Monday, August 20, 2012

Why I would do better in a diverse department

While in the swing of things, its easy for me to convince myself that things are OK. At my last position, there were only a few female postdocs, and I was the only one with a family. But there were other postdocs (male) with kids, even one with a child Epsilon's age, and a two body problem that looked identical except that the gender were switched. I had a female faculty mentor, there was another female faculty with kids down the hall from me, and a very friendly tenured faculty next door who was always very free with advice. What more could I want in a support network, right?

The problem is with sample sizes and the probabilities. The more people look like me, the greater the chance that they will have similar life experiences, and the more likely they will turn into something of a confidant/friend/mentor/support person.

I use the word "look" loosely. By being a woman who wants/has a family, I have taken myself out of the pool of people likely to be useful to women who don't want that path. Similarly, young male postdocs who do at least 50% of the parenting of their kid(s) may not look like me, but probably share a lot of the frustrations/struggles I have. But a woman at a similar career stage, with a similar looking family, who is also a person I can have over for dinner? That's gold. Finding such a woman  requires having a large sample of females in the department to choose from.

I was reminded of this lack in my life in the best way possible recently. I met up with an old friend fitting the above description a couple months ago. We've kept in sporadic e-mail contact, but after grad school, we'd both gone in slightly different academic directions, and stopped seeing each other professionally very often. I reunited with her at a point in my travels when I was feeling particularly bitter and miserable about the upcoming move. It was great to catch up with an old friend and hear about the exploits of her family. It was just as nice to have someone applaud my efforts in my 2-body problem. Her family has resolved their situation differently, equally problematically, in a way we could never deal with. It was nice to have someone encourage me to vent about the issue in front of colleagues I did not know very well and actively create a safe place for me to speak.* It was nice to have someone to compare and contrast and hash over the costs and benefits of different career choices.

Seeing her again was a good reminder of both the fact that I have good friends scattered around the globe, and an explicit example of why departments need to "diversify" their hires.

* A space space often just takes one person being willing to politely set the tone of a conversation.

1 comment:

  1. Barefoot, I think you are being too hard on yourself about this new job of yours. Its a great achievement. Savor it and have fun :)