Women, did you hear biology professor is the most glorious career I can imagine?

IMG_1745I just want to cry when I hear how discouraged women are from pursuing science careers. I want to do more than cry when I hear about how little encouragement professors give even their most promising women. Why do we all have to feel like imposters, even if we are in the National Academy of Sciences? What can we do to change this?

How lucky I was to have Richard Alexander as my undergrad adviser. There was no question that I would go to grad school once I discovered that you could muck about in the woods and fields discovering things the way I did as a kid and get paid for it. (OK, with a little more rigor than then.) Dick helped me plan where to go and what to study. Getting his help for this felt normal. After all, he had stood up for me before. That I was female never seemed to enter into the equation. Why can’t more advisers be like that?

When I got to grad school, women and men were treated the same as far as I could tell. We were not excluded from field trips, for example. University of Texas at Austin, and my various major professors, Alan Templeton, Larry Gilbert, and briefly Dan Otte never seemed to question my suitability for science, though I questioned it myself early on in population genetics.

Well, I could go on through my story, with three kids, two born before tenure, and various stories of support and prejudice, but there is more than anecdote to the story of women. We really are discouraged by others. We really are doubted by others. The recent New York Times article discusses this. It mentions personal experience, as I do. But it also mentions Jo Handelsman‘s fake resume study. And it isn’t just in science, as a music study attests. It showed women were more likely to be selected for playing if they could not be seen.

So what do we do? After all, women are apparently as biased as men. Among the undergraduates I mentor, I might be encouraging them towards a thrilling and flexible career that I love, but away from the often boring yet prestigious safety of medicine, with its impossible work hours.

My solution is to encourage and reveal what the job is all about. I have decided that I do not know my students well enough or know what they are capable of to play grand decider as to who can do it and who cannot. I assume they can all do it; I encourage; I support. The rest I leave to them.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Mentoring and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Women, did you hear biology professor is the most glorious career I can imagine?

  1. Chad Johnson says:

    Joan, i want to start a campaign to make good quality UG mentoring a part of the P and T evaluation in my department. Do you know of any good models for this? For so many schools it is an implicit expectation, but many faculty shirk this critical responsibility if they can get away with it. thanks for the blog. Chad

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