Endangered Scientistas: My Marriage as Case-Control Study, Part I.

Over the last two or three years, I’ve become increasingly aware that I am a member of an endangered species, a dwindling tribe. Other specimens like me are dropping like flies everywhere I look: some who I went to college with, others I slogged through graduate school with, still others I’ve worked and networked with. Gone.

I’m talking, of course, about female scientists. Or as I like to call us, Scientistas. That has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Mostly, it’s just exactly the word scientist, which is, mostly, just exactly what we are. But then there’s that “a,” the feminine ending from the Romance Languages, a sort of asterisk after the word that could link to a footnote as long as the history of science itself. And there’s the entire suffix, ista, with all it invokes: feminista, Zapatista, maybe even a touch of the barista (after all, we spend our days mixing and brewing) and the fashionista (may I say, that white coat looks amazing with those sensibly close-toed shoes).

I’ve been a full-time Scientista for a decade now, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to meditate on my own mortality, career-wise. This has everything to do with the fact that three years ago, I entered the black box known as… the postdoc.

The postdoc–short for postdoctoral fellowship–is a sort of science apprenticeship, lasting anywhere from three to six years in the life sciences (or longer, in certain Bermuda Triangle laboratories), that customarily follows the Ph.D. It’s a must for scientists who want to land a faculty job at a university, as well as a number of jobs in industry, government, and beyond.

It’s also the stage at which an unsettling number of women leave science. It’s the “leaky pipeline” problem: there are plenty of women studying biology (my field) in college and graduate school, and a fair number of these women go on to do postdocs. But during and after the postdoc, the numbers of Scientistas drop sharply, startlingly. In my own graduate class at the University of California, Berkeley, slightly more than half the students were women; among the department’s faculty, about 20 percent were (and are). In my division there was one female professor, out of a dozen. I took classes from 12 different professors; not one of them was female.

It’s like this at universities all across the country. In fact, Berkeley is better than some. And it’s not simply a matter of needing to let the predominantly male old guard “age out;” when I started grad school, the three youngest and most recently hired professors in my division were all men. (Aside #1: not only men, but white men. People of color are also unevenly represented in science faculty, and this is also a huge concern.) (Aside#2: since I graduated, my division has hired two new female faculty members, who seem like total rock stars, as well as another male professor.)

I’m hardly the first to note or lament the disparity between the number of women who earn advanced degrees in the sciences, and the number who stick around to become professors and principal investigators. But now, three years into my postdoc, I find myself running into this issue in a very concrete way. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do after my postdoc, and it’s tough. In addition to the challenges people must navigate in any career–juggling job opportunities, family obligations, financial considerations–I feel an added pressure to excel in science, to run the gauntlet all the way through–because so many women don’t.

But will I? Will I stay in science, or will I leave? And if I leave, will it be because I really wanted to–because the life of a PI isn’t for me–or because I feel a preponderance of forces stacked up against me? Ultimately: is it because I’m a girl?

This is a complex question for a complex situation. There are many reasons why I might leave science, and a number of them don’t involve gender. Funding and professorships in short supply. Interest in other career paths. How to tell whether my choices are truly altered by the fact that I’m a woman–or more accurately, by the fact that a career in science poses unique challenges for me as a woman? Biologists love complexity, but we also like to simplify things in order to get to the bottom of them. What we need here is a control.

Enter my husband.

We met in graduate school at UC Berkeley. We earned our degrees in the same laboratory, under the guidance of the same mentor, who wrote us both similarly glowing letters of recommendation when we completed our dissertations. We graduated the same year, with identical degrees from one of the best-regarded programs in the country. Our publications records differ in an admittedly important way: mine is substantially longer, with several papers published in well-regarded papers, but my husband’s has the cachet of a paper published in Nature, arguably the top scientific journal.

Even so, when you throw in our other fellowships and honors and round off, we both left graduate school as fairly hot prospects with strong resumes (or CVs, as we call them in the sciences). And when we went shopping for postdocs, we both received job offers everywhere we interviewed.

Do you see where I’m going with this? My husband is me: the same skills set, the same training, the same career path up to the point where our postdocs begin. The “only” difference between us is that little “a:” Scientist versus Scientista.**

Now that I’ve defined the case (me) and the control (my husband), the experiment can begin, the data can be analyzed. How has my scientific journey been shaped by the fact that I’m a woman? How has it been different from my husband’s, who for the most part has interacted with the same people that I have, in the same settings, but as a man? I hope to dissect this, a little at a time, in future posts. Stay tuned.


**Yes. Okay. There are other differences between us as well. My husband’s fondness for aerobic exercise, for example, and his unholy love for banana-flavored ice cream. Still, I have to start somewhere.


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