My Surprisingly Intense Sociological Climate Study Interview

I’m always a little bit tickled to be the subject of a research study.  Who knew you could study people?! 🙂

And now for an academia/pregnancy loss crossover post…

On Monday I participated in a follow-up phone interview for a national survey of professional climate in my field, which is being run by a national women-in-science organization.  After the interviewer (a sociologist who focuses on issues of gender and minority status in the sciences) gave me her standard spiel, I said something along the lines of “Well, I’m happy to help out, but I don’t know that I’ll have much to tell you — I can’t imagine that I wrote anything interesting on the survey!”

Ha.  What was supposed to be a 45-minute interview, max, lasted for over an hour.

Sociologists are good at their jobs.  I had been thinking about the climate survey as a chance for women to talk about sexual harassment and overt sexism in the field, and I’m fortunate enough to have experienced blessedly little of this.  I’ve got my stories, as does any female physical scientist who survives to the professorial stage, but on the whole they’re quite mild compared to what many of my friends and colleagues have been through.  But man, this sociologist drew out all kinds of climate issues that I’d never even thought of as climate issues before.  I thought I’d talk about two of them today.

First: the hierarchical attitudes towards professor jobs at R1 institutions vs. liberal arts colleges. 

This came out when I was talking about my time as a postdoc, at an institution where I was very unhappy for a number of reasons.  I had (and in fact still have) several issues with my postdoctoral supervisor, who was not particularly supportive research-wise, and was blatantly unsupportive along several other dimensions.  This culminated in an experience mere weeks before I left the institution for my current job, which I shared with the interviewer:

My postdoctoral department had a Christmas play tradition.  Maybe you know the sort — every three years the responsibility rotates between students, postdocs, and faculty, and the relevant group writes, produces, and acts in a play that “roasts” various other members of the department.  Lighthearted and fun, right?  Well, my postdoctoral supervisor was the faculty member who wrote the Christmas play that happened a few weeks before I left this top R1 department for my current job.  During the play, he referred to me as a suffragette (because of my work on equity and inclusion in our field), and gave the following line to a character in the play: “Oh, [the pregnant physicist].  You don’t have to worry about her… she’s off to tutor rich kids and will never be heard from professionally again!”  And this mere weeks before starting my job as an assistant professor at a top liberal arts college.  You can bet I felt devalued, demoralized, and ready to get the heck out of that place.  It did an amazing job of making explicit many of the climate issues I’d barely been able to put into words while I was there.  But indeed, in a top R1 institution that had a fraction of female postdocs that was 1/3 of the national average in my field (which is not large to begin with), I *did* stand out as the “suffragette” type.  That’s not hard to do when you’re routinely the only woman in a room with a dozen men.  And while the grad students, male and female, were all surreptitiously asking me how they could get a job like mine, their supervisors openly mocked my career path.  Awe.  Some.

So, the interviewer and I explored this issue a little bit more, including some of the comments I’ve received since then from collaborators and faculty at other institutions.  Everything from backhanded compliments like “You know, everyone thinks you’re too good for your job” to clueless questions like “How come you’re at [institution]?  Did you not get any other faculty jobs?”  It’s a climate issue that I’d never really articulated as such, and I thought about it a lot after my interview with the sociologist ended.

Second: Departmental support (or lack thereof) after my daughter’s death

First, let me just say this: I love my department.  It was an oasis of sanity after my crappy postdoctoral experience at the top R1 institution.  My colleagues are generally wonderful human beings.  We talk to each other.  We know about each other’s research, teaching, and advising challenges and successes, and we have a basic working knowledge of each other’s personal lives as well.  We work hard to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.  We are functional and make decisions sanely and with a minimum of politics.  We like each other.  I am proud to be a member of my department and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

That said, my interviewer’s antennae pricked up at an offhand comment I made during the interview, about how it was sometimes lonely being the only women in my department, and how female faculty in other departments had been important sources of support when I was going through difficult personal and professional challenges.  She asked me to expand on this thought, and eventually asked me to be specific about the challenges I was referring to, as long as I was comfortable talking about them.

