This chapter contextualises what it is to build an academic identity as a woman or other marginalised gender in STEM, and the particular challenges faced by these individuals. In the chemical sciences, the progression and retention of marginalised groups including women is an issue, and the barriers they face are intersectional. We consider academic identity – that is, what it means to be an academic and to succeed in academia – and the pressures faced by early-career academics in general. We discuss the concept of wellbeing in the context of acceleration and overwork in neoliberal academia before turning to the particular barriers faced by women and mothers (and those with caring responsibilities). Finally, we explore leaving academia, and options open to those with a science PhD.
Academics themselves don’t much like other academics, and often feel a deep estrangement from their colleagues as people. Perhaps part of the problem is that our forms of self-presentation are tied to the modern academic desire to be taken seriously – that is, the embodiment of entrepreneurialism, ‘being smart’ and ‘world-class’ braininess.
Back, along with other commentators and researchers, blames the shifts seen in the ‘modern academic’ on the neoliberal university, which captures academics’ dispositions towards hard work and achievement and overlays them with demands. Back states that ‘Academics should see themselves first as teachers’.1(p46) but this sentiment is at odds with advice given to early-career academics to focus instead on their research, grant income, and markers of esteem in order to attain success.2 Teaching, while an integral component of the kinds of professional and educational development courses found for early-career researchers in the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe, is not recognised or rewarded in the same way as conventional research outputs or cold hard cash.3
The current accelerated pace of the academic world is sometimes termed ‘fast academia’.4 Work is experienced like a treadmill,5 with the associated symptoms of overwork and illness endemic.6,7 Universities have to run as businesses, with
Many universities are including career maps as part of their promotion and progression pathways, laying out indicators and criteria that are expected to be met at certain stages on the road to seniority. The goal at the end for many is the elusive full-time permanent contract, and the title of professor as their reward for producing ‘world-class ground-breaking research’, achieving excellence across all aspects of their administration, service, teaching, and research, with the hierarchy weighted heavily towards the prestige of research. Steps along the way, post-PhD, might include securing a position as a postdoctoral researcher, then, after a faculty position, promotion from Assistant Professor or Lecturer to Associate Professor (securing tenure in the US) or Senior Lecturer/Reader. Neoliberal academia has led to the casualisation of higher education, with post-docs as well as adjunct or zero-hours faculty hired to cover teaching and administrative duties on precarious contracts creating an excessively bottom-heavy pyramid structure. In addition, there are ‘far fewer women than men at the top of the academic hierarchy; they are paid less and are much less likely to have had children’.10(p3) Navigating this pathway (map notwithstanding) can be incredibly overwhelming for an early-career academic (see Figure 3.1).
While much has been written on academic identity and how this is achieved and supported, generally it must be recognised that the pathway and requirements in STEM are different from social sciences or arts and humanities. There are commonalities, such as the need to author publications, bring in research money, and build a reputation, but the leap to becoming an
Wellbeing in academia
Academia is often seen as more than just a job; instead, it becomes part of a person’s identity, spilling over into every aspect of their life,11 which results in overwork. In the context of overwork, academics’ wellbeing is often forgotten.12 However, there has been a proliferation of ‘self-help’ books aimed at academics, entreating them to gain balance,13 be
Wellbeing is a funny concept, apart from a lack of consensus over how it is spelt, there are many discourses over what it actually means. The UK National Account of Well-being16 defines it as a dynamic thing, a sense of vitality that people need to undertake meaningful activities, to help them feel autonomous and as if they can cope. However, as Richard Bailey puts it, ‘many of these discussions take it for granted that wellbeing equates to mental health’.17(p795) In turn, mental health seems to be conflated with being ‘happy’, or with factors that are personal, and to do with whether life is going well for the individual or not. Griffin18 explicitly connects wellbeing with happiness, similar to Aristotle’s idea of it
being the fulfilment of human nature.19 Philosophically, wellbeing can be associated with either a hedonistic ‘desire fulfilment’, whereby it is achieved when an individual has sated their desires, or as a more objective theory which judges whether things are good for people or not.20 This latter view is one which sometimes results in lists of factors that indicate wellbeing or quality of life21 and quantitative measures of wellbeing.22 However, quality of life should be seen as a dimension of wellbeing rather than be conflated as the same thing.23 Practices that increase awareness and the quality of consciousness have been reliably shown to have a significant role in increasing wellbeing.24 Embodied practices such as yoga, mindfulness, and Authentic Movement, a structured dance form that draws on Jungian principles,25 contribute to wellbeing through enhancing this sense of present awareness and a wholeness of mind, body, and spirit.26 Wellbeing is often measured quantitatively, and yet if we are looking for embodied answers to research questions, how should we go about collecting data?12(pp224–225)
The answer to this, as far as this book is concerned, as described in Chapter Two, and as will be shown in Chapters Six and Seven, is to triangulate or create a mosaic of data from different sources – including that from collaborative autoethnography, images, fiction as research (in the form of vignettes), surveys, and ethnography – so that we can capture and share lived experiences, increase the visibility of challenges, such as those detailed previously within this chapter – for example, the spread of work into life and lack of balance – and find ways to ameliorate or banish them.
