Reflections from women in stem faculty positions
Female STEM faculty face many stressors in the workplace such as balancing life and work, gender bias in the field, gender bias in hiring and promotion, and working in a male-dominated field. These stressors often discourage women from staying in their fields or make them become disillusioned with a field of study they were once in love with.
As an aspiring professor and woman studying Mechanical Engineering, I myself have felt some of the stress from the above-mentioned problems and can see how it not only affects me but also some of the female faculty that I have had the opportunity to interact with. To begin, I will share my own reflections on being a woman in a STEM field and my own experience in academia.
Before I began college, I considered different engineering majors to study and Mechanical Engineering was the one that was the most attractive to me. From then on, when discussing my major, I would often hear phrases like “That’s not a place for a woman to be!” from older males and sometimes was asked questions like “OK, sure. What do you know about cars? Do you know anything about engines?” from younger, more zealous males. I chose Mechanical Engineering because of its applied nature and the mix of mathematics and physics that I would learn–two subjects that I really enjoyed in school. Many people have the misconception that Mechanical Engineers solely work on cars, or that they need to do a lot of heavy lifting or hands-on work. This misconception and the enforcement of gendered tasks is detrimental to women interested in the field and discourages them from giving it a chance. I, thankfully, did not care for these comments and ignored them.
Now, as a Ph.D. student, I have made it through the four-year undergraduate degree program in Mechanical Engineering where I was often one of maybe eight females in a class of 50 students. I have also had the opportunity to be a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) for different courses and practice teaching small groups of students. I did not have much difficulty reaching out to the females in many of my student groups, however, I did encounter males who were less receptive to my communication with them and would instead try to tell me that they knew better (i.e. mansplain) some topics to me.
Some of the other responsibilities of Ph.D. students and faculty have also stood out to me as possible barriers to success for females. The pressure to show progress and publish papers as a graduate student and early career faculty is very intense. I often wonder how mothers handle these responsibilities while also finding time to take care of their children and themselves (especially during pregnancy). While the child is the responsibility of both parents, the process of having a child is on the mother for at least nine months and includes a lot of physical and mental change. Many women are looked down upon for taking time off for pregnancy and recovery after childbirth and it can delay their progress in securing their faculty positions. To get more insight on struggles females face in faculty STEM positions, we will look at the findings presented in a doctoral dissertation titled Leaning into Engineering: Tenured Women Faculty and the Policies and Programs That Support Them written by Deborah Karpman .
Karpman’s findings include information on how women balance work and family demands, sources of support such as family-friendly policies, and navigating gender bias in institutions. She specifically looked at three research universities and interviewed some of their female engineering faculty.
Balancing Work and Family Demands
The women interviewed reveal that balancing work and family demands is one of the most challenging aspects of their careers. Many felt that their work was dominating their life and that they were not able to spend more time with their families fulfilling their responsibilities as caregivers. One professor even mentioned that she was not even trying to find a balance as that was too difficult, instead she was just trying to survive. Many women find that they have to make trade-offs and either put work before family or vice versa. This can strain their family relationships, or it can strain their work relationships. There is often a stigma surrounding women who put family first as they are seen as not willing to put in the effort for their careers or less capable than the men in their fields. This can lead to impartiality in hiring and promotion practices, which will be discussed later.
Institutions of higher education have been and continue to implement more family-friendly policies such as taking leave for the birth of a child or getting an extension on the tenure-clock. Oftentimes, there is a stigma surrounding these policies as some may think that women are given some kind of advantage over men because of the availability of family-friendly policies. Some institutions are successful in making family-friendly policies available to men and women to try and reduce the stigma and normalize taking time off for family. At other institutions, these policies are available, but not many people are made aware of them as they are buried deep down in some handbook and rarely discussed. Women at the research universities Karpman focused on detailed being made to feel like they were asking for too much too soon if they were recent hires in terms of taking maternity leave, or being made to feel like they needed to be tough and work through pregnancies/recovery time. Not only do women who have families need to prioritize and organize their lives according to the demands of their jobs and families, but they also have this extra added pressure of how their actions will be perceived and if they will have a negative effect on their careers. Family-friendly policies are great and more institutions should have them, but those institutions also need to encourage their faculty to have a healthy balance between their work and their personal/family life.
Navigating Gender Bias
Gender bias is present in hiring and promotion practices as well in the resources/networks that are made available to women. In hiring and promoting women, women interviewees may be asked about their families and the responsibilities they have whereas their male counterparts who also have families are not asked the same. While there are some pushes for diversity recruitment at some institutions, retainment needs to be looked at along with how those hires feel they are being treated in their jobs. Some women have experienced older men say things like “It should be easy for you to get hired because more and more places are looking to diversify their faculty”. Comments like these make women STEM faculty question their abilities and the quality of their work. This leads to negative self-talk like “Am I being hired because I have a good record or because this department needs to hire more women? Am I worthy of this position?” These questions adversely affect the mental health of many women and lower their self-esteem. Working in a male-dominated field is also challenging because it may limit the resources/networks made available to women. Women may be left out of workplace friend/colleague groups that are all male simply because they are women. This may make women feel like they do not have access to seniors in their departments who could have been potential mentors or just a good colleague/friend.
Karpman does an excellent job detailing her findings in her doctoral dissertation. There are more problems and findings available in her dissertation.
 Karpman, D. (2015). Leaning into Engineering: Tenured Women Faculty and the Policies and Programs That Support Them. UCLA. ProQuest ID: Karpman_ucla_0031D_13744. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5cz5g21. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5t67b4wz