Archive for: December, 2015

Achievement at the intersection of class and gender (part 1)

Dec 29 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

My mother met her dearest friend when she went back to get a doctorate in her 40s. They quickly became, in their words, confidents. Ruby was an epidemiologist who had, as my mother had, gone back for a doctoral degree when she had young children. When they met, (in the mid-60's), they were not only the oldest in the school of public health, but pretty much the only women in the doctoral program.

Ruby had been a nurse, my mother a social worker. As both had said to me, on separate occasions, when they had been young (the post-war 40s) there were three choices for smart, ambitious working class women: teacher, nurse, social worker. When they were young, and starting out, having a job was critical. Having a job that would pay almost immediately, for which there was scholarship money to get their post-high school education, was essential. Neither Ruby nor my mother had the resources, the encouragement or the social support to do something as complex as medical school or get a PhD.

Out of curiosity I went back and looked up some of the early female physicians. Reading between the lines, most of these women came from if not owning class families, at least high professional ones. Helen Taussig, an incredible woman who found a solution to extend the life of Teratology of Fallot (one cause of blue babies), was a generation earlier, graduating medical school in the 20's. There were lots of barriers in her way, including the fact that most medical schools would not admit women. Her father was a Harvard professor. My mother's parents were illiterate factory workers.

Both my Mom and Ruby had waited as long as they could to get married. They finished college and got married at what was quite late at the time. Their society was not particularly tolerant of unmarried women. As an aside, I know that they both loved the men they married, and stayed married until their husbands died.  They worked as nurse and social worker for years, but wanted more. Even in the 60's that was not an easy choice. I remember when my Mom went back for her doctorate when I was in grade school (her kids were 12,10 & 8). I was the only one I knew with a working mother, let alone one going to school.  It was years later, with supportive spouses and children that my mother & Ruby could go back to school as 40 year olds.

Today, there is more encouragement, support, etc for at least white working class women. Yet, judging from the classes I teach, medical school still draws more from middle class women, with more working class men enrolled. The children of my working class friends chose nursing, police work, mid-managerial positions. Medical school is something "rich people do".

But I admit that I am guessing here, and don't have the statistics. There is abundant information of ethnic/racial, even religious, makeup of the classes I teach now, at almost-MRU, as well as at the medical school of my old MRU. Far less information exists on class.

This meditation was prompted by an article in the NYTimes this Sunday about "marrying up" by Tyler Cowen. That article, about class flexibility totally ignores gender, and gender selection in marriage. I'll come back to that in the next post.

Its my mother's 90th birthday this week. I remember her telling me that when she was a girl, she never expected to see the year 2000, because in her world, back then, people did not live to be much beyond 60 or 70. Her parents, working class chain-smokers, lived into their 80s. I wish I could reach her to tell her how incredible and wonderful is everything that she accomplished. Likely she would say to me, old 60s civil rights worker that she was: yes, but who is not getting the opportunity today? What are you, the jewel in my crown, doing to change that?


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Way back when

Dec 23 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Here is a favorite picture, over 25 years ago. I was doing field work in Australia. It was one of the happiest times of my life.



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Quote of the Day (after an explosion in the lab)

Dec 16 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

All of human history is sandwiched between two questions:

What could it possibly hurt?

Followed, sometime later, by:

How was I supposed to know?

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STEM postdocs and solutions to the problems

Dec 15 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy wrote a thoughtful post titled : "Why today’s long STEM postdoc positions are effectively anti-mother". She's on a search committee that has gotten applications showing that many applicants received their PhD more than five years ago, and some a lot more. Her central point is that the long time between degree and tenure track job impacts women disproportionately, for reasons that have been talked about at length: the ticking biological clock, the costs of postponing reproduction, the costs of daycare, the value of a stay-at-home partner, etc. These things are problems (and some are also problems for men who are involved in raising their families, not to mention gay male couples). I do not think, however, that some of her suggestions make sense.

Her first suggestion:

Award several thousand dollars to female postdocs with children when they go on the academic job market. This can cover high-quality childcare, travel with children or living costs for family caretakers.

First off, who is awarding this money? The PI paying the salary? Maybe some of the BSD labs have this kind of cash sitting around. I sure don't. The universities hiring the postdoc? Lots of luck with that one, when they are busy cutting essential fringes to postdocs, when we are arguing about what salary PDs should be making. Another several thousand dollars? The question now arises, who else should have a couple of thousand dollars to  go on the job market? People from disadvantaged backgrounds? But then, should women from the owning class get this anyway?

But being realistic is not necessarily the same thing as being right or wrong. Noted.

Second suggestion:

Create competitive internal scholarships to fund a research technician for a year, when a female postdoctoral fellow is pregnant, or with infant. The technician would carry on the fellow’s experiments during the time she must be away from the bench.

