Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women versus Women: II. Why Junior Women Can Navigate Their Own Path to Success

In part I of this two-part series, I confessed that I cringe when I hear women in astronomy put other women down. Last week’s post was aimed at junior women, but at the risk of alienating everyone, it is now time for senior women to sit up and take notice. I pay close attention when women talk about what it is like to be a woman in astronomy. One unfortunate theme that seems to repeat itself goes like this: a junior woman reluctantly complains about the senior woman in her department/group/organization who does not support her. Here are some generic examples:

A junior faculty member is having a baby. She is negotiating for release time with her department chair. The senior woman in her department argues that the rest of the department members should not have to do more work to cover for their junior colleague.

A grad student is dealing with sexual harassment. A senior woman advises her to keep her head down, not complain, and just finish her thesis.

A shy postdoc with an introverted personality is the victim of bullying. A senior woman advises her to get a backbone and stand up for herself.

A young astronomer wants to take a year off after her first child is born. A senior woman challenges the young mother to get back to work as soon as possible.

The common problem in all these examples is that the senior woman is expecting her junior colleague to follow in her footsteps. The first senior woman succeeded because she decided not to have children. The second snuck through because no one paid attention to her. The third used her strong personality to plow her way through trouble. The fourth attributed her ability to “have it all” to great daycare. These incidents support the idea that there should be more than one senior woman in every department/group/organization. No one should have to represent all women.

I remember a series of AASWOMEN Newsletter contributions from years ago where a junior woman confessed that she could not think effectively when she was pregnant, and as a result, had a difficult time doing science. A senior woman pounced on her, bragging that she was able to work successfully right up until the day she delivered. An e-mail frenzy ensued, with each subsequent contribution describing the “right” pregnancy experience.

I remember thinking at the time that all these descriptions represented a spectrum (there’s a nice astronomical word) of experiences. No pregnancy was more right than another. They were all valid. Why then did we spend so much time and energy putting each other down? I can only speculate because I myself don’t understand it; does putting other women down somehow make us feel better about our own situation, predicament, and/or accomplishments? Or is it more about thoughtlessness than malice? We need to be supportive of paths, choices, and experiences that are different than our own. We should all walk a mile in each other’s shoes.

Younger women are getting tenured and federal positions, chairing review panels, and becoming PIs of new instruments. Sometimes, it is easy to get negative about these things. Why them and not you? It is so easy to get into that “us” versus “them” frame of mind! Don’t let yourself fester in this negative space. Rather, remind yourself that as a group, junior women should be able to go further than their senior counterparts, simply because they have less opposition. Incidents of overt discrimination and sexual harassment are not completely gone, but they are seriously waning. CSWA is working to make the astronomy community aware of unconscious bias and bullying. We hope that these incidents will begin to wane as well. Senior women, if you ever feel envious of the accomplishments or opportunities of a junior colleague, remember that you helped create the environment where those accomplishments and opportunities were possible. Be proud of them, and in the process, don’t forget to be proud of yourself.

Senior women, stop charging ahead and take a moment to turn around – figuratively speaking, of course. Younger women do not have to walk solely in your footsteps to succeed. Your individual efforts have blended with those of all the other women who have made it. You have helped create an environment where junior women have more freedom to make their own choices. They are individuals, not your clones. Support them in their troubled and challenging times and celebrate with them as they triumph!

Thanks to Nancy Morrison and Caroline Simpson of CSWA for sharing their insights on these issues.

-Joan Schmelz