Concerns of women in research

How can women foster a work-life balance in their research careers?

Did you know Aretha was awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton?
She had it right in demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

How do we make tough career decisions?

Why do we sometimes feel we’re not good enough to be here?

These are some of the questions that were tackled at McGill’s 2nd annual In her own words 2: Stories from Distinguished Research Careers. The speakers on this panel were Professor Suzanne Fortier (our current Principal), Professor Grace Fong, and Professor Morag Park.

Their advice was thoughtful, but also sometimes discouraging—in the way the best can make success look so easy. This post is for all you who didn’t make it to the event but are curious as to what these power-houses had to say about pursuing a career in research.

How can women foster a work-life balance in their research careers?

To answer this question, we need to unpack it a bit. Most of us can guess what the “work” part of that equation might look like. Some of the steps of research careers are clear with regards to diplomas and work placements to rise through academic ranks.

But what is the other part of the ratio—the nebulous “life” of a researcher? Some young researchers want families and kids, others don’t. For those who want to have babies, timing seems to be a very complicated issue. Indeed, the time when academics would be moving on to higher-level research positions coincides with the ringing of biological clocks.

The panelists took a pragmatic view on this question. Dr. Park said that when she had kids, she simply “became more organized and slept less,” while Dr. Fortier suggested that “two out of three ain’t bad” (wise words shared, coincidentally by Meat Loaf). That is, if between family, work, and play, you can only focus on two of these areas at a time in any given period of your life, that should be good enough.

The underlying theme to these statements was that if you want it badly enough, and are truly passionate about your research, you can make it work, no matter the sacrifices.

This brings us to the second big question. Given all the challenges women face in academia and work in general:

How do we make tough decisions regarding our careers?

I think the best answer to this question was offered by Professor Park: “make decisions based on what you know you don’t want to do.”

None of these panelists had the grand plan of becoming successful researchers. But they were all passionate about their work, and shared the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time.

An added ingredient to this magical combination was the reception of good advice throughout their careers. In short: Ladies, find a mentor. (And for all those supervisors who might be reading this post: hone the art of mentorship!)

Mentorship is different from advice-giving.  It involves recognizing the strengths and skills already inherent in the student, but offering them the frameworks of support necessary to improve upon problem areas. Much of the success of the panelists could be traced back to instances of receiving excellent advice and mentorship.

But still, despite all their successes, these brilliant women all admitted to feeling insecure about their careers at some point in their lives.

Why do we sometimes feel we’re not good enough to be here?

It’s called the Imposter Syndrome . Though it’s not necessarily gender specific, women feeling like imposters in an academic setting, like their successes aren’t deserved, or that someone will soon realize that they are phonies and they’ll be kicked out, is particularly alarming given the already large systemic burdens and barriers women face.

One result of Imposter Syndrome is that women don’t always ask for what we deserve.

Adequate salaries and project support are examples of resources women rarely receive in research. The panelists emphasized how, when leading research projects, women should expect the salaries and funds necessary for hiring a project manager or for delegating responsibilities to others so that the work-life balance becomes more manageable.

All my single ladies!
I’m curious to hear what you have to say: What are your biggest worries concerning your research careers? You can share your thoughts below.


2 thoughts on “Concerns of women in research

  1. Hi Alexandra,

    Thanks a lot for posting this. Unfortunately, I had to miss this talk that I was looking forward to all month because of my lab work, so I’m glad to hear some of the things that went on.
    I personally have come to the realization that, indeed, one should have to choose 2 out of 3 at any given time when pursuing a career in academia and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that being said.
    It’s funny because my best friend the other day who is pursuing a graduate degree in English lit said that academia is the most flexible profession for a woman who wants to have both career and a family. I highly disagree with that and I think a lot of sacrifices should be made on a woman’s part to have both or what we call “a balanced life”.
    When faced with the decision of whether to go into academia or not, most men don’t even have to consider how having a family will “put this on hold” or “interfere” and I think that’s very unfair and sad.
    For me, I’ve already decided that I don’t want to have children if, indeed, it will impact my career in academia which is something I’ve been aspiring to for a long time. Of course, that didn’t make my mother too happy, haha! I really like your statement about how the panelists in question “make success look so easy” and that is indeed discouraging.
    I like the advice you give about how to make good decisions for our career and how to empower ourselves as women and change our way of thinking as to what we deserve or not.
    Helen Gurley Brown, a long-time editor at Cosmo magazine (passed away at age 90 just recently) has 10 golden commandments for any woman pursuing a career:

    I love number 10 which simply says: “Have it all: Money, Sex, Career, Family, Children..”.

    I think it’s a more positive thing to tell women that they CAN indeed have it all and not have to choose from 2 out of 3.


  2. Thanks for posting this Alexandra! I was planning to go to this but had some last minute experiment crises. I don’t think I would want to give up any of family, work, or play. All very important. I’m still a bit undecided about how passionate I am regarding a career in research. I might instead end up being a hippy living in the forest somewhere…


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