Again, there is a problem with funding. Right now, at my almost-MRU, we are having trouble covering some of the lab teaching. Arguments about even hiring a postdoc to half-teach, half-research (not a bad position for someone who wants to go into teaching) are met with financial arguments. Competitive? who pays? The university? They're not even willing to hire to cover the teaching, I judge it highly unlikely that they would consider this.

Another problem, from a social justice perspective, is that the "hire a tech" solution just kicks the can down the road. Who are these "one year technicians"? People who will have to leave their job after a year? Countries with maternity replacements have a new class of under-employed, transient, insecure young people who will take a job for a year. In America, these people are often called "adjuncts". It has been argued that there are lots of young people who want a job for a year, before med school, to get experience. I would argue they make lousy techs. I'd also argue that if you believe this, you've not talked to young people who are insecure about the future.

Kozorovitskiy's argument that

"The cost of some of these programs would be pennies in the budget of our great research institutions"

is, at best, naïve. Do the math: a technician is anywhere from $30 to 80K, plus fringes, depending on location, skill and what's needed. And if you're at a uni where the budget is in 100's of millions, yes, that can be "pennies". But these costs get pushed down to the department or division level. I know, and have known, what the budget looks like at that level, in medical schools, but even more so in A&S departments (like Chemistry & Physics). That kind of money just doesn't exist. If it does, its the start-up package for the next hire. It's bridge money for the almost-tenure assistant prof who didn't get funded, but needs to run more experiments for the pubs that will make or break them. It's money to hire (ugh) an adjunct to cover teaching so that the newly-tenured associate professor can take a sabbatical and ... well, recover, renew, refresh their mind. A department never has enough money. The decisions as to what to cover are, in right-thinking departments, painful, and in others, brutal.

But that doesn't mean this isn't the right thing to do. Hard verging on impossible is not the same as right. We'll come back to this.

She also says:

Moreover, such programs are likely to have immediate measurable impact on the success of women postdocs transitioning to independence in academia.

No, I don't think so. I suspect it will help the few women who have access to such programs. But immediate? Success is more than the transition to a job (although that is a measurable problem and a measurable outcome of change).  Again, is this the success that is important and immediate to a department?

The institutions that take the lead will attract the top STEM postdocs.

This is even dreadfully more naïve. Yes, a great program like this would attract great, if not top, postdocs. But if these are already the BSD [aka top] institutions, they don't have trouble attracting the best right now.  If the institutions are not top tier, and already having trouble attracting "top postdocs", would such a program make more or less difference than giving this money to their brightest young POC, URM or female faculty and telling them to hire an extra postdoc or tech?

Which brings us back to the problem of what is right or good or in the best interest of a department that is committed to diversity, supporting women (and URM, POC and others that are not part of the academic milieu in proportional numbers). From the perspective of a department that is interested in promoting women, and increasing women's presence in STEM, supporting postdocs is just not going to be the most effective and measurable way to so. Measurable counts here. It really does. If you want a program that costs money, you have to show that it works. Gone are the days when money is just strewn about the landscape. Accountability and  results are part of T32's and they are part of internal initiatives. Successful postdocs won't get counted in the accountability numbers. Faculty getting tenure, publications and grants are. Hiring female faculty, supporting those faculty, and providing them with the resources for success is always going to be higher priority that supporting postdocs who are going to be perceived as transient.

Her article concludes with an important and heartfelt plea:

We should ensure that the odds in academia, however low overall, aren’t stacked against female aspiring scientists who hope to have families.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

The world is not a fair place. When I was starting grad school (having worked through college), there was a guy my age, Howard,  but already a couple years ahead of me. He was rich. He wanted to do ecology. He had spent his teen years scuba diving in the Caribbean, and doing what is now called "unpaid internships". He did lots of research through college, when I was working in the library, and life-guarding at the pool, and coding social science studies by hand for mainframe analysis. No question Howard was Good, capital G. He was, is, bright creative and has totally changed his subdiscipline. He has trained generations of men, women, URM, POC and just about anyone who was interested in his work. But he never worried for one moment about what he would do or having kids with a nanny. Do we tax Howard to the hilt? (go read Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron).

The world is not a fair place. Things need to change, and even change faster than they have been. But putting forward unrealistic suggestions isn't going to change anything. I can easily imagine that The Boys In Charge at my new almost-MRU would look at these suggestions, make some grumbly noises and say "wouldn't it be wonderful, but...". And then throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, and loose the whole point about needing to reform postdoctoral programs.

The world is not a fair place. The problem here is not even so much that long postdocs hurt women who want families. Long postdocs are a problem that hurts everyone who wants to have a more secure job, a "real" job and move on. The question becomes why are there long postdocs and what can we do about them? And I come back to the "too many mouths at the trough" problem, which leads to the idea that the whole concept of postdoc needs to be rethought, reworked and reimagined.

