Why I stay (part 1 of 2)

Posted By Pamela on Dec 7, 2013 | 11 comments

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to articulate why it is I keep doing what I do. Anyone who has been around me knows that between the stress of budgets and the overall climate against women in STEM, my career isn’t one that makes me happy at the moment. The thing is, my profession is one that I value, and I am doing things that I am proud to see through to completion. There are problems, but … would it be better to have a job that I was neutral toward, but paid more and required fewer work hours? I want to do things with meaning, and I am striving to do that with my career, and right now, as a woman in astronomy, that means I’m choosing – my choice – the prospect of creating something I’m proud of over the knowledge that right now I’m just not happy.

In this and the next blog post, I’m going to try and articulate why I’m fighting to stay in academe. Part of that means articulating the issues I’m facing – that most of us are facing – and discussing how they effect me and why I sometimes shrug off the big things and stay put.

Infographic on Women in Science

Let’s start by taking a look at things by the numbers. I’m including in this post, with permission and even encouragement, an infographic on what women face when they go into STEM (source). Put simply: There isn’t exactly a large Sisterhood of the Advancing Science Women. We lack role models and female colleagues. It’s significantly harder for us to get hired due to unconscious biases and when we do get hired we are under paid (making 86% what the boys make), under recognized (sometimes receiving 75% fewer awards), and more often end up migrating from focused on doing STEM to educating about STEM.

Where I work now is completely unrepresentative of these numbers. My center director is a women. All our research staff and faculty are women (6 people). There are men around – men with PhDs in Education, or educational staff with advanced degrees in education, and my programmers. They are all awesome. But … I can’t tell you how amazing it is to work someplace where I’m having to learn to communicate with women because they dominate the office. This is a first. And it does matter. The climate of an office changes in countless ways; even in little stupid sugary ways. I actually work at a place filled with people who have moments of “Must bake!” and who get rid of stress, extra energy, etc by baking stuff. No one ever worries about being judged not manly enough, and no one worries they are setting a precedent of being someone who wastes their time cooking. People – men and women – bake stuff. This is new for me.

In the research center where I work, for the first time in my life, I work someplace and for someone where I know that my gender is never going to play a role in my earnings, my review, or my future.

Periodically people recommend jobs to me. Very very very very rarely (like twice since 2008) I’ve applied. The only places that have seen my CV are places that already have women on staff whom I respect (and who aren’t looking for jobs or planning to look for jobs, as far as I know). It is not worth leaving a place where I am safe and among people whom I respect to experiment with my life and go to an institution that may be more respected but where I don’t know if I’ll be respected.

I’ve managed to find a place where, within my corner of the university, gender bias is something that gets left at the door.

But, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s just better then it could be. There are still issues. One of the biggest issues is just trying to build a life outside of my safe research center. Travel gets in the way – a lot. And I’ve made the choice to be married, and that has consequences too.

This evening on twitter, Matthew Berry commented, “I couldn’t mix academic life and family life, and I’m a guy. Harder on women who want to have kids :(” This comment came a few weeks after Katie Mack wrote an excellent essay on the difficulties academics face because they have to be willing to travel and move anywhere; a story that was still fresh in my mind. As Katie wrote:

Right now I live in Australia, working as a postdoc in Melbourne. My first postdoc was in England. Before that I was in grad school in New Jersey, and I was an undergrad in my native California. Halfway through grad school I studied for a year in England. I’ve done two- or three-month stints in Japan, Germany, Australia and the UK. Each of these moves or visits has been, while not strictly required, extremely helpful for my career. And in a field where competition for jobs is so fierce, if you want any hope of landing that coveted permanent academic job, how many of these “helpful” moves can you really consider optional? If mobility is such an advantage, how does having a family or a partner affect your chances? –Academic Scattering

As I read Matthew’s tweet and recalled Katie’s post, I found myself in my house – purchased and decorated in anticipation of children – with my husband and my dogs thinking back to my first many years as a professor, and how those years afforded me no opportunity to have kids. There were all the normal issues: lack of money (academics get paid next to nothing initially), long hours (at least 60 hr/wk, even when only paid part time), and fear that I could be easily replaced in a moment. As Sudhir Venkatesh is quoted as saying in a recent Inside Higher Ed piece,

The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. … Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail. –Academe as a Drug Gang

At any moment, I could easily be fired. With so many willing to work, why should any department keep someone who isn’t perfect in every way? And with so many willing to work for so little, what incentive was there to provide any benefits?

