The Sciences

On Sacrificing Reproductive Fitness For Career Advancement...

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumJan 21, 2009 8:18 PM

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As Natalie Angier rightly points out, women are making tremendous strides in science and engineering earning 40 percent of U.S. doctorates in 2006 (up from eight percent 50 years ago). But we've still got a long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field after graduation.

Angier references a recent survey of 160,000 Ph.D. recipients that found 70 percent of male tenured professors were married with children while only 44 percent of their female counterparts were. Further, twelve years or more after receiving doctorates, tenured women were more than "twice as likely as tenured men to be single and significantly more likely to be divorced." Another California study reported nearly double the number of female faculty agree with the statement, "I had fewer children than I wanted," compared to men. Angier sums it up:

From a purely Darwinian point of view, expecting a young woman to sacrifice her reproductive fitness for the sake of career advancement is simply too much, and yet the structure of academic research, in which one must spend one's 20s and early 30s as a poorly compensated and minimally empowered graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, and the remainder of one's 30s and into the low 40s working madly to earn tenure, can demand exactly that.

This one hits home because it's a conversation I regularly have with female friends in and out of academia. Particularly interesting as I inhabit the space between both worlds.

Consider: The number of academic positions is limited and thus it behooves universities to hire those who they feel are the most prepared and readily able to contribute. Perhaps it's wrong to ask 'can women have it all?' Somecan. Mostdefinitely. But it's also necessary to acknowledge that many ladies simply fall out of the pipeline as priorities understandably change between ages 21 and 36. While anecdotes are not evidence, I've spent the past several years observing the drop off firsthand as friends and colleagues transition into other professions as they attempt to balance, well, life. Hence, if we are to encourage women to stay in the system, then the system will need to undergo fundamental changes to accommodate more of us. Is that a fair expectation? For that matter, should it be? I'm not sure. What do readers think?

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