The X-Gals Alliance

October 02, 2006

Women in biology earn roughly half of the Ph.D.'s awarded annually by American universities yet are progressively more under-represented in postdoctoral, tenure-track, and tenured faculty positions. We all know that. We also know that women with families are less likely to earn tenure than our childless peers.

"We" are the X-Gals, a group of nine female biologists who began meeting weekly over a few beers in 2000, as several of us wrote up our dissertations. (Our name is a double-pun on the X-Men superheroes and on X-Gal, a laboratory chemical sometimes used in biology.)

Back then, we read one another's dissertation chapters, shared tips on everything from text formatting to data analysis, welcomed newborns, griped about advisers, and encouraged one another in our darkest hours. As we graduated and took far-flung jobs and postdocs -- in six states and on two continents -- we have continued the dialogue through an e-mail discussion list.

What began as a survival mechanism for a few female graduate students has become an incredible motivational force and a sounding board vital to our lives and careers. Countless studies have shown that we're going to need all the support we can get as we advance in our careers. The National Academies report released last month, -- which found that women are underrepresented in the sciences and in mathematics because of bias, discrimination, and outmoded policies -- is striking to us only in that it replicates findings that have been known, and reported in print, for more than a decade.

Hence our mission of friendship and support. On any given day it might involve news of a recently accepted manuscript or grant proposal, departmental gossip, speaking tips for a successful job interview or dissertation defense, or encouragement after a setback in the lab or in the personal life of one of us.

We also answer late-night pleas regarding lab or data-analysis woes, edit each other's manuscripts, and share physical resources whenever possible. When our travels bring us together, at conferences or other events, we enjoy catching up over a meal or exercise.

As women, our roles as partners and as mothers have influenced most of our career choices. Six of us are mothers, with a total of 10 children among us (two of them teenagers, the rest younger than 6). We all have partners with careers of their own.

We all have searched locally for mentors but found few. Perhaps that is one reason our e-mail group is so important to us: We help one another negotiate the competing demands of our roles, in no particular order, as scientists, partners, and mothers.

So who precisely are the X-Gals? Seven of us have finished our Ph.D.'s and are at various stages in our careers, from early tenure-track to administration to lecturer. Two are in the last throes of writing up their dissertations. More specifically:

  • "Rachel" is just starting her second year on the tenure track at a regional research institution.

  • "Greta" has just finished a prestigious international postdoc and is starting a full-time research position.

  • "Helen" is beginning a tenure-track faculty job at a large research university overseas.

  • "Jana" has recently been awarded grants totaling nearly $4-million to support her initiatives in her administrative job at a major research university.

  • "Tess" and "Meg" chose lectureships to accommodate their family demands.

  • "Marypat" and "Karen" both came to science after successful careers elsewhere and are finishing their Ph.D.'s long-distance to be with their families.

  • And I ("Lucille") am a non-tenure-track research faculty member at a major research institution, supported by my own grant.

We have each pursued our careers in a different manner, not only to manage the "two-body problem," but also to find a career that is fulfilling with the potential for personal and professional growth.

Most people outside our group (including many of our colleagues) would view us as successful, or well on our way to being so. In our discussions, however, we continue to struggle with our own definitions of success and the constraints of traditional career trajectories for scientists who happen to be women.

We earned our degrees from major research universities where the perception is widespread that the only "successful" career outcome for a Ph.D. is to secure a tenure-track position at a similar institution. However, the diversity of our current jobs is a testament to the fact that other equally successful and rewarding routes exist (including the ability to postpone the tenure track, or leave it completely), and we are each experiencing our own joys and frustrations with our respective paths.

All of us cope -- with some measure of trepidation about how we will continue to manage our complex lives. While each of us continues to pursue our intellectual and scientific passions, we all value a high quality of life and seek a balance between the different forces driving our lives and careers.

We are particularly distressed at the range of challenges we have encountered as female scientists that have nothing to do with the execution of science itself. We spend an uncomfortable percentage of our time anticipating, evading, negotiating, or sometimes railing against gender-specific barriers that threaten our continued participation in science, and in academe especially.

Some of us have encountered outright discrimination because of our gender that has cost us research money or power. Others cope with its many indirect forms, such as the paucity of viable ways to re-enter an academic research career after, for example, opting to take a non-tenure track position during some of our child-bearing years.

We realize that academics in all fields face challenges, but we feel that there are discrete reasons -- even aside from overt (or subtle) discrimination -- that there are so few women in science compared with, for example, the number of women in the humanities:

Science takes money -- a lot of money. That limits most research to institutions with resources. While a humanities Ph.D. can write articles and books while housed at a small liberal-arts college, or even at home, scientists usually need access to expensive labs and equipment to be productive.

Consider that the typical start-up package for new biology hires at top research institutions is $300,000 and up, and that annual research expenses can be $20,000 or more per researcher. Those costs limit our flexibility to negotiate nontraditional paths because we must find a lab that will take us in and assume our expenses.

Lab work is not family-friendly. Laboratories are not safe for small children, and many experiments require precise scheduling. So if our children are sent home ill from daycare or school, we start over. If we're running late with an experiment and have to pick up our kids at 6 p.m. sharp, we've lost a day (or more) of work.

Lab work can be dangerous. As scientists, we need to be on our game. Many labs have a "no hangovers" rule to avoid accidents. Similarly, if we're stressed about a child's care and vulnerable to mistakes, we shouldn't be in the lab.

We often marry our own kind. Women in science are often married to scientists, who have the same constraints.

Universities value grants. They especially like grants that garner lots of indirect costs. As scientists, we need those grants to get tenure. New faculty members without track records must participate in increasingly multi-institution, multi-investigator proposals with one or more "big name" researchers in order to get our work financed, so our futures depend on establishing connections in an entrenched, male-dominated culture that may not acknowledge -- and in our experience often does not value -- the work of female scientists.

As high-achieving individuals who also happen to be junior scientists without the power to remove those challenges, we find little consolation in the stoic's admonition to "suck it up and deal with it" in silence. We believe that the profession of science, and academic science in particular, can do a better job of fully incorporating women, and we want to personally contribute to that change, as well as encourage others to do so. Anything less squanders the talents that we have worked so hard to attain, and wastes the investments made in us by our graduate institutions and funding agencies.

Over the coming months, we will each, in turn, contribute to a series on women in the sciences based on real conversations we have had over the years. We hope that by using a public forum to share our personal struggles and our innermost thoughts on being women in science, we can shed light on the topic. We X-Gals will use pseudonyms to allow us the freedom to be brutally honest without suffering career repercussions for that.

We hope that our stories will inspire other female scientists to form similar support groups so that they, too, can find the inspiration, reassurance, and friendship that has become so important in our lives.

Lucille Louis is the pseudonym of a research assistant professor of biology at a research university in the West.