We have no kids. There are a lot of reasons. One of them, however, is that for the first several years I was at my university (because of how the rules where worded and how my contracts were worded) I didn’t qualify for maternity leave, sick leave, or vacation days. I took one summer without pay. Otherwise – 12 months a year without vacation days that weren’t university holidays. This was legal. We bought our house intending to have kids. We have a kid’s room painted and decorated. We have no kid.

I didn’t want to have to give up astronomy.

And this is where everyone says, “But why didn’t you just find another job? That was before you had the awesome female boss, wasn’t it?” Yeah, but….

“Yeah, but” is by far the worst phrase in the English language.

In this case, my “Yeah, but…” is that I have a husband and a house, and there was no way we were up and moving just to go some place that would have maternity leave so that I could continue to work a not-very-well-paid job in a city that would in all likelihood have a higher cost of living. Economically, it makes more sense for me to quit my job. I’m not the primary earner (I’m a woman, and he’s a computer scientist). If we move, our cost of living in all likelihood goes up (I live in rural Illinois), my salary likely stays the same, and since my husband works from home, his salary stays the same but we probably can’t buy a house this nice for him to work from. (There are a few exceptions. Some of the Big Ten schools in rust belt states are actually as well paying and have the same cost of living, but….)

But, given all the factors to consider, when faced with the choice of looking for a job with maternity leave, quitting my job and having kids, or staying put and not having kids – we stayed put without kids and I got a horse. I don’t regret the choice. I regret being forced into the choice. How many women in academe would have left given the financial opportunity to be a stay at home mom vs being a childless astronomer? I made a choice – a personal choice with many different reasons – to stay.

I don’t know why other women have made the choices they’ve made, but as far as I know, none of the women over 40 (+/- 1 week) with advanced degrees in my research center have children. That is 5 women. Nationally, 90% of women over 40 have at least 1 child. This is a significant deviation. Again – we each have our own personal reasons. But…

If you want to have kids, and you want to grow roots, I don’t know how you do it in astronomy if you want to be research focused. I know it can be done – I know successful women with kids – I just don’t know how they did it.  And I just know I couldn’t do it.

I have a horse. His name is Ben.

As I typed those words, my body language changed. I caught myself curling in my shoulders and ducking my head. I’m still learning to own the fact that I made the choice not to have kids and to have a horse. Society labels women who don’t have kids as  “failures.” Academe labels people with time consuming hobbies like horses as “not serious enough.” I have to tell myself these labels are wrong. That my horse is my sanity and my choice to not have kids doesn’t make me a failure.

In the past, if a woman didn’t force her family to move for her career, everyone was cool with that. Truth be told, in the past, a woman generally couldn’t expect her husband to be willing to move for her career. My husband left Boston for me. He came to rural Illinois to be with me. We bought the house I liked best – an old farm house that looks like a little girl’s Victorian doll house.  He works from home and has the dream office. We have an apple tree, and the barn where I keep Ben is only 15 minutes away or so. We’re 20 minutes from the St Louis airport and from there it’s just a 30min hop to OHare. From Chicago, I can go anywhere. We have agreements on moving. If there is a job in New Zealand, we’re up and moving in a heart beat. There are a few places in the US that are open too, but…

For now, we’re here. I am working in a research center with an atmosphere that I need, and I’m living in a house that is a home to everyone who walks through the front door. My husband and I have a life that is good.