And that was when we got started on the subject of my daughter’s death.

I told her about how I found out my baby was dead on a Thursday, got out of the hospital on Saturday morning, and went back to work Tuesday.  How nobody told me I might be able to take a medical leave or suggested that I cancel my classes for that first week.  How I’d had multiple surgeries since then, most recently in February, and even though I’ve told my department chair that I had to leave for surgery (including one week when I had a procedure on Monday and depending on the outcome might have had to have another surgery on a Friday), nobody has followed up to ask about how I’m doing health-wise.  Other than that brief logistical conversation with the chair, nobody in my department has any idea of what I’ve been through since my daughter died.  I’ve mentioned my surgeries to one or two department members once or twice, and have even made offhand comments about my baby when it comes up, but they very obviously shy away from the subject and so I’ve stopped talking about it.  As a result, they know that I lost a pregnancy in the middle of the second trimester, but they know nothing else about my life since then, including all the challenges I’ve been through in the past 8 months, and the fact that I’m facing the prospect of high-risk future pregnancies.

By contrast, there are three female faculty in other science departments who have been life- and sanity-savers.  One of them offered to take over my lectures the week after I delivered my daughter, and has been a literal and figurative shoulder to cry on throughout the whole experience.  Another routinely checked in every few months at the end of work-related meetings to find out how we were doing and how the medical stuff was progressing.  A third was the only person (in my whole life) who wrote to acknowledge my loss on Mother’s Day.  What would I do without these amazing women?  But on the flip side… it turned out that my otherwise all-male department is not really equipped to help me deal with a loss that none of my colleagues have experienced and really can’t even imagine.  As a result, I think in retrospect that they bungled it.  I feel a lack of administrative support because I was not made aware of my options in the wake of this medical crisis.  I feel a lack of personal support because nobody in the department has offered any emotional support or even inquiry into my wellbeing during the months of intense medical attention that followed my loss.  Yes, these are my coworkers, and as such they’re certainly not required to be my confidantes, but as I mentioned in the first paragraph, the culture of my department is such that we tend to have strong personal connections as well — in every area other than this enormously significant part of my life.  I can tell you the theme of my coworker’s daughter’s fourth birthday party and all about my other coworker’s kids’ Saturday morning swimming lessons on campus, but they have no idea that I’ve missed a cumulative week or more of work over the past 8 months for surgeries, doctors appointments, therapy, etc.

The interviewer also asked about ways in which this experience affected my ability to function professionally.  I had a list ready, from three declined invited talk invitations (and therefore three conferences that I couldn’t bring myself to travel to, resulting in a loss of professional visibility), to comments I received on teaching evaluations about some sloppiness with preparation in the middle of the semester, to reduction in publication output, to jeopardizing relationships with collaborators with whom I wasn’t comfortable sharing this very personal news to explain delays in my research output.  Frankly, I suspect I don’t even know the extent to which this experience has affected my professional life yet.  And yet my department is not even acknowledging that this significant professional impact might have taken place.  It’s not really their fault — I suspect it wouldn’t have been better anywhere else.  But my experience does shine a light on how the climate in my field occasionally fails female scientists — or anybody with out-of-the-box medical and family issues.  I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that a more gender-neutral but similarly intense health issue would have been dealt with very differently by the other members of the department.

Well.  This post is getting awfully long, so I’d better wrap it up!  In summary, I was surprised at the extent to which the interviewer pulled climate issues from my interview that I had never really articulated to myself as such before this experience.  It was incredibly emotionally intense, and I was in tears throughout most of the section in which I was talking about the loss of our daughter.  I felt shaky and distracted for a couple of hours afterwards.  But I’m glad I participated in the interview.  I think that these issues of academic hierarchy and the flexibility to deal with medical issues that arise during childbearing years that aren’t *exactly* normal pregnancy and birth, but are very closely related, are issues that our field should address.  Perhaps the broader-context way of articulating the latter issue is that our field needs to be, in general, more accepting of the impact of life, health, and family, particularly when our needs fall outside the standard script and at non-ideal places on the academic calendar.  I’ll be really interested to read the report when it comes out.


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