Finally, I thank my Very Wise Postdoc, who read this, offered good suggestions and disagreed with me over and over. Everyone needs a postdoc like this.

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I don't know if I'm tired or I'm angry but I'm probably both: my own personal hack-a-hairdryer

Dec 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Goddamitall. My shorts they are frosted.

Let's start with the background: When I arrived at my new almost-MRU I helped organize a group for women faculty. It's one of the things I took on as service when I got here, a place that takes service seriously.  As I started organizing, various women in other parts of the university were "volunteered" to helping with this organization. One of the things that has happened at many medical schools is that the proliferation of mid-level administrators who have almost-relevant higher degrees, and many of these people want/get  faculty appointments. They may have "dean" in their title or the word "senior".  What such people do not do is teach or research. The women in these roles have become enthusiastic in organizing/leading the Group for Women at almost-MRU.  My response to any involvement was great. I try to encourage people to take things over, even when the-taking-over leads to something I didn't anticipate/want/think is right.  The new direction could or could not be a good thing. It might be and it might not be great for women at almost-MRU. However, the group has ceased to be meaningful for the tenure-track women faculty.

Many of the activities that this group is organizing speak to the interests of the non-tenure track women: a social for all women, service to the community (a criterion for achievement/excellence/promotion), and a small dollop of "personal empowerment". As one of the junior faculty I mentor her told me: "I don't have time for this shit, Potnia, I need to get tenure". Implicit in her comment is her perception that what this group does is not helpful to her.

So I suggested to the group that we might be organizing something that would be specifically for, and helpful to, women who had the word "professor" in their title (note: not many lecturers here, and postdocs would be welcome). Women who have an "up or out" decision in their career line. I took a poll to find out what was wanted & needed and one of the other faculty took the lead (this was A Very Good Thing) and organized a series of small workshops on things like negotiating and holding your own in arguments and communication. All good.

Then all of a sudden, I get a poster for these events that had multiple problems, but the biggest one was the picture promoting this activity. This is not the picture on the poster, but its close:

Young (student? 20s?) white women. WTF? If I saw this poster, I would not think it was for me. If I was a 40 year old 5th year assistant professor, I would not think this poster was for me.

The cover email noted that Mark in PR had been "so helpful" in putting together the poster. Guess what, Mark is a 20-something white male. Personally, I thought that this was a no-brainer. I wrote to the whole committee saying that I thought this wasn't going to work, it had a couple of -isms attached to it, but mostly did not speak to the people we want to come (who are largely Gen-Xers, late 30s through 40s).

But the image wasn't the worst. The push-back I got was ... well surprising doesn't make it.

"Potnia, how could you be so ungrateful when we got free design help?"

"Potnia, I don't think every poster needs to look like me, why do you think it needs to look like you?"

"Potnia, what do you have against pretty young girls, don't you think that it would be attractive - isn't this what we want to look like?"

and from the woman (admin assistant who was responsible for organizing flyer):

Regarding the photograph, Mark and I worked for quite a bit of time to identify an image that was appropriate for the session content.  The image selected was the most suitable of those that were available.  In the future, we may consider not utilizing images in our promotion, as it would be nearly impossible to include a visual representation of every member of our female faculty and staff.


I wrote back:

This image is NOT appropriate. We do not need to include “a visual representation of every member”. That is a red herring for this issue. These images are not what is needed here. Our faculty members are not in their 20s. They are not all white. We are having issues with getting our faculty (tenure-track, basic science) involved in our activities. This poster will not encourage any of those people to attend this activity.  

And all I got back was that it was time to move on, and we women shouldn't be squabbling over little things like images on posters.

The time to move on is for me.




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What are friends for?

Dec 09 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Or rather good colleagues. I've been absent working as hard and as fast and as long as my little legs can carry me. Its near the end of the term. I am dealing with large amounts of teaching. I am dealing with idiots in the women's group here (long post on that... sometime when time > n, where n = now).

But I got this email from a colleague, a person I truly respect, who has had a much harder road than I have:

Hi Potnia,  I have been thinking of you lately.  I was reading through my hard copy file of your reprints, and came across 2 papers (both on bunnies and biomechanics) that are so fantastic!!!!  They really helped out with 2 separate projects I am working on with grad and undergrad students.

It reminded me of how amazing your work is, and how many different cool studies you have done.

xxxx and happy hanukkah, 

To tell the truth, I do not feel either amazing or cool or that my work is either of those. When I start feeling sorry for myself, and thinking I have been fighting these fucking battles since the dawn of time and then the department chair asks me to help with the Xmas party (because, after all I am the senior woman in the dept), I remember that there women whose roads have been longer and rougher than mine.



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