As long as you ignore the whole “Staying awake blogging until 3:05am because stress made sleep impossible” thing.

But that’s for the next blog post… One in which I talk about budgets and dreams.





  1. This reminded me of a line from the TV show Scandal, discussing the President on the show: “Some men aren’t meant to be happy. They’re meant to be great.”

    You do a lot of neat things, important things. Without you, there would be things that simply wouldn’t happen. You’re both a doer and a symbol.

    I wish that was a recipe for you to be happy.

    Unfortunately, knowing that genes lie and only care about their own reproduction doesn’t stop the wistfulness of wondering about things that could have been. But I’m glad you can recognize the things in your life that are good. Enjoy them fully. Celebrate them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a moment to catch your breath and just feel the joy of life in simple things, just because you can.

    In closing, I’m reminded of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “When I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.” You are good at what you do. And you are sharing it with the world. So my hope for you is that you feel the joy of the artist, of the craftsman. The joy of mastery in something worthwhile and important. The joy of measuring yourself by the challenges you’ve taken on, and the joy of the successes you’d never thought were possible before.

    Because you matter.

  2. I’m a woman in STEM, specifically an engineer at a nuclear power plant. This week I was offered a job in a different department. Apparently my male colleague pitched a fit about me getting it over him, even though part of the criteria is seniority and I’ve been there longer. I can’t help but wonder how much of his attitude stems from the fact that I’m a woman.

    Also, I am child free by choice, and I wondered where you got your 90% statistic from? Most information I’ve seen puts the number at 1/5 women reaching the age of 40 without bearing children, up from 1/10 in the 70s.

    As a child free woman, I appreciate those who also don’t have children. There’s far too much shame and feelings of being an inadequate woman tied up with being childless. It’s just another way society forces an ideal on us. I refuse to feel like less of a woman for not meeting the beauty ideal, the passive and gentle ideal, or the mother ideal.

  3. Agreed about the horse. I got a thesis and the opportunity to continue studying and researching. And playing loud music in the car on the way to gigs or to the airport with no one in the back seat.

    New Zealand would be so freaking lucky to have you all!

  4. Even here in Europe with more generous rights it is hard for a woman* to have a career and be a parent. My wife was fortunate to have a job where working reduced hours is accepted (social worker) but even so found, when she returned to work after our first, her progression was slowed or halted because she couldn’t/wouldn’t commit to the same workload as before. After a few years back, she quit that job (a decision helped by government cuts) and turned her hobby into a job (free-lance interior designer) where working part time is under her control.

    My main thought about this is that it’s a shame and a waste that talented parents, male and female, choose to have smaller or no family because they can’t bear the burden of both parenting and career. These people could together have very talented children, and have the resources to give them good educations.

    * as a father I had to right to a lot of time off work, but it would have meant zero income for that period, so I had to use up my vacation/holiday allowance to spend a few weeks with our newborn. Fortunately that’s a lot more generous than in the USA.

    With society complaining more than ever about social issues with poor parenting, shouldn’t it be making it easier for people to be parents *and* have a career?

  5. I like the choice you made, and I like that there are strong female roll models in my areas of interest. It makes sharing astronomy with my daughters (and son!) much less of a gender issue. I wish I could say the same about the live music scene.

  6. You’re one of my role models. Others hold you in such high regard because of all that you’ve accomplished and what you continue to champion.

    It’s hard to answer the “why do you keep at this” question, but it’s not necessary to explain. Persistence is often just part of who we are, regardless of our academic and family choices. You are serious. You’re a champion to so many of us. I point out your work to my astrophysics students, male and female alike, so they can see the richness of one person’s field. Even as I take a break from studying for comps so I can get the PhD so it’s one less reason for my male-centric university to deny me jobs or promotion or resources, I’m reading this because you are one of those strong, dynamic, brilliant, creative academics that I want to be like.