Women and mothers in academia
a commonly used informal description of the upper echelons of academia is a network of ‘old boys clubs’ … [which] remain highly effective for their members, exclusionary to women, and … play a tacit role in recruitment and selection, and the furtherance of [some] men’s academic careers to the detriment of their women counterparts.30(p91)
Some men still believe that ‘cutting edge science and engineering remain out of reach of the vast majority if not all women’.31(p49)
In science, women’s experience of academia is often mediated by their experience of motherhood or perceptions of what it might be like to be a mother (or not) in academia, and when they might fit in having a baby32 (see vignette this chapter and Figure 3.2). Motherhood in academia can be seen as a fleshy contrast to the ‘academy’s “floating head” syndrome; how people are expected to function as disembodied brains, not connected to bodies or families outside of academic pursuits’.33(pp51–52) Babies and children are the antithesis of ‘floating heads’, full as they are of milk, snot, vomit, sh*t, and very obvious and present visceral needs. The tension between motherhood and academic success is felt across every discipline.34–36 Mary Ann Mason describes children as ‘a wonder and a blessing, not a problem; but motherhood is. Child rearing does not occur in a vacuum; decisions about
The scientist who toils away in the lab, tied to her lab bench at all hours, skipping meals and hunkering down to finish just one more grant application, is not pregnant. She is not running out the door at 2:30 pm to pick up the kids. In fact, to do so would be considered disloyal and unscientific in the patriarchal culture of academia.29(p77)
Academia, just like much of society, is patriarchal,39 and this is particularly evident in science:40
many successful male scientists have a multitasking primary caregiver wife who tends to carry the domestic load, or at the other end of the spectrum, there is the male scientist whose partner or spouse is an academician and typically a few steps behind him on the career path. In contrast, the highly successful female scientists advance their careers within a very small spectrum. Either their partner/spouse works full-time outside the home and typically holds a high powered job or they are single.41(p99)
mothers who do persist do remarkably well. They don’t do as well as men, but they compete favourably with women who don’t have children … The most successful take parental leave following childbirth for a few weeks or a few months and then return as full-time workers … Somehow these mothers overcome the emotional and physical pull of the infant and the forbidding judgement of a society which increasingly sends the message that mothers who can afford to stay at home should do so.37(p53)
The need to return to work quickly after childbirth may be due to fear that ‘in competitive fields, a person who takes time off from work may be “scooped” and miss out on, or at least delay, a chance for career advancement’.43(p104) In the collaborative autoethnography group, women PIs shared experiences of having to respond to reviewers’ comments on papers and grants while caring for a new-born baby. Academic work of this kind cannot easily be passed to someone else to complete: ‘balancing career with family, particularly at the time of childbirth, is perceived to jeopardize the careers of women scientists and engineers more than any other single factor’.42(p43) The expectation that in order to succeed a mother has to ‘overcome’ the natural pull towards their own child and minimise the time they spend with them while young for the sake of the career is disturbing and discriminatory: ‘nearly half the female scientists in the US leave full-time science after their first child is born. In comparison, 80 percent of male postdocs and female postdocs without children stay in science’.44(p209)
I know that the time I spent at home caring for my children has made me a much better scientist. I am more efficient with my time and better at planning and prioritizing; I am more pragmatic and goal-orientated; I am humbler and better at dealing with overcoming my own shortcomings and those of others; and I am better at negotiation and compromise; and I am much better able to tolerate the tedium and myriad little failures that accompany work at the bench.47(pp125–126)
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to women in academia. In addition to the broader struggles around scarcity of research funding,48 increased redundancies in the sector,49 and the emotional impact of living through a pandemic,50,51 additional burdens have been placed on women and mothers. Early data suggested that there was an impact on women’s ability to publish, with comparative rates declining when compared to those of men.52 WISC’s second survey showed that for the majority of PhD students or post-docs without caring responsibilities lockdown was a productive time, although this was not true for those responsible for research groups53 (see Chapter Seven). Some male academics with children also found this period productive (see, for example, one man who wrote a book in six weeks while his wife took on responsibility for their children and home).54 For many
