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the leaky pipeline and why the discussion makes me grumpy

April 4, 2011

This is an ironic title, due to the fact that our water bill was $350 this past month (we had a big leak that we didn’t cause, so the landlord is after the plumber who “fixed” things).  I’m not talking about this kind of leaky pipeline, though I certainly have at great length and with great fury elsewhere.

Instead, I’m talking about the “leaky pipeline” of women in academia, as is Female Science Professor this morning.  She has a new post up regarding the incompleteness of the completion data available for students who enter science and engineering PhD programs, and how it makes it impossible to determine why exactly women are leaving without a PhD (and therefore, what we can do about it).  It’s a worthwhile post if these issues interest you at all.

They certainly interest me, but the discussion also pisses me off.  As a woman who is finishing/leaving/quitting with a master’s degree instead of a PhD (with word choice depending on who you ask or what mood I’m in when you ask me), the whole viewpoint these discussions are framed from bothers me.  Perhaps it’s just due to where I read these things — mostly on blogs published by PhD-holding women with research careers — but the language choices and quiet bias always make me feel like a traitor to the cause.

Yes, I am leaving before I originally intended.  Yes, I know it’s what’s best for me and will make me happiest, now (okay, maybe after my defense this week) and in the long run.  Yes, I’m confident enough in my choices to recognize that these pieces aren’t about me personally and aren’t intended to make me feel like a traitor, and in fact, they’re often written to be as objective as possible and quite careful about their language.  The fact that lots of people want more women to stay in high-level research careers does not mean that I should stay if I don’t want to, and nobody is saying this (at least not to me).  I know all of this.  I know I know I know I know.

But.  Leaving (finishing, quitting) isn’t easy.  To come to this decision, I’ve had to fight the fact that I’d always seen myself as a professor or researcher.  I’ve had to fight the camaraderie within my circle of friends and colleagues here (and graduate-student friends even at distant locations)  and place myself outside of it.  I’ve had to fight the PhD-or-die-trying mindset that helps push us all through graduate school.  And, in the blogosphere, I’ve had to fight the perception that the only reasons women depart are because they got driven out, and that if we fixed some issues in the system, so many women (and I) wouldn’t choose to leave research.  Maybe this is even true; who knows?  My point is that it certainly doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who do choose to leave to feel good about that choice.  It removes a lot of our own agency in the decision.

For instance, this morning’s FSP piece.  The bias is subtle, but it’s there.  I don’t mean to call out FSP in particular (I really enjoy her blog, and my grumpiness about this piece is kind of irrelevant to the point of what she was saying), but with all the pre-defense panic and anger and procrastination urges I’m feeling, it just set me off this morning.  Let’s look at the three reasons given for why women might depart with a master’s degree.  They:

1. left and did a PhD elsewhere;
2. switched to the MS voluntarily because it was a better fit for their career goals;
3. switched to the MS involuntarily owing to (a) life or work pressures, or (b) an academic problem (exams, classes, advisors).

Reason 1 isn’t very interesting for my discussion.  Reasons 2 and 3 bug me.  Taken together, the implication is that a woman would never choose to leave a PhD early except if it benefits her career.  Leaving because of “life” pressures isn’t a choice, but being forced out.  Some of the comments on the article (yeah, yeah, I’m analyzing internet comments, take it all with a grain of salt) push this idea even further, even taking the agency away from career decisions:

Option 2 is not necessarily benign. You have to follow it up with a question about what shaped those career goals. If it was harassment, the results of unconscious bias, or any of the other things making life difficult for women in science careers, women voluntarily changing their career goals is the sort of leak the community should worry about.

Argh!  I understand that the culture that contributes to the “leaky pipeline” problem of women disappearing from research at every stage along the road to an academic career is a problem, and sure, dissatisfaction with (hatred of?) that culture drove a lot of my choice.  That said …

If you want to make it so hard for us to stay, don’t make it hard for us to leave, too.

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