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On women in science PhDs and a crystallization of feelings

So, I posted a somewhat epic comment (a bit belatedly) on the opt-out article in response to a commenter who made a point about women leaving their field after getting PhDs and I feel like it was a weird moment of clarity for me — literally as I was writing it, I was going OHHHH, that's how I feel! — so I'm reposting it here, because I am interested in what other folks have to say on this particular issue, and on saying "fuck it."

Or not, and I'm just fist-shaking into the void. ;)


I am in my second year of a PhD program that couldn't be more ideal, I'm pretty young to be in my position, and I have every intention of sticking with my field — ideally, in academia, for a number of reasons both personal and professional. However, I am also going on 4 years with my partner and we've recently been getting serious about the big things — buying a house, thinking about when we actually are going to get married (it's a given, but we've never gotten serious about the timing), and when we're going to spawn. Those conversations have forced me to face the fact that PhD programs, postdocs, and early career academic positions can be extremely hostile toward women who are trying to have a kid. If I wait until my career is in a secure position to have a kid, there's a chance I'll be in my late 30s before I can give the go-ahead. And remember — I'm young to be in a PhD! Most people in my program are at least 2 and sometimes 10 years older than me.


I won't argue that some women may naively leave their STEM fields thinking everything will be there when they return, but I think the reality for most highly educated women in science is that you're not facing a work environment that will be supportive of your choice to have a kid (implicit in this is that men almost never face this issue to the same degree). So I don't think it's fair to say there's this rash of women who don't *intend* to use their degrees — I think it's much more likely that women get into their programs because they are smart, capable, and motivated, and then are presented with a set of seemingly-impossible-to-reconcile tradeoffs. Have a kid during your PhD? People think you're not taking your work seriously. Have a kid while looking for postdocs? Yeah, good luck. Have a kid while *in* a postdoc? You must be crazy! And will anyone hire you if you decide to have a kid early on in your TT position? What if that affects your tenure review? (It might.)

I'm inclined to say fuck it, and we might have a kid somewhere toward the end of my PhD. My mom was a great role model who, for example, worked 10+ hours a day from home during an extended bedrest, and who has the respect of everyone she's ever worked with or supervised. She works 70 hour weeks but she and my dad (who actually worked fewer hours) always made sure we had family dinner. I KNOW that women are capable of having children and kicking ass in their careers at the same time, and that this idea that you can only have one or the other is stupid regressive bullshit built around sexist notions of who should be doing what to care for children (hint: my partner plans on remaining in his field partly because it's highly flexible and will allow us to build a good family schedule — but who ever asks men in job interviews how they plan on accommodating childrearing in their careers?). So what it comes down to for me is: I know that I can do my job and have a kid. If employers in my field refuse to acknowledge that fact and punish me for it, then fuck it, I will take my valuable skill set and passion somewhere where it's recognized and rewarded — somewhere that sees me as an asset rather than a potential liability. I will probably be more useful working for people who think more highly of women, anyway.

ETA: I want to add that I am in an amazing and really supportive program, and at least half my cohort (last I checked) is female. It's a wonderful gender balance. However, I am becoming keenly aware of what an ivory-tower future would entail as I think forward — hence a lot of anger in this comment.

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