Hey ladies, where you at?

Published June 29 2016

Ross addresses the relative absence of post-tenure femaile faculty at scientific conferences.

The following essay is excerpted from the blog Woman of Science, written by biophysicist Jennifer Ross. It has been edited to meet ASBMB Today’s style requirements.

So I just went to a big nerd conference this week. You know the one. No, not that one — I went to the other one.

I had a lot of fun talking with everyone and doing some service committee work. I met new people and connected with friends. I did a lot of mentoring. It was pretty exhausting, even though I only went for three days. And I noticed something. There were many times when I was the only one. Don’t make me say it. I was the only woman in a big group of men. It wasn’t all the time or every dinner, but it was noticeable and fairly often.

It got me to thinking. Where were the women? I talked about it with my husband, and we realized there were women at the meeting, but there were almost no women at my stage — the post-tenure, associate professor stage. There were lots of young women — grad students and postdocs and even undergrads! There were lots of post-tenure, associate-level men, but there were only a small handful (a couple) of associate women. There were also about two to three full professor women floating around visibly. We brainstormed about women who were missing to figure out where they were. For each one, I realized they had told me in the past that they were going to “not travel so much” after tenure. Or, in some cases, they had a baby after tenure and couldn’t travel. And now they are MIA.

At dinner, I was sitting with two pre-tenure women, and I asked one of them if she would continue to travel when she (inevitably) got tenure. Her answer was a clear no. And the reasons were multifaceted. She said she would probably travel if she were invited to speak. But she didn’t want to go to as many big conferences. She has two kids at home under the age of 5, and she wanted to spend more time with them. She felt that she was a better mom when she was with them. She herself had a stay-at-home mom, and she felt a lot of guilt from being away. She also had a two-body problem, and her husband was going on the market. These are all really good reasons, but it just made me sad because it was another woman pledging to become less visible after getting tenure. Sometimes I think that it isn’t that women aren’t in science — it’s just that no one knows we’re here because we are diligently doing the science and not out there selling our science the way many men do (I realize #NotAllMen).

So I am writing this to plead with the women for them to come back to big conferences. Please. See, I asked nicely.

Here are three good reasons to return.

Do it for you

Attending, networking and participating at big conferences is important for maintaining your enthusiasm, your creativity and your visibility in the field. At the big conference this week, I saw two talks: my student’s talk and part of the one before my student. They were great. I wish I could have seen more, but I was too busy networking (schmoozing) and talking science in the hallway outside of the rooms. I had several meetings with collaborators, established some new collaborations, and met a ton of students and mentored them (see below). These connections with students who will ultimately join our ranks are just as important as the ones with the older fellows. The reinforced connections with my peers and near peers lead to continued invitations to conferences, seminars, colloquia and nominations for awards. And even though I didn’t see many talks, I did learn a lot of science from the network. I learned what people are excited about and interested in. I talked to a program officer or two about big new ideas from my group. I was just obviously and actively engaged in the meeting.

Do it for me

OK, that first one wasn’t convincing, because you are a selfless, government-financed servant who works on science for the thrill of discovery, and you don’t give a f--- what anyone else thinks now that you have tenure. I hear you. Well, how about you come back to big conferences for me? You are probably thinking that I don’t need you. But I do. I need you so that I am not the only woman at dinner or after-dinner drinks three out of four nights of the conference. I need you because I can’t talk to all the students myself and be the representative for my entire gender at this age and stage of career. It’s a lot of pressure. I have never been so sought after for my advice. In fact, similar situations are what drove me to start my blog in the first place. And most of them didn’t even know I have a blog full of advice on exactly what they were asking me!

Do it for them

And this brings me to my final reason, which piggy-backs on the last one. I shouldn’t be the representative woman. There should be other examples of women who do it differently. I am navigating my career in a particular way that works for me, but I am a big-mouth feminazi. The students need examples of other types of women. What about if you are shy? What if you do theory? What if you are pregnant? What if you are conservative? What if you don’t want kids? What if you are gay? I’m not many of these things. We need lots of women to go to conferences who have navigated tenure successfully and are still visible to serve as role models. OK, you don’t think of yourself as a role model, and you didn’t have a lot of women role models? Fine, but don’t you think there should be more women at the big conference who are successful, normal middle-aged people who can relate to lots of different kinds of women? Because the way this conference looked, if you were a woman, you were either pre-tenure or you had very limited options.

So that is why I think it is important for women to continue to attend big conferences in their broad field. Your impact can be in just being yourself and reminding everyone you exist. What do you think? Will you continue to go to the big conference? Will you come back? I hope so. It is very lonely for me without you.

Jennifer Ross Jennifer Ross is a professor of hard science at a research-intensive university. She blogs at womanofscience.com.