Promoting women in STEM–what do we discuss?

While I loved Jeanne Garbarino’s recent post, “Want to promote women in STEM? Leave home life out of the discussion“, and agree with probably 90% of it, I think it unfortunately goes from one extreme to another with some of her recommendations.

Garbarino notes several reasons why she thinks it’s counter-productive to discuss home life issues when trying to promote women in STEM careers: 1) it is rare that home life situations for men in STEM are discussed; 2) not everyone shares the same home life experiences or goals; 3) it doesn’t move the conversation forward. Very true for 1 and 2 (though I’d argue that rather than shutting down this conversation for women, perhaps we open it up more to men, who are increasingly worried about work/life balance as well), but 3 is where my disagreement centers. She writes:

As someone who frequently moderates panel discussions on careers in STEM, I have come to realize and value the types of information that truly move the conversation forward. Let’s face it – finding a job in STEM is not easy, and having a PhD no longer equates to job security (at least, job security in one’s area of research). I’d be happy to discuss my tactics for finding quality time with my children as part of a parenting forum. But ask me to talk about this when the focus is on securing a job, and I will no longer do it – it just doesn’t seem relevant.

Instead of discussing home life, I think it is better to talk about individual strategies for networking, recognizing opportunity, being your own advocate, and negotiating skills. These are the types of anecdotes that are the most valuable.

And while I support that, the reality for many of us is that finding a job necessarily includes a discussion of family life within that search (again, noting #2 above that clearly, for any panel such as this there will be people for whom that doesn’t fit). Personally, I had a secure job, was tenured, loved where I was, but *because* of family issues, it just wasn’t working out, so back on the market I went. For women in particular, we’re much more likely to have a partner who’s also in academia or a similar career. From NSF, note that women in STEM are much more likely to have a spouse working full-time, and to be married to another scientist or engineer. Thus, even when looking for jobs, women are more likely than men to have to deal with dual hire situations, or to need to look for some kind of accommodation for a partner.

Admittedly, I don’t have data for those Garbarino points out may feel alienated by husband/wife language, such as lesbian couples, but that brings up other issues of knowing whether a campus/town/area is LGBT-friendly, or can also find a position for their spouse/partner. And for those with children or planning to have them, knowing how to find out about childcare arrangements, for example, isn’t just theoretical, and can again be a factor in securing a job and may come up during  job negotiations. These *are* family issues, but also critical ones when “the focus is on securing a job,” or at least one where you and/or your partner won’t be miserable–and they shouldn’t be relegated to just a “parenting” or “family” panel in my opinion.

I think that instead of steering women-in-STEM panels away from topics such as partners and children (which she notes that certainly aren’t goals for everyone), it’s important to note that some kind of support system is important for *anyone* in academia. That may be husbands and wives, it may be a circle of friends you can vent to and troubleshoot problems (personal or professional), it may be other family or relatives in the area. Truth is, it’s very hard to go it alone in STEM, but it’s true that a spouse/partner isn’t the ideal solution for everyone. Similarly with the child issue: we all want balance. Just because one chooses to be child-free doesn’t mean s/he still wants to work 80 hours every week and have no kind of life outside of science. So perhaps rather than referring to balance in only a child-centric manner, it would be better to open that up to a bigger variety of ways that one has a life outside of work.

Finally, while I love the “Finkbeiner test” cited, I’m not sure this is appropriate for many *discussions* of women in STEM, rather than write-ups of such as intended. Coverage of women STEM figures in the media is quite different from an advice panel on job-seeking or tenure strategies, in which cases participants or audience members may be seeking just the information that Garbarino suggests leaving out.

Overall, this is a tough and touchy topic. No one wants “women in STEM” to equate to “must always discuss family issues and cheesecake recipes,” but at the same time we have to be realistic that women, even in academia, still generally are doing the lion’s share of family work, and that these are legitimate questions and concerns for many of us, especially for those heading toward the job market. We also know that many women still are turned off STEM careers because they’re seen as incompatible with having some kind of a life outside work, spouse/children or not. I’m not convinced that limiting discussion of these is any better than having the focus solely be on these types of topics–either strategy is bound to be alienating to one group or another. Personally, I can only emphasize what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

The Pap smear is no panacea, Katie Couric

Regular readers keeping up on infectious disease issues might have seen Seth Mnookin’s post yesterday, warning of an upcoming episode of the Katie Couric show  focusing on the HPV vaccine. Even though Mnookin previously spoke with a producer at length regarding this topic, the promo for the show certainly did not look promising:

“The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls? Meet a mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine, and hear all sides of the HPV vaccine controversy.”

And indeed, reviews thus far show that unfortunately, Couric pretty much  mangled the issue and allowed heart-wrenching anecdotes to trump science (reminiscent of Jenny McCarthy’s appearance on Oprah). I won’t cover it all (you can view it here), but basically Couric allows stories about illness and death in the weeks following administration of the vaccine to go unchallenged, and brings on Dr. Diane Harper as her HPV expert (featured prominently in the anti-vaccine documentary “The Greater Good“). Dr. Harper believes the HPV vaccine is over-hyped, and that Pap screening is “100% accurate” so no HPV vaccine is really needed. This, frankly, is hogwash. Even with emphasis on screening, here in the U.S. we have 12,000 cases and 4,000 deaths from cervical cancer alone each year. (And in Mnookin’s post and in Matthew Herper’s Forbes post, both note that head and neck cancers can also be caused by HPV as well–but have no good screening process).

Even when HPV cervical infections are caught via screening, the treatment ain’t pretty. I’ve written before mentioning one such remedy–the LEEP procedure.  I had this done several years ago, after a Pap smear came back with abnormal cells and positive for HPV DNA:

“Next, a woman with abnormal cells can expect to undergo a LEEP procedure, where portions of your cervix are removed with a burning electric wire under local anesthetic, and the foul smoking remains of your cells are sucked up into the smoke shark, “a sleek, powerful, smoke-eating machine.” [And one gets to look forward to “coffee ground-like discharge” for up to several days following the procedure, due to the materials they use to stem the bleeding cervix]. After LEEP, side effects may include infection, hemorrhage and possibly cervical incompetence.  These are rare, but if we’re talking vaccine side effects versus possible outcomes from HPV infection, these types of outcomes need to be considered as well–not just death from cervical cancer.”

Being currently pregnant following such a procedure, cervical incompetence was something I was carefully monitored for. Nevertheless, it’s still been a huge source of stress throughout this pregnancy, as this is a significant cause of second-trimester miscarriage and there aren’t great, foolproof ways to detect it, or remedy it if it does occur. Harper acts as if finding HPV via Pap smears is like rainbows and unicorns, but it too has a risk-benefit equation, and I’d so much rather have received a vaccination than to have gone through that. And, some women’s treatments for HPV infections and cervical abnormalities are even more extreme than mine was.

This is why I had my now-almost-14-year-old daughter vaccinated for HPV, and why my pre-teen son will soon be getting his as well. There are multiple ways to prevent HPV-induced cancers, but the vaccine (in combination with routine Pap smears) is by far the least invasive and safest route, as multiple studies have confirmed.

Finally, the show was doubly disappointing because Couric has been such an outspoken advocate of colon cancer prevention, which was the cause of her husband’s death in 1998. While realizing this is a fluff talk show and not the kind of harder journalism she’s apparently now abandoned, she still failed to ask even the most basic of questions to the supposed HPV vaccine “victims” she featured on her show, nor to note during their segments that other possibilities may exist for the girls’ illnesses and death besides the HPV vaccine. In the second segment, Rosemary Mathis even admits blatantly doctor-shopping until one would “listen to her” about her daughter–in other words, give her a new diagnosis (vaccine injury). Why isn’t this even questioned? What did her previous doctors tell her about her daughter’s condition? Couric allowed ratings and anecdotes to trump actual science, potentially causing real harm to the public health. How disappointing that this is now part of her legacy.

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