My advisor here at MIT is white, male, and close to seventy. He’s one of the top geochemists in his field and has a great amount of knowledge to share with me and his other grad student, a seventh year (male, Chinese) student who will be graduating this year. In all likelihood, I’ll be my advisor’s last PhD student.
At first, I was a little nervous about having an advisor who is close to emeritus status and is definitely from the last generation of MIT scientists– a group that is very white and very male. However, my advisor impressed me when I was interviewing with him back in March. Towards the end of the interview, after I had either passed or failed the “put you on the spot about all sorts of petrology and isotope stuff that you should remember” section of the interview, we ended up chatting some about the advantages and disadvantages of being female in science.
In many ways, there are advantages to being female in science. There are certainly opportunities and grants that are easier to get if you are female or which you can only get if you are female. These days, there are many more female grad students, at least in Earth Science. Yet, there are still relatively few female professors. Perhaps the numbers of female professors will rise greatly in the next ten to fifteen years, but I’m not so sure.
I don’t know the actual statistics, but offhand I’d say that there seems to be a disconnect between the number of women receiving PhDs and the number of female tenured professors. These days, it seems easier for a female to obtain a PhD in science, but it is still very challenging for a woman to obtain a tenured faculty position.
A partial explanation? Biology. The years in which tenure-track females are needing to accomplish outstanding research by slaving away in the lab 24-7 are the same years in which they need to have kids, if they want them. Having a first child at 45 is very reasonable for a male professor, but it won’t cut it for a female professor. Most of the tenured female professors I know are: 1. not married or 2. are married, but don’t have kids.
My advisor and I were chatting about this very subject, and he told me that he thinks that the expectations for female, tenure-track professors should be more flexible than for male professors. There should be a “baby clause” or something.
I have a different solution: a househusband. I’m not the stay-at-home Martha Stewart type, but I do like children and may have one or two of the little ones someday. So, I think I’ll start advertising for a househusband position starting oh, say, five years from now. You have to be attractive, naturally, and know enough about science so that dinner conversations are interesting. In exchange for full financial support, you have to take care of the little ones while I’m off studying the rocks of the world or making lots of money for an oil company or something. Of course, you can be a stay-at-home writer or a middle school soccer coach or throw tupperware parties or whatever, but the little ones can’t be neglected!
I suppose I could always just adopt kids and hire a Nanny, but a househusband sounds like so much more fun. Firemen especially encouraged to apply.
Okay, so I’m not really accepting applications for a househusband nor promoting that idea as a general solution for every career-oriented woman. But, seriously, what’s a girl with a scientific career to do if she also wants a family? Maybe househusbands aren’t the answer (well, at least not in every case), but in some way social structures both at home and in the workplace need to be more flexible.