  7. I feel like I should write something to encourage you because in your own way, you’ve done that for me even though you don’t know it. I’m a computer scientist who has listened to you and Frasier for years with the last four years being more eventful for me personally than the forty that preceded them. I’m a fan of your work and as an adjunct professor I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for my classroom from you and your work.

    Four years ago I re-married with the hope of starting my life over. I told my then fiance that I wanted it all – the house, the kids, all of it. So we went for it. She’s an attorney and that puts our situation in the same arena as yours. Attorneys make far less than CS guys. She elected to stay home and have kids. In the 8th month of her second pregnancy, I was diagnosed with an incurable inflammatory muscle disease called dermatomyositis. I almost died twice that year but I didn’t because I have babies to raise. I got no time for dyin. I have a wife and two girls who need me. I don’t honestly think I would have held on because my employer needs me to make Q4 objectives.

    I spent the whole year in bed unable to move. I could not speak. I could not eat or swallow. I was kept alive via tubes. Two things still worked – my arms below the elbow and my brain. I kept working productively and never took any extended time off. My employer got rid of me anyway. Today I’m better – lots of chemo and physical therapy and now you can’t even tell I’m sick. My hair even grew back though nobody can explain why. I have a new job that I like more than my old one even though it doesn’t pay as well.

    Here’s what I learned: You have to go after what you want. Sometimes you have to fight for it with everything you have. And when its more than you have, you have to give it to God. Safety is an illusion. You are not safe. I never smoked, I didn’t drink, I eschewed burgers and fries, and I exercised like a madman – I did everything right and my number still came up.

    Here’s my advice, and it will probably get me flamed, but here it is anyway. Have kids. Do it now. You are two very smart people and you will handle or figure out whatever happens next. Right now you’re trying to figure out how to balance career and family. This is also an illusion. Career is nothing. Family is everything. Career is a means to an end which is supporting your family. Your career won’t take care of you when you get old and sick. Your career won’t say “I love you, mommy.” Your career will never ruin your walls with crayon (which is kinda awesome – the ruining part, not the never part). It will never bring you macaroni art or turkeys in the shape of a little hand. Your career will never star in the Christmas play. It would be a shame to die having never been immortalized in stick figure pictures with yellow suns and flowers and Ben resplendent in purple scribble. Family gives. Career takes. There is no balance there. We do what we have to so we can do what we want to. Have kids and teach them to look to the stars and ride horses and hack big data. If the university cuts you for that, then they were never really part of your destiny. I don’t think that will happen, though. I know your life would change but no way could it possible be worse.

  8. As someone who never really planned on having kids, and now has 3 (two are my husbands that I care for full time, the other a biological whoopsie) I absolutely agree with your choice. And you should not feel like a failure. My career stopped dead in it’s tracks once I got pregnant, just as it was starting to take off.

    My job also required the flexibility to up and move at a moments notice, so it simply isn’t practical for a family. I spent almost 4 years as a stay at home mother, and I was starved for mental stimulation.

    Please don’t mistake what I’m saying – I do not regret my children. Obviously I love them with all my heart. But like you, I will always wonder what if…

  9. I understand the horses. Trust me. I have two horses, no children. I have my feet in the academic and business and creative worlds. My impression is that people are a bit more worried about professional women with children than they are about professional women with horses. I think most people in any industry (besides the horse industry) don’t have a good idea of what to make of horses in terms of how much time or money is involved in it. One thing I’m noticing with my involvement with horses is that it can be like an Old Girl’s network much like the Old Boy’s network that develops business relationships and makes deals on the golf course. Besides all that, I love horses.

  10. Pamala,

    Short & sweet. You have made a difference in my life through your podcasts. You and Fraiser are simply amazing in the way you take complex (to many) concepts and ideas and make them fun and easy to understand. I have told many about your unique abilities and hope they too appreciate you as much as I do.


    David B. Daniels

  11. That was heartfelt and genuine. Thanks for sharing!

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