I Didn’t Want To Lean Out
Why I Left, How I Left, and What It Would Have Taken to Keep Me in STEM
I am a woman and a chemist, and last year I leaned out.
I didn’t make that decision lightly. I’ve loved chemistry since middle school. I saw the way it made the world fit together and it was beautiful. I earned a bronze medal in the International Chemistry Olympiad, continued my studies at a prestigious and challenging undergraduate-only college, and was quickly promoted for my work as a medicinal chemist at a well-known pharmaceutical company.
The USA team poses with their medals at the International Chemical Olympiad (IChO). Photo by USNCO mentor Todd Trout.
People I chatted with would shudder when I said “synthetic organic chemist;” I would smile and say, “well, someone has to like the stuff.”
And I do. I love the way that life is built from a bare handful of elements. I love following the push and pull of electrons as I work out how a reaction must go, then using that insight to tweak the conditions in my flask, getting more and purer product each time. I love figuring out how to break down the structure of a complex target molecule so that I can build it easily and efficiently. I’ve been training for this — and then, doing it — for the last decade.
I Still Left.
Textbooks don’t tell you everything. They don’t tell you that organic synthesis has been a cutthroat boys’ club for a century. They don’t tell you about the suicides in Nobel Laureate E. J. Corey’s group. They don’t tell you about flat NSF and declining NIH funding. They don’t tell you that you’ll never get far as an organic chemist without a PhD — and certainly not that you’ll need more stubbornness than brilliance to get one.
They don’t tell you about the grind of the tenure track or the two-body problem. They don’t tell you how your boss/academic adviser (your lab group’s principal investigator, or PI) can take advantage of the fact that your visa status depends on your employment to work you harder and pay you less — that they might delay filing your paperwork as they drop hints that you’re not working hard enough, or just fire you and send you and your family back to your country of origin. They don’t tell you about the common perception that a scientist should be 100% devoted to “his” work (or her work, if she is single or has a “supportive spouse,” as it’s usually put).
You may notice that you’ve never heard about the contributions of female organic chemists. Or you may not. You’ve never seen anything different.
I started my career in medicinal chemistry immediately after I earned my bachelor’s. I learned all those things quietly as I went, and I quickly saw that I would never be in a position to change them unless I earned my PhD. Until last year, my plan was to play the game (though I’d seen it was rigged) long enough to change those rules. I wanted to be respected as a chemist. I wanted to lead a research team and solve pressing problems in medicine, energy, or the environment while treating my employees fairly. I thought about being able to hire people like my incredibly competent but PhD-less co-worker into management roles. I thought about instituting management and diversity training for PhD-level chemists. I thought about inviting some of the women who are rising stars of organic synthesis to come speak and consult. I fantasized about having the power to stop the company from repeatedly bringing in the consultant who had graduated zero female PhD students out of his last twenty, who had reputedly reduced at least one employee to tears as she presented her work, and whom I heard joke about “finishing up some chromatography” (chromatography is a purification technique that usually involves flushing a quantity of liquid through a long, narrow column) when we paused our consulting session for a bathroom break.
So, I went to graduate school. I explored materials science, earning a master’s degree. I studied advanced organic chemistry and loved the chance to dig deeper in a field that I loved. I developed and patented a set of assay substrates to detect rare genetic diseases. I worked as a teaching and a research assistant and started to become more active in the academic student employees’ union. I mentored students with less experience and learned from students with more. The department and my adviser made extra allowances for my situation when I took medical leave. It wasn’t all bad.
But the bad… was bad. Most of it isn’t mine to tell, and my colleagues experienced the worst of it. I had talked with other students so that I knew to avoid the worst advisers; I had confidence and financial security after my three years in the pharmaceutical industry, and no children; and I had enough practice asserting myself that I could present myself well and hold my ground. All the same, I saw more feminine, less confident women disrespected. I noticed when our biochemistry professor included zero papers from female PI’s groups in our class syllabus. I noticed that there were zero female professors in the organic/chemical biology division despite a relatively good male/female balance of graduate students and a handful of recently-hired new male professors. (Female candidates just didn’t take the department’s offers, I heard. I wondered why.)