Gender balance and marginalisation in academia is not the same across the academic disciplines. This is in part due to scientific approaches, assumptions around gender, and the constitution of concepts such as rigour and validity, which are embedded from school teaching and texts. It is ‘old news’ that not a single woman scientist was named in the UK 2020 single science GCSE syllabus. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the chemical sciences have a particular issue with retention and progression of women, and stated in 2019 (pre-pandemic and any gender-based concerns that lockdown has raised) that at the current rate of change we will never reach gender parity. If the positions of power within science are predominantly white and male, this ‘sends a message to our undergraduate and graduate students, half of whom are female.”.37(p107) In higher education science, where textbooks are often used on reading lists, and are authored by senior (white, male) scientists, achieving a gender balance (and decolonising) science is not easily achieved. The nature of learning and knowledge and the types of skills is particular to STEM, and, as discussed in Chapter Two, rarely includes reflective practices. This, in turn, impacts on how women and marginalised groups construct their identity, and process and disseminate their experiences. Further, this lack of diversity among scientific leaders ‘may allow unintentional, undetected flaws to bias … research.”.42(p182) It is well known that women and those who are marginalised leave the sciences. This problem is broadly known as a leaky pipeline59 – a term that in itself is problematic60 – but how can we fix this and keep women in science?
One challenge is the dominance of the perception that if you have a PhD, then you ‘should’ aspire to remain in academia. This is reinforced by attitudes that might be vocalised to
Adi, 23, International PhD student
I don’t think I want to stay in academia. I don’t know what I want to do yet; there’s a big part of me that wants to use my degree as I have worked so hard and spent so much time on it, but I don’t think academia is for me. For one thing I don’t see any faculty who look like me – there aren’t any Black women in my department. I look at my supervisor and see all the hours she works. Last year I know she was in the lab until 11 or 12pm every night. She tells us that she has to work that much just to get things done. She’s not even a professor yet. There never seems to be any time to take stock of where we are and everything we’ve done – as soon as something works we just move on to the next thing. Before COVID we used to celebrate in the pub if the group published a paper, but these days it just doesn’t happen. It can’t happen. I don’t think it’s only my supervisor either. I remember how burnt out all my lecturers looked when I was an undergrad. Always rushing from one thing to another. It’s not that they didn’t help – they did or I wouldn’t be here now – but I don’t think it’s what I want for myself. Someone I know got a job as a lecturer straight after a post-doc. Almost unheard of right? But he has to do so much teaching and with everything online I can see that it’s almost breaking him. At least my group isn’t as bad as some. One friend I know is expected to work 11 hours a day 6 days a week and her supervisor regularly sets meetings at 8pm on a Friday night. I don’t think I could cope with that; I want to have a life!
Even doing this is stressful. I cannot tell you the levels of stress that I just seem to cope with on a day-to-day basis and see as normal now! Worrying about not getting enough data, worrying when things don’t work, worrying that I am not living up to the huge sacrifices I made to come here. So much worry and fear. Leaving my family and boyfriend and only seeing them a few times a year is horrible. I worry that when things aren’t working I’m letting my supervisor down. I have to live up to all their expectations of me and make this worthwhile. My whole support network is in another country. There are wellbeing services and things at uni – but they are really general and the waiting lists are so long it’s like I’ll graduate before I get any real help. My mental health is definitely suffering. As an international student the worry about the financial and emotional cost of my PhD is huge. And every time I want to apply for any kind of financial help they ask for a million things and really intrusive information so I just give up.
Even if I did want to stay, it’s not as though getting a job is easy. There are so few positions out there, and everywhere people are being made redundant.
I also know I want to have a family and I just don’t see how that’s possible in academia. None of the really senior women I see in the field have children. I know that there are more younger ones coming through who have had kids or who are having kids, but who knows if they will make it to professor? There is so much holding women back in the field, doesn’t being a mom just make it harder? How could I be the kind of parent I want to be and work that hard? That said, I don’t know what I am going to do. Industry seems to be almost as bad. Maybe publishing or editing is the way forward. Something where I can use my science but also have a life.