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The Battle Is at the Top

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

  Dear Dr. Clemmons:

I recently had dinner with a group of female, executive-level scientists and engineers with careers in both industry and academia. Most of the women in the group were at least 15 years older than I, so the expectation was that I would get great advice on how to juggle motherhood, a demanding career, and the many facets of my personal life from the pros. I was shocked to hear that all these women STILL had difficult careers and choices to make, even at the most senior positions, and indeed, still experienced great difficulties in keeping up with all the many demands placed on them by their employers and their families.

Even more disturbing to me was the fact that some of the women said that the battle for equality is more fiercely fought at the top. In their words, "Women in the workplace are now acceptable at the lower ranks but not yet in senior positions." The women felt that they had less acceptance now than ever and were simply being tolerated for whatever reason. In addition, they felt there was a steeper penalty for female executives who did try to juggle motherhood, family, and career versus women who did not.

Dr. Clemmons, I cannot believe that things are still this tough for women in the workplace, and I am becoming disillusioned. I do not know how I can continue to fight to move up the ladder when I now realize that it is not all it's cracked up to be.


Naïve Woman in Science

Dear Naïve Woman in Science:

Your concerns are valid, real, and timely. Women today are faced with more demands on their time and energy than ever. From what I have observed, female scientists and engineers at all stages of their careers are especially vulnerable to burnout and disillusionment due to working in a male-dominated culture. To add to their professional responsibilities, many women have primary familial duties at home, whether married with children or not. This situation is due, in part, to the fact that there has been a huge cultural shift in the dynamics of the workforce but no real corresponding shift in the inner workings of most domestic situations. So, when it comes to child care, elder care, or plain old housekeeping duties, the lion's share of the work can still fall on a woman's shoulder's although she has a full-time job with an outside employer the same as her mate or other family members.

Even though I would argue that some of the stress and demands that women face are often self-imposed, when it comes to life as a woman in a science or engineering career, you are in good company; many women feel out of place, and some even drop out of the workforce altogether for various reasons. For one, some of us do not like to accept help in dealing with our situations and believe we can do it all ourselves. Another reason some women get fed up is the infamous "glass ceiling" effect whereby they achieve success up to a certain point but are prevented from attaining higher level positions.

More importantly, as you have discovered, when a woman does break the glass ceiling, her life does not necessarily become easier and can, in fact, become harder. I can tell you from experience that executive-level positions are usually unforgiving of your personal life, and I am sure that this plays a factor in how women perceive their lives once in the executive suite, whether that be in industry, academia, or government.

You must realize that a lot of women feel exactly as you do at some point in their life, so keep trying and hang in there. As I always tell people, if you do nothing in response to your situation and give up, you can pretty much guarantee poor results. One thing you have going for you at this point is knowledge of what may happen if you are not proactive in setting up a situation for yourself that you can live with. Take careful inventory of what you need to be happy in the later years of your life--years that may be spent in the executive suite. You do not want to be bitter with your career and lifestyle choices as some of these women may be, so I suggest that you start making the necessary changes now to assure that you will be fulfilled. For example, I think it would be a good assumption that some of these women gave up having children to have their career go smoothly. So, take pride in the fact that you are a mother. There are many other possibilities here.

Because you are a "working mother," determine where your boundaries are in terms of your workplace. Start looking for the types of places to employ yourself that will value family and not see your children (and/or your elderly parents who require care) as an imposition on your workplace availability. Another great option is to start your own business and set your own work hours. I highly recommend this option if you have the temperament and skills for it. Being an entrepreneur is a mindset and way of life, so you need to honestly evaluate your personality before going down this road. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, but nothing worth having is easy to accomplish. Furthermore, you must take this time to try to change your own destiny, because no one else is going to do it for you.

On the bright side, things are slowly changing for women in the workplace and for women who are persevering in science and engineering careers. For one, the number of women in our field is increasing, which means the workplace norms that were created by and for the convenience of men are in flux. Also, the plight of the working parent/caregiver is slowly improving. However, I will be the first to say that society's current progress does leave a whole heck of a lot to be desired.

In general, the women you consulted with are right to say that your career can be perceived as secondary to your employer once you have kids--mainly because you are female. In my experience, working men are not typically affected in the same way as working women by the announcement "We're pregnant!" My response to this is that your job should be second to your children; however, that does not mean that you cannot be a stellar performer at work. The two are not mutually exclusive as some would have you believe. Furthermore, no child is created without a male counterpart, so he has the same child-rearing responsibilities that you do. So, what's the difference in perceptions of workers pre- and postchildbirth except for the gender of the parent? Folks need to be honest about this double standard so that the issue can be dealt with effectively.

As proof of the changing landscape for working parents, I recently read an interesting article in the San Diego Union-Tribune regarding recent court rulings on the side of working parents. I took special note of the article because sea changes in the American way of life are often pursued, and eventually won, through court decisions. The trickle effects of court rulings can be felt years, even decades, later, but the fact that the courts begin to see an issue as important is a critical element in societal change.

Another key point made in the article was that "mothers' job status would improve if more fathers started pressing for--and using--paternity leave and other programs enabling them to share more child-care duties." I couldn't agree more. You should definitely enlist the man in your life to fight for his right to help raise his children without any repercussions from his employer or peers. It is a sad fact that the average father does not have real parental rights in the eyes of their employers. Most men are still relegated to second-class status in this regard, with child-rearing being considered "women's work." As further evidence of this situation, the above-referenced article stated that only 15% of companies offer paid paternal leave to men, so I would think that men would start fighting for their right to be fathers as well as employees. If men took up the good fight, the situation would get better all the way around.

My last piece of advice is to tell you to heed the good direction you got from your group of executive friends. The battle really is at the top. Child-rearing responsibilities are only one of the many things that can and will be held against you as a female executive. Your actions may be perceived completely differently from those of your male counterparts, so the best thing you can do for yourself is to formulate your own personal strategy to deal with it. Your confidantes are right to tell you that the battle becomes more intense at the top, because it does. You are not a threat as long as you are kept subordinate with the stakes low. When the stakes become higher and your force can be felt in an organization, expect backlash for the least little perceived "mistake." The same can be said for people of color, so make sure you are sensitive to their issues as well.

Yes, it is still an old boys' club, and it is up to us on the outside looking in to change it. No one willingly gives up power, and to expect that the keys to the kingdom will be handed to you without a fight is extremely naïve. You must also realize that men have barriers at work that they must overcome, but unfortunately a lot of men don't discuss it openly. Whereas women love to talk about their challenges in order to overcome them, men often accept this as a way of life and internalize their fears. In my opinion, these actions (or inaction) on the part of men are what must change for real progress to take place.

Good luck to you and keep me posted. Dig in your heels and stand tall. You can win the battle once you're at the top of your game if you start preparing now.

--Dr. Clemmons

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