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Women in astronomy: Good news and ambiguous news

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Now, there's a reason I titled this column "good news and ambiguous news." Speaking as one of those women who chose a research associate job over the search for tenure, there are distinct advantages to taking a different path. Don't get me wrong, there is not a day goes by that I don't feel a little ashamed of my decision. I always wanted to be a tenured professor, doing independent research, teaching, and serving on committees. My professional self-worth was wrapped up in that goal, which is hardly surprising when all of my teachers and mentors were professors themselves. But I made some different choices, and I can't say I regret them.

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When my husband got a job in California, we had to find a solution to the "two-body problem." Unable to find a geographically-convenient academic position with an exact match to my personal research interests, I took a staff scientist job involved with the development of a major NASA mission. Now, just five years out of graduate school, I am a member of the senior management team, I oversee a budget of over a million dollars a year, lead a group, and am paid more than any starting professor would ever hope to be.

But sometimes I still feel like I "sold out," or took the path of least resistance. Did my not wanting to buck for tenure mean that I was less talented, less driven, or afraid of some good hard work? I can't ignore that some women have managed to seemingly have it all; there are indeed successful, tenured women professors who have raised families as well. But why did I feel like apologizing for taking a solid, well-paying, enjoyable job that didn't burn me out or require me to deny all other aspects of my life?

As the conference went on, I found out I was far from alone. One thing many speakers at the conference noted was how traditionally-defined success in science was very closely correlated with having a "perfect trajectory." Once you started on the path to becoming a tenured professor, everything in your life had to go in the perfect order, with the perfect timing, for that goal to be realized. Several "life contingencies" have been identified that, if encountered, almost always had the effect of throwing prospective scientists off the path for good.

What counts as a "life contingency?" Things like getting married and having to balance your career with your partner, having children, or caring for aging parents were topmost on the list. And while these contingencies affected both men and women, culturally, women seem to bear the larger burden. For example, it's harder for women to put off child-bearing until after tenure, which these days may not be granted until a professor is in their early forties. So, does that count as a form of discrimination or not? I, like almost all of the women who stepped off the tenure track, did so of my own free will. Should the argument end there?

The statistics seem to suggest that if men and women make similar commitments to their scientific careers, they will reap similar rewards. A life in academic science may just require specific sacrifices, like foregoing marriage and children and maintaining a more independent existence, and maybe we should be more up-front about this with our graduate students. There are plenty of careers that make similar demands. It's hard to imagine a top-billed Broadway actor or the prima ballerina of a premier company expecting to have a stable, secure job and a balanced family life. But does a career in science really need to make those demands, or is it a leftover from when single, socially isolated men dominated the profession?

In the end, if academia is serious about increasing the number of women at the highest level, changes need to be made. And the timing couldn't be better. Issues like child care and the support of aging parents are about to break onto the public consciousness on a national scale. And this doesn't just affect women. Young male scientists are increasingly feeling similar pressures to juggle child care and support the careers of their spouses.

But there's another needed change in academia too: we have to acknowledge that there isn't just one way to be a successful scientist. I was somewhat amused when one conference speaker spoke about all the talented women we're "losing" to non-tenure positions. I'm not lost, I wanted to say, I'm right here in the auditorium with you, very much involved in cutting-edge science and intending to stay that way.

The ration of non-tenure to tenure-track jobs is increasing, for better or worse. Graduate students should be made aware of the wide range of highly desirable jobs in science that offer more flexibility and different rewards. Astronomers like me are poised to become a significant population in professional science. And academia will have to be ready for the fact that many of the best and brightest new scientists may choose, of their own accord, to follow a different career path.