, stories like this can also help to inspire young women even, or actually especially, where they are negative. Working with colleagues in physics we have found a much stronger positive effect on female high school students desire to pursue science when potential challenges are discussed openly. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/29/can-we-declare-victory-for-women-in-their-participation-in-science-not-yet/

      While you fear that the book will be biased and discouraging, sitting here with the submissions we’ve had so far I can assure you that it is not. By focusing not only on the challenges but on the strategies that women have used to cope and survive, the result is a collection of stories that radiates hope, perseverance and, importantly, a love for science. I appreciate your comments and concerns, but I hope perhaps you’ll be willing to check out the collection when it is complete to understand that this is not a volume of doom and gloom but one of support, hope and mentorship.

      Reply
  4. laylaL

     /  September 6, 2014

    I don’t think the point of this project is to suggest that a career in science isn’t a great or even okay choice. It doesn’t appear to be searching for some dark underbelly of science, or irresponsibly collecting biased views. That STEM is not a level playing field for women has been very well quantified. I would say it appears they are trying to put together a group of relatable stories so that when someone faces an obstacle, they can find support from the experience of others. I’m not sure how either commenter here went from this call for papers to the conclusions stated here. I think they have misjudged the purpose of this effort.

    Reply
  5. Rachael King

     /  September 9, 2014

    Ma’am, I am a Medical Laboratory Scientist in the U.S. Military and would like to contribute my story. As you can imagine, this will present some challenges, namely my abstract/essay must be reviewed by the Public Affairs Office (PAO) prior to submittal. My concern is that I may miss the September 30th Abstract deadline as I’m not sure how long it will take the PAO office to provide feeback. Please let me know if you are willing to be flexible in that particular deadline. Thank you for your time!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much Rachael, that is definitely something we can discuss. Can you send us an email and we can work something out with you?

      >

      Reply
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