Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Preparing for the storm

So, part of the reason I haven't been posting frequently these recent months is that I have this great big issue hanging over my head, like a cloud appearing over the horizon, but steadily coming closer and casting a shadow over everything. Things have only gotten worse as the I've begun to realize just how monstrous and terrible that cloud really is.

This cloud is job hunting.

I'm in the last year of my fellowship, you see, so now is the time to start really panicking. I've been reluctant to discuss job hunting much here, because I feel like it's too personal to talk about in specifics. Also, let's just say that the tone of such discussions might not be appropriate for this forum. With that in mind, I will make this one post here, and then disappear until spring after the storm subsides.

Recently, a senior male colleague showed me a brief article about a National Academies report on gender differences in career advancement in STEM fields, which I belive is this one (see also here). The upshot is that the primary reason women don't advance to faculty positions at the same rate men do is because they simply don't apply. However, they do pretty well at actually getting those jobs.

On one level, that should be comforting to me, since I am still in the game, and as long as I stay in the game, I should be fine, right? But then I start thinking about why would women self-select themselves out of the process anyway, and suddenly I wonder if I'm not better off following them. Because life as an academic is not easy to begin with. Because there's plenty of societal pressure for women to take on all the domestic duties regardless of her career choices. Because women are less inclined to be confident in their abilities. Because women are more often than not the trailing spouse in an academic couple. Every woman has her own individual reason for leaving, and justifications are likely very sound. It's when those reasons start fitting into a pattern that you realized that it's a problem.

Every year you see one, sometimes two, women whose names are all over the job rumo(u)r mill. Given the small size of field of astronomy, and the fact that departments are looking for diversity, if a woman is clearly qualifed, everyone wants her. And given the small number statistics, there might be only one or two of them in a given year.

But then again, maybe that old adage about women having to work twice as hard to get half the credit holds true. Certainly, I think that's true for those of us who are also mothers: we basically work two full-time jobs. In fact, it's been shown that mothers are at a disadvantage with respect to both fathers and childless women when it comes to career advancement.

So, as I enter into this season's job hunt, I see that the statistics are both for me and against me, it's just a matter of which statistic I will become a part of. To top that off, this year's job season looks like it will be especially rough. Certainly there may be many reasons while I might succeed or fail. But my story is only one of many, and when you add all those stories up, what will those data show?

Anyway, I have a storm to prepare for. See you on the other side.