Recruiting under false pretenses?

In conjunction with the Uncommon Alliance: Women in STEM conference in Washington, DC (8-9 March 2013), there was a social media push (#DCSTEM) in conjunction with International Women’s Day to get professionals in the sciences to provide 140 characters of encouraging young women to go into STEM fields. I encourage, in my own way, but I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that I’m being a bit disingenuous when I do so.

In biological sciences, the problem is not getting young women interested. You don’t go to graduate school if you are not interested – normally extremely interested, I want to be involved in this for the rest of my life interested.

Women are not underrepresented in the biological sciences at the graduate school and post-doctoral level (this varies depending on sub-discipline) the way they are in other fields. They are significantly underrepresented among tenure track faculty and department leadership. The problem isn’t women lacking interest in biology. It is an institutional lack of interest in women.

I feel disingenuous because, if I am knowingly encouraging people to pursue my own education and career path, I am encouraging them to follow a path that institutionally is set up to make it hard for them to be successful.

I’m not encouraging these young women to get them interested. I’m encouraging them in order to give them enough enthusiasm to overcome the institutional hurdles they will face that do not face their male counterparts. I’m encouraging them to enter a field that will act like it does not want them.

While I want to encourage everyone to follow their passion, I wonder if I am sacrificing the individual for the broader social goal? Am I giving these young women the same advice I would give my own children?

Author: Josh Witten

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