I heard about instances of sexual harassment by a former graduate student. Students were afraid to assert their rights under our union’s contract; our contract capped required work hours at 20 h/week and allowed four weeks of vacation per year, but many students were required (or “suggested”) to work at least 55 h/week and could take perhaps two weeks of vacation before facing overt or subtle retaliation. Postdocs who had immigrated with their families were afraid for their visas if they didn’t work hard enough. I saw students sleeping on their desks, then going into the lab to work with toxic and flammable materials in close quarters with other lab workers. One afternoon, a student came into our lab and asked us to take a look at her eye; it was watering and she’d spilled a chemical in it. We urged her to go to the clinic, but she said no — she had to watch the reaction she was monitoring or her adviser would be upset at their next group meeting.
I knew that much of what I had heard of or watched could have easily happened to me in slightly different circumstances. That knowledge was chilling. After a death in the family and medical issues of my own, I went on leave near the end of my third year. I was unsure whether I would go back (to that adviser, to organic chemistry, to chemistry at all).
Slowly and painfully, I weighed my options. Was there any way I could stay in the organic division without keeping my head down and my mouth shut? Should I switch to analytical or physical chemistry? Did I want to apply to yet another graduate program? Would it even be any better in another department? If I had to leave organic chemistry, did I want to leave chemistry altogether? What other careers were open to me?
Choosing to end any phase of your life is never easy. As a woman, choosing to leave science is harder still. Although there are support groups and professional associations for women in science, there is little day-to-day support for staying. There is even less support for leaving.
When I decided to leave, I let go of my intention to continue contributing to the advancement of human knowledge as a scientist and a chemist. I mourned that I would not achieve my goal of changing the culture of organic chemistry, and I knew that my leaving would mean one less woman for other women to talk to, network with, and lean on for professional support. I fought feelings of obligation and squashed that nagging sense that I was letting down The Sisterhood(™).
I was furious. I saw that little about my situation was fair, but there it was, and there I was.
In the end, I chose my own health and happiness and I chose self-respect.
I tried talking to other chemists, presenting my experiences and options as rationally and neutrally as possible to head off defensiveness. Some were supportive — friends in the department, and a recent graduate who was considering leaving chemistry herself. Others, though, seemed to take the possibility of my leaving as challenge or a criticism of their beliefs (that science is a meritocracy) or choices (to stay and make the necessary compromises).
There’s a profoundly un-empathetic line of thought that goes: “Diversity is good. This woman is adding to diversity in STEM. Her leaving decreases diversity. Therefore, she is bad to leave.” No one said this to me in as many words, but when you’ve been sitting with your own guilt for weeks, it comes through clear as day.
Here are some of the comments I received as I discussed my experiences and options for the future, all from fellow chemists:
- “Chemistry needs people like you.” (Implied: It’s your responsibility to stay.)
- My committee member (1) informing me that my former adviser has never, to his knowledge, graduated a female PhD student; (2) hastily adding that he “[doesn’t] think it’s because of sexism or anything like that”; (3) immediately starting to talk about how important it is to “lean on the graduate student network” and find out as much as possible about potential PIs before choosing an adviser. (Implied: I should have done extra work, then chosen a lab less compatible with my scientific interests and work habits solely because I am a woman.)
- From a fellow union activist: “You just have to get through this, and then you’ll show them.” He stuck to this advice in the face of my experiences as well as data that made it clear I would have to make myself better than my male peers to advance at all. (Implied: you should do more work for less credit, because otherwise you will let the system win.)
- From an established female professor: “Have you pointed out to your adviser that [the chemical biology conference he runs] has had zero female PIs there for the last two years? Sometimes they just don’t realize.” This, while approximately one in three biochemists is female, as is one in four organic chemists. (Implied: If I want fairness in my field, I should challenge a man with control over my educational progress and work environment and who has had zero female trainees finish their doctorates. While I finish my doctorate.)
- “You have to take the bad with the good.” (Implied: gender bias is a normal and survivable situation, not worth complaining about.)
