Saturday, February 16, 2008

Gender and the geoscience pipeline (or: life as one of the 14%)

I don't have access to Nature Geoscience, so I haven't read the article published there on gender equity in the geosciences (“Gender Imbalance in US Geoscience Academia” by Holmes, O’Connell, Frey, and Ongley, p. 79-82) that Eric and Julia have recently written about. I've read the older "Where Are the Women Geoscience Professors?" report by AWG (and some of the same authors), however, and I've shared a GSA hotel room with one of the paper's authors. (Does that alone say something significant about women in geology?)

Jim asked what the women geobloggers thought, so here it goes...

First, the short answer: I think the best explanation for what I've observed over my career comes from Virginia Valian's gender schemas work. The basic idea is that people's expectations influence their perceptions of others (and of themselves), and these little differences in perception add up. So the statements about "intrinsic female attributes" (such as the ones Eric quotes: 'females in general prefer to teach'; 'females lack self-confidence'; 'females in general have a low interest in the subject matter'; and 'females don’t like field work') are the problems in themselves. Even when they aren't true about a particular job applicant (or woman coming up for tenure, or grant applicant, or paper author), the expectation that they will be true influences the people making the judgments.

It feels to me like I'm constantly having to disprove the same flawed hypotheses, over and over again. (I'm the first woman professor in any of the small schools in western Colorado - there were others on the Front Range, but in the triangle bounded by Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, and the greater Salt Lake City area, I was the first.) No, I am not the department secretary. Yes, I can identify rocks. Believe me, it gets old after a while.

Second, the personal experience.

I graduated from college in 1989. Half of the students in my undergrad department were women. One of the four tenured professors was a woman. When I started grad school at Stanford, three of the five new PhD students were women. My graduate advisor was a woman. When I got my first teaching job in 1993 (with PhD in hand, and yes, that was very fast), I was the third woman in a six-person department. Things looked pretty good.

That department now has one woman out of six professors. (And I am not the one.) I've got a lot of stories that I could tell, but perhaps I will just tell two, one about research, and one about teaching.

Research: I heard through the grapevine that I supposedly was only given my PhD because I had gotten a job. (Umm. No. Actually, I hadn't intended to finish in four years, but when I met with my committee after 3.5 years, told them about the two papers I had nearly ready to submit, and asked them what to do next, they told me to finish. I panicked; I didn't feel prepared to take on the job market, especially in January. But I started applying for jobs, and got three interviews and two offers. And, yes, that was unusual. And remember I was the third woman in the department that hired me; I was not an affirmative action hire.)

Teaching: I taught this large lecture non-majors course, and to get discussion going on the first day of class, I asked each student to write a question on a notecard. One of the responses from students was "What's your sign? Who's your daddy?" Another was "Is it true that this is the easiest class on campus?" (I was filling in for another person who normally taught the course, by the way. I wasn't the person responsible for the reputation.) When the teaching evaluations came in, the students said the class was too easy.

I was denied tenure at that job. (By the administration; my department unanimously recommended me for tenure. The problem was with course evaluations in the large intro class and with letters from outside evaluators about my scholarship. I "wasn't excellent enough.")

I got another job, and I've got tenure now. But I'm not the only tenured woman professor in the geosciences with stories to tell. There are women who are incredibly brilliant and talented who have lost jobs, or have been passed over for promotions. Some had children; some, like me, did not. (I had my son after moving to Colorado.)

The academic job market in the geosciences has been extremely competitive in these past twenty years. It's hard for everyone to get the jobs that they want, and the hiring committees have a lot of good people to choose from. The two men who entered grad school with me both are tenured at major research universities, and I think their institutions are lucky to have hired them. They're great people, and extremely talented scientists.

The women I knew in grad school are also extremely talented people. But they aren't, in general, in as prestigious of positions.

The problem isn't the pipeline. There were plenty of women in the pipeline twenty years ago. They were in grad school with me, or they were new PhDs at GSA, smart and exciting. They should be tenured professors now, and leading cutting-edge sessions at GSA. But the demographics at conferences don't seem any different than they were when I started. Lots of women students. Not many women who are established scientists.

I don't think that the problem is entirely structural, either. (*Insert bad joke about faults here.*) Yes, it is incredibly difficult to juggle a small child and new teaching and research responsibilities. But it is even harder when you've also got to disprove flawed hypotheses. ("She's only interested in teaching." "She was only a courtesy co-author on that paper." "She doesn't want to do field work." "She lacks self-confidence." "She was only hired because she's a woman.") Changing the tenure clock to accommodate childbirth only helps if the committee doesn't think less of a woman for taking that option. (Or doesn't assume that the woman should write twice as many papers in that time.)

So what can we do about it? Well, question our biases. (Yes, all of us. Women too.) When we write letters of recommendation, make sure that we talk about women's talents as scientists, not just about how nice they are. When we read letters of recommendation, take "she's a great teacher" as a positive thing, not as a sign that the woman applicant is mediocre at research. And call other people on their biases, especially when we're on hiring or tenure or promotion committees.

It seemed like the work was over in 1989, or in 1993. But it isn't.


C W Magee said...

Of all the courtesy authorships that I've been involved with, none of the freeloaders have been women. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

Kim said...

I've done significant (like 30 to 100%) of the writing on all but one of the papers I've co-authored. (The last one synthesized and interpreted stuff that included my dissertation, but my contributions were mostly e-mail clarifications of my observations.) I've been assumed to have been a courtesy co-author on stuff that I wrote big chunks of, though.

Anonymous said...

The younger generation at my particular office in my particular profession (which has 100+ geoscientists...including geophysicists) is very close to 50-50 male/female. These are the people who are in their late 20s to nearly 40. The older generation (baby boomers), however, is much more male-dominated.

I'm not sure what that means w/r/t the academic stats ... but, it's a good sign for applied sciences, in my opinion.

Kim said...

I think that one difference between the applied sciences and academia comes from the difficulty of measuring "excellence" in academia. There are so few faculty hires, and tenure means such a long commitment - the people in charge want to get the very best. But "best" is measured very subjectively, in letters of recommendation and student teaching evaluations, and it's easy for biases to come into subjective evaluations.

In industry, you can always be laid off if things go bad. But there isn't the kind of subjective hurdle of tenure.

Eric said...

I wonder whether industry is more diverse due to the legal ramifications of discrimination? What do you think?

The January issue of the AAPG Explorer magazine had an article that kind of suggested as much, to me:

Kim said...

I've never worked in industry. Both mining and oil & gas were laying off people in the early 90's.

But I think that that hiring gap - those years in the late 80's and early 90's - may have made the transition seem much more sudden in the oil industry. (That time gap explains why there are young women, and there are women who experienced the overt discrimination of the 70's, but there aren't women my age. Or at least, not very many women my age.)

I think that the sudden demand for geoscientists in both mining and oil & gas has probably done more to eliminate discrimination than any laws have. (I remember reading - maybe Milton Friedman? - arguing that a truly free market would not discriminate, because discrimination is economically inefficient.) Industry needs geologists, and needs them to do particular jobs, and as long as it needs them, it will hire the people with the necessary skills, no matter who they are. Academia, on the other hand, sells prestige - and prestige is a very fuzzy thing, and is susceptible to bias.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with Kim ... I think the better balance in the younger generation in industry is simply a function of them needing people in the workforce. These days there are literally hundreds of geoscientists with graduate degress ... and not many academic jobs. The math is easy.

As for tenure ... personally, I think it's ridiculous that people get to keep a job for life even if they do squat. They should have to prove themselves to keep tenure instead of all the stress up front of getting tenure.

I've seen several examples of lazy, tenured professors. Maybe they are not representative ... but they've affected how I view that process.

In other words, if things "go bad" they should get laid off. It seems now it takes a crime to get rid of a useless prof.

Kim said...

As far as post-tenure reviews go: actually, they do exist, though they vary from one institution to another. I'm reviewed every three years at my current institution, and the faculty handbook says that we can be laid off, even if we have tenure.

Elli said...

I had friends during both my master's and PhD programs choose industry over academia because of the children issue. There's also the pay scale--I"m only earning about 1/2 of what my friend's in the oil industry are pulling in. If you have loans from a BA, MS, and PhD, the quicker you can pay them off, the sooner you can move onto a mortgage.

But I also wonder at what people encourage women to consider vs. men. Most male professors have suggested more teaching heavy or educational research positions to me, while it has been female professors who have been asking me why I haven't chosen to do name-brand post-docs.

Kim said...

The teaching vs. post-doc thing really can limit your options. (Though I know of at least one woman at a research university who started out with a temporary teaching position, and decided the liberal arts things wasn't for her.)

When I finished... well, I'm a bad example, because I have always been rather unmentorable. But I didn't feel like any of my committee members pushed me to do anything, except to write my papers and defend my thesis. I thought about post-docs as a way to stave off starvation rather than as a career move, though.

I made it pretty clear that I had decided that teaching was what I wanted to do. But I had the chance to try pure research, because I had a fellowship, so I guess I didn't choose blindly.

saxifraga said...

Great post and kudos to you for writing it. I'm not sure I have much to add right now, but I definitely agree with you that the problems are not in the pipeline.