Thursday, January 31, 2019

From young to youthful - the challenges of mid-career

By Orsola De Marco

Orsola De Marco is an Astrophysicists working at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She is Italian born, but complete her degrees at University College London. She spent the better part of a decade at the American Museum of Natural History, where she worked in research as well as Astronomy documentaries. 

Walking the tight rope takes a lot of training. Even more so if the walker carries two suitcases, and is balancing a ball on her nose. It is hard but it can be done with some innate ability and the right encouragement. And so the walker takes her first few steps, to the applause of the audience. But as her pace picks up, now steady and confident, the audience starts to leave, the encouragement wanes and she realises that she is not yet on the other side. Not by a long way. Then the wind strengthens and the suitcases are feeling heavier. Though experienced, she now has to figure out a new set of tricks to keep her balance.

In one’s mid-career, having achieved some measure of success (a job, even professor title) things are by no means slowing down or getting easier. There are still very large and growing expectations of maintaining a certain level of research, teaching and administration. And while these expectations grow, the kids, who for a few years have been easier, older, more independent, turn into teens, with teen problems. And the ageing parents who were helpful, turn into … kids. And suddenly life and work become a new match of some well-known game where the rules have been altered, like a professional soccer player, placed in a game of bubble football, where skill is sabotaged by grotesque obstacles.

It is tempting to say that these new challenges affect women more than men, but it is not necessarily so. They affect whomever is a primary care giver, or even anybody who is a 50/50 care giver. Now, there are many helping hands in one’s career, and women have enjoyed more help and support in recent years than ever before. This help, however, tends to decrease in later years with many schemes being devoted to younger women, or even to younger people grappling with issues of family and career. So, this is the time to praise my university who have gender, and age neutral schemes. For example, if a problem arising from caring for kids or indeed elderly parents can be solved by “throwing some money” at it, then cash is provided. This is the type of scheme that does not forget the problems of mid-career women, or indeed people, who are in carer’s positions. Thank you, Macquarie!

But there is another problem, more insidious, less solvable. A most surprising realisation of my 47th year has been something that came out of nowhere, a real curved ball. When young gives way to youthful, things start changing. I, personally, don’t feel any different from the way I felt 5-8 years ago, and yet the 40 to 50 decade is one of dramatic outward change, noticed by all and I do get the feeling that people do not listen to me the way they used to only a few years ago.  Is it an impression, or am I noticing a real effect?

When in question, google it! So, I did. Well, the fact that gender and ageism combine in some sort of constructive interference for academic women is apparently well documented. The fact that women (young or old) are less listened to than men, is also well documented. But I could not find a clear instance of women feeling that at some point in their career (for me it is happening in my mid-late 40s) they are less listened to, their authority apparently questioned more often, and often in surprising ways.

Which brings me to the question: why am I writing this? At my age I am so done complaining! It usually leads to nothing. But what I do enjoy is hearing other people’s stories, people’s solutions to problems that may be common. So, let me ask you: are there other people that like me, sitting on the bottom blade of the scissor graph, feel a bit…. nonplussed?

Do not get me wrong, I am actually quite happy. I belong to the best physics and astronomy department one can ask for and much of what I do, particularly the horror admin chores, I do for the love of my colleagues. I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world (can you believe it, you can actually swim at Christmas!) in a lovely house and even my grumpy kids are at most times delightful. I have a loving husband who, after giving my surname to the children, has followed me around the world, unreservedly, carte blanche.

But I need to whinge a bit too, despite this, and not feel guilty about it just because I have a job. I do believe that the emphasis should be on early career women and early career people in general, so that they may build the confidence to move on, find jobs and keep them. I am first in line at any mentoring event and love spending my time talking to my younger colleagues. But I also think that mid-career people should be  acknowledged in all the new difficult things they face, both at work and at home. It is this desire that motivated me to share these thoughts.

Here are some references:

Joye & Wilson (2015), Professor Age and Gender Affect Student Perceptions and Grades

Piece on Literary Hub by Dorthe Nors

Also, there is a huge amount of literature about women being less listened to and more interrupted.