None of these interactions were pleasant. These individuals dismissed my experiences and the data that back them up; they suggested that it is my job, as a woman impacted by sexism, to either endure it or put my career at risk to attempt to change it. They presume to judge what makes this pain worth enduring. They presume to tell me to lean in.
I was able to shake most of these interactions off and eventually add them to my list of reasons to leave. My mother, who’d earned degrees in physics and electrical engineering in the 70’s, cried when I told her that I was leaving and why but she never blamed me. She’d hoped that my generation’s experiences would be better than hers. My mentors, friends, and family did not blame me for leaving or try to talk me into staying. They respected my experiences and my judgment.
They supported me by:
- Affirming that oppressive situations can make you crazy–that they don’t just cause doubt, that sometimes they change you for the worse. Telling me that voting with my feet is a legitimate response, and that I have no obligation to stay and fix a harmful system at the expense of my happiness and sanity.
- Providing a compassionate (but not pitying) space for my anger, despair, shame, guilt, and grief. One of my friends brought me funeral lilies and I laughed bitterly and hugged her hard.
- Never implying that they knew best.
- Reflecting my own thoughts back to me as I explored future plans and career paths; telling me when my face lit up and when it shut down as I tossed out ideas.
- Telling me that chemistry really does need people with my ideas and skills and that it’s a crying shame and its own damn fault if it loses me.
- Providing me with the emotional and financial support I needed to make necessary transitions.
I’ve lost a lot of my dreams by leaving chemistry. I’ve treated this loss much as I would mourn a death. I gathered my close friends for a wake of sorts and we shared food and tears and hope. I cried until I was sick of it. I tried to offer myself (grief-stricken, raging, unreasonable) the same respect and compassion I would offer a guest or dear friend. In the middle of that, I reminded myself that I was creating my own opportunities by leaving. I kept finding joy in my old passions and skills. I balanced between joy and grief and hope and fear as I decided what to do next.
My Challenge to You
So, someone you know is considering leaving a STEM field and you wish she wouldn’t, or you vaguely wish she felt more supported in her current position. You have opinions about the proverbial leaky pipeline. You’re sad or angry that you’ll be the only woman in the lab once your coworker leaves. You’re frustrated that your brilliant, driven mentee quit her job and left the field. You want to get more women in STEM, so you focus your efforts on trying to recruit new women and girls. You’re recognized for your outreach efforts — and your colleague’s going-away lunch takes you by surprise.
When a pipeline leaks, we don’t blame the water. We fix the pipe and design the next one to leak less. Why do we blame women who leave STEM fields? Photo by Andrei Niemimäki, used under CC-BY-SA.
So. What can you do?
You can recognize that our choices to leave are rational decisions that demonstrate self-knowledge and self-respect. We have weighed whether we love the work more than we hate the context we do it in. You can accept our analysis and respect our agency, and not try to convince us that you know better or that we should have worked (even) harder. If you’re part of a majority and we are not, you can acknowledge that we’ve probably already worked harder than you have to get to the same place.
You can patch the leaks in the pipeline. You can see that your organization welcomes diversity instead of paying lip service to it. You can stop trying to get women into careers that will chew them up and spit them out without addressing the chilly climate they will find. You can make it so that fields like the one I spent ten years of my life training for and working in can benefit from the considerable talents of the next woman like me. If she’s that much like me, she’ll be an idealist. She’ll try to change the culture of chemistry to fit her better, because she loves her work and wants to be able to do it and also respect herself. You can support her publicly and see that she’s not punished for trying. You can make it so that she faces only the same pressures and frustrations as her straight, male, fully abled coworkers.
Marginalized people are punished overtly and subtly when we ask for respect and fair treatment. I tried, and I’m done. You all who don’t face those pressures and aren’t punished when you try to change them–you want this fixed? You do the research. You do the work.
‘Dyed wool fleece for handspinning’, or ‘experiments in dye reaction kinetics’. Photo used with permission.
If I would help the weak, I must be fed
In wit and purpose, pour away despair
And rinse the cup, eat happiness like bread.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay