Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman (in science)

Obtaining a senior academic position for any aspiring young academic is one of those uphill struggles with roads lined with self doubt, setbacks and sacrifice. Some call it the way to tenure-track, in my mind it’s one of those ill-defined paths through a potentially haunted forest inhabited with monsters, gigantic poisonous spiders and creepy people who communicate by screaming. It can be harder still to even reach that point, particularly for young women. While the number of women professors in Europe, N. America and Australia has increased over the last decade, universities still have a disproportionately small number of women in senior professorial positions.


While the numbers of female students are high at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (in my undergraduate studies there seemed a 1:3 male to female ratio), the senior academic positions tend to be held by men. This discrepancy is certainly not a question of ability. It sadly appears that a large proportion of talented female students either abandon their career ambitions in favour of a non-academic job, turn down fellowships or accept jobs at less competitive universities allowing a focus on raising children and enjoying family life. Quite simply, it appears that many women in academia lose faith in being able to “have it all” – a family and career is viewed as incompatible and one must be sacrificed. A survey of female academics found that only 1 in 3 became mothers during their university careers. This is a bitter pill to swallow in many cases; the female academics in question have worked just as hard as their male counterparts, yet feel the sacrifice must be made on their part.

As an early career researcher, and a women, I feel torn between various paths. Prior to arriving in Australia I’d been at university in the UK for 11 years continually, as either an undergraduate, postgraduate or postdoc, in various Redbrick / Russell Group universities. I felt somewhat institutionalised by the university environment, gradually lamenting my loss of NUS discount as I became a postdoc and becoming more irate with flocks of lost or intoxicated undergraduates, but really university was my home. Aside from a brief foray into industry in a placement at the end of my PhD candidature, I decided those waters were far too shark infested for me, and that academia was my calling. I need an intellectually stimulating environment and people to “talk science” with, in a fairly transparent hierarchical arrangement.

The typical progression from PhD to a permanent or tenured academic position is a string of post-doc jobs, often requiring frequent moves – potentially internationally – and with it an intrinsic lack of security about future employment, along with disruption of relationships and scraping around for research funding. I don’t want to talk about relationships, I’ve had as many heartbreaks as I have had manuscripts rejected. I’ve felt often like I’ve been clinging on to jobs desperately (and relationships for that matter). It feels very much like scaling a climbing wall, don’t look back, keep moving forward, hang on for dear life, some of your nails will get broken.

Post doc positions have become increasingly competitive following government research funding cuts in the UK, USA and the rest of the world. A recent article by The Guardian states that women are more negatively affected by competitiveness in the early stages of their academic careers, underpinned by a lack of self-confidence. As both a woman and a Brit this statement resonates to me. I intrinsically put myself down and compare myself to others. I blame this on my wry, self-deprecating, British sense of humour and the constant need to not “show off”, as nobody likes a show off.

I find it terrifying to write a statement about myself and feel completely depersonalised by my statements when I do I feel like “Who is this person? Is this me? Would I employ me?”. I know I need to re-address the line between perceived arrogance and confidence.

My line of research requires long hours, frustrations, swathes of data and the blatant disregard of the statement “never work with children or animals”. This has led to fewer publications than some of my PhD graduating year peers. I occasionally feel the need to PubMed search my peers and then to drown my sorrows in copious volumes of alcohol. I need to stop doing this. I perform well at interview as I’m personable and warm, and also know my stuff, but sometimes the selling myself on paper side of things alludes me. I’m prone to the “I’ll never get that job so why bother trying” mindset. In hindsight it may be that men are just more willing to take a risk and apply for those jobs they aren’t 100% qualified for and every once in a while it works out.


Now I’ll return to my main point about female academics leaving the tenure track. It is not that these potentially painful choices come as a surprise to female academics. A 2008 study conducted by Mary Ann Mason, a law professor at UC Berkeley, surveyed 8,000 doctoral students in the UC system. More than half of these female doctoral candidates thought that having children would negatively impact their careers. This fear of being held back could mean postponing their willingness to have children, sometimes permanently. Relationships for me have been “rocky” to say the least through my academic career so far, so I most certainly haven’t felt the urge to spawn, but that’s just me.

In addition, I think the very mindset of many female academics is to be as independent as possible at all times, don’t let them see your weaknesses – looking at the occasional cute animal photo is OK, but lets not get caught cooing over babies. It’s best to try be androgynous so they might not notice you trying to handshake your way into the boy’s club. Also from working in a lab where I play with carcinogens, teratogens and other delightfully harmful chemicals with the knowledge of what these things can do to you and your unborn child, being pregnant doesn’t exactly appeal to this kind of work. At the same time, there is little by way of practical assistance on offer. We are control freaks by nature, it makes for replicable science. I like to at least mess up experiments myself, not have to blame someone else. Women also often forget that men get paternity leave for a few months after the birth of their child, the load can be shared.

Women more so than men see sacrifice as a prerequisite for academic success. Do I just go it alone and become a crazy cat lady and live for my work, or do I scrabble around attempting to have it all? I will forever choose the latter. I might not get that Science or Nature paper, but I can at least aspire to.

This awareness of sacrifice may come in part from the perception of women who have succeeded in academia as displaying more masculine traits such as competitiveness, who are also often childless. I am both competitive (as long as it’s not in physical sports) and feminine (I have boobs and I like wearing dresses with flowers on). The very nature of available role models for women in academia needs to address the impression that women can succeed without making these sacrifices as much as universities need to address that they are letting talented researchers slip away. We are proud people, we relish in our personal successes and don’t want hand outs, however we would appreciate a hand every once in a while.

Cite this article:
Reichelt A (2013-01-29 00:01:03). Sometimes it's hard to be a woman (in science). Australian Science. Retrieved: Jun 17, 2024, from

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