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Knowing your place

05/18/2009

I am in grad school. I am being reminded constantly that what I should be striving for is a successful research career at a top university or lab, and simultaneously that those types of jobs are scarce. Perhaps, as new thinking says (OK, the science policy class I took helped), I should follow a non-traditional career path after getting my Ph.D. I could teach high school or college physics, get into policy, work in outreach, or any number of other rewarding and under-appreciated fields.

I am also constantly reminded that there are few women in my field, and that it’s my duty, in a way, to rise to the top and mentor lots of students in order to get my hands on the paradigm and steer it toward equality. But are there other ways I could affect the system more effectively? And on top of that, the question always remains: Am I good enough to get one of those few spots, even if I really put my mind to it? That doubt makes it tempting for me to choose the open world of non-research careers.

Even though I might be delving even deeper into the whininess of the last few posts, I want to suggest that this is a conflict typical of being a woman in science. If I dress frumpily, I risk looking unprofessional; but is it better to try to look attractive and seem as though I’m using my femininity to my advantage? Do I give up my desire to have a family and resist the pressure to be a “good wife”? Or is this really just a way of succumbing to the pressure inflicted by the academic community to fit the mold of a hassle-free man?

Reading over those again, I can see that this is in no way specific to women in science! There are more general questions that apply to women in many situations: Do I act aggressively with my male colleagues to assure their respect, or will this just make me seem like a bitch? Should I strive to break from the stereotypes, even if I enjoy knitting and baking?

It’s impossible to “know your place,” since someone will generally be let down, no matter what place you choose. But in the end, I think, it should come down to what makes you happy. That’s what feminism is really about, and other human rights battles; not sameness, but equality and freedom. I can be a scientist or a housewife or whatever, which wasn’t always the case. I guess choices are therefore a good thing!

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