30 is the new 20, or it is?

I’ve been asked to sit on a panel of various early career researchers from Sydney in August as part of science week. I have to present and discuss “what keeps scientists up at night”. I think we are meant to discuss our preoccupation with science research and the like.

I’m torn. I normally crawl into bed about 11pm pretty much exhausted both physically and mentally. Things that keep me up at night usually include whether I’ve fucked something up in the lab, and I am about to get yelled at about it. Alternatively, there was the time that I got really involved in Plants vs Zombies on my phone and couldn’t sleep properly because I couldn’t stop playing it. I am also not one to work very late at night, I’ve never pulled a work based “all nighter” (I have watched the sun rise over cans of cheap beer in a garden as a student though). Regardless, I need to present something that I worry about as a scientist.

I read an article on the conversation a while back that said that nowadays 30 is the new 20, except when it comes down to women’s reproductive health. The first part of that sentence is great. 30 is the new 20. So I’m notionally 21, and all that time spent at university studying for my undergraduate degree and then doing research for my PhD was time I invested into my now young adulthood. I don’t feel 31, and I’m pretty sure I don’t look 31. I’m obviously going to look older than my undergrad students, but I think I can get away with mid-20s when I’ve decided to make an effort.
At this stage I haven’t really invested in anything other than my career. I don’t own a house (or even have a mortgage), I don’t even own a car. In fact, other than my student debt that I really should be repaying, the most expensive thing I own is my laptop (and clothes and shoes).

The second part of that sentence is the one that put things into more perspective for me. Despite my somewhat carefree attitude to owning things, and investment into my fledgling career, my insides tell a different story. And this terrifies me.
I think science is a great career, but at the same time I am not sure whether it is the best career for women. For reasons I have stated previously, it is hard to be a women in science. For the first part of my career (during my PhD) I didn’t really care that I was a woman in what is still in many respects an archaic man’s world. I noticed things like my male acquaintances going out for beers with the senior staff members after a while, but I’m so pig headed I’d just invite myself along and got very drunk as I tried to keep up with the flowing beer rounds.

Looking back, I naively expected my gender to not be any kind of hindrance to my career progression. I secured my postdoc above male applicants. I work hard and make sure I publish regularly. As I moved up the academic food chain, I began to notice that things aren’t quite as equal as I had originally thought.

Women and men researchers are like Macs and PCs. They both do the same thing, on the whole, functioning as computers. But they have different niche skill sets and ways of performing tasks. If I want to make an image of some neurons, I know a Mac will handle the graphics program better, conversely, I know that I want to analyse some data in Excel, that a PC will make the task easier (and anyone who has tried using office on a mac should understand). I take stuff to heart much more than my male counterparts, and I will seethe about some perceived misgiving for weeks. I think male and female researchers invest equal time and energy into their research, and this is noted by my department having a lot of women in various research and academic roles, as psychology departments usually do. If I look at conferences, during the early careers presentations the gender balance is equal, however the keynote speakers are male dominated.

The big difference, in my opinion, is that investment into the early stage of a career is equal between genders, up to the point where a sacrifice has to be made. Then, at that point, a woman has to decide whether or not to make a sacrifice – usually in the form of continuing rapid career progression or having a family. My current investment is clouded by the fact I have to decide whether I want to get on board the family train soon, and I don’t want to get there when the doors have already closed.

Employers know this. I have put in multiple “tentative applications” for lecturing positions only to be met with “you have excellent research skills but your research focus doesn’t match what we are looking for”. Whereas my male counterparts are getting asked to interviews with fewer publications and less grant funding that me. In my current department, a recently appointed female lecturer had more publications than many of the existing senior lecturers. During the job talks there seemed to be a disproportionate numbers of men represented, but whether this is because there were few female academics actually shortlisted eludes me.

Now I’m going to sound like a rampant raging feminist here when I say that 30 is the new 20 is biased towards men. It simply means that men can live out their 20 and 30’s investing solidly in their careers without any great concern for their fertility or urge to settle down, unless they want to. All the balls are in their court. Pun intended. Of course male academics will continue to flourish in this environment, whereas women who attain permanent and senior positions will be made to feel like token example of success, with whether their achievements were made in the face of adversity (having kids) highlighted. I don’t like this notion of over-focusing on gender. After the whole “frightbat” debacle, gender can be rapidly turned into a issue, and I would rather be regarded as a “good researcher” generally than a “female researcher” because my gender shouldn’t dictate my abilities.
I’m not even sorry that there is positive discrimination around for women in research, at this stage in my career I will take anything for a leg up the career ladder.


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