The choices of women

Tonight Janet Albrechtsen said something on Q&A that really annoyed me (yes, yes, what a surprise). I can’t remember exactly what the question being discussed was, but the discussion was moving along the lines of gender imbalance in pay/the workforce/on boards. Albrechtsen then made a comment about women “choosing” to leave the workforce.

This annoyed me greatly because of a choice I made a little while ago: the choice to leave academia. 5 years ago (almost to the day), I started my PhD, enthusiastic about all that the world of research had to offer me. Since I was about 7 years old, I had always wanted to be a scientist of some sort or another, and in physics I felt like I had really found my place.

Move forward 4 years, and I spent a lot of time pondering the question “Do I stay or do I go?” I still loved the science, but I hated pretty much everything else about academia. The extreme competitiveness in particular, but I was also tired of having to fight the sexism day in and day out. Sure, it wasn’t always as bad as the more extreme cases, and not everyone in the department was sexist, but as time wore on I felt like the culture of sexism began to affect me every day. It was the little things. Automatically standing out because I was the only female in the room. Men (well, just one man in particular) making constant references to censoring his speech because there are things he won’t say around a lady. Being told by a student that I’m the first physics teacher he’s ever had that doesn’t have a beard, and that they’re not sure that it feels right to be learning physics from someone beardless.

In the end, I made the choice to leave academia. The main reason I left was because I felt I couldn’t survive the competitive environment and extreme dedication to the job that surviving in academia seems to require these days. After I had made my decision (and accepted the offer for the job I’m now working in) I had a good heart to heart with my PhD supervisor (for the record, very supportive and not a sexist f-wit). He told me that he thought that I was a talented scientist and a good scientific writer, but that he thought I lacked the final ingredient: the hunger needed to succeed in academia. I think he was right.

I’m now working in my new job, and if you’ve spoken to me in the last month you’ll know how happy I am there. I love the work, I love my colleagues and I love the culture of the place. I know I made the right choice, but I still sometimes have to fight feelings of guilt. I left the fight of academia for the relatively secure environs of the public service. This makes me just another woman contributing to the total number leaving academia. By not staying on, there’s no way I can help even up the numbers at the top (and they’re very uneven in physics). I often had female students privately confide to me that they love having a female tutor because it makes studying physics a little less daunting – who are they going to look up to now?

I tell myself I made the choice to leave academia because I don’t have the hunger required. This is true, but I also think it is near impossible to separate out the impact of a sexist culture when making such a big choice, and that’s before addressing the deeper question of whether academia is an environment that encourages higher survival rates for people with typically male traits compared with those who have typically female traits (there’s a paper by FASTS on this somewhere, I’ll have to dig it up).

I know I recently blogged about being on feminism L-plates, but just because I’m still learning doesn’t mean that I’m not going to talk about it. I’m going to write about my own experience as a middle-class, white, able-bodied woman because that’s what I know.

All of this is a very long way of saying that blaming gender imbalance on the choices of women is a rubbish argument. For sure, I think feminism should be all about choice, but while we still have different pressures on men and women in the workplace, men and women are bound to make different choices, perpetuating the imbalance. I may have made the choice to leave academia, but I can’t say for sure that being a woman had nothing to do with that.

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5 Responses to The choices of women

  1. Captain Old says:

    A commendably restrained commentary on some pretty poor treatment you received. Physics is the poorer for the loss of your enthusiasm and scientific capability. But given that environment, you made the right decision.

  2. Citizen_Re says:

    Make sure you mention your experience of stereotype threat (thanks to twitter for the nomenclature) the in the Australian Graduate Survey if you feel it was a factor in forgoing academia. You may be able to foment a legacy from the outside.

    • bogurk says:

      Good point about the Australian Graduate Survey. I’ll have to keep that in mind. My main difficulty is that it is so hard to separate out all the factors – I definitely think that the competitiveness and lack of job security was a bigger factor in me choosing to leave.

  3. Audrieau says:

    Great letter! My own daughter left physics after graduation to medicine because she saw no clear path for herself. My feeling was that she was missing the female role models that help define the path. She is a great doctor, and loves it, but i know from time to time, wistfully misses her physics

    • bogurk says:

      Hi Audrieau, thanks for your comment. It’s a shame that your daughter also felt like she had to leave physics. Hopefully she can still read about it from time to time so she can at least have some contact with it.

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