Does Life Get Better at Mid-Career?

Julie Gould and Nature Careers podcasts have been running an interesting series (Muddle of the Middle) on what it’s like to be a mid-career/middle aged scientist. A time when precarity is likely to be past, but reality of all the different strands impacting on one’s life come into sharp focus. I certainly didn’t find it an easy time, and looking back to the years of my 40’s, I still find it difficult to judge what the primary issues were, because they don’t present themselves as black and white and they were probably a messy tangle of different factors.

At this stage, many parents face the challenges raised by adolescent children simultaneously with ageing parents, all wanting attention, time and love, albeit often in incompatible ways.  Being part of the ‘sandwich generation’ is bound to be difficult, quite apart from the demands of the job. Elder care probably needs to be talked about more than it is. Particularly when parents live a long way away, the stresses can be huge. For women, the menopause may cause significant challenges. In my day, that wasn’t much talked about, except in dark comments about some woman who was regarded as being ‘difficult’. This difficulty was attributed, in my hearing, to it being ‘that time of life’. Unhelpful. For all I know the same was said of me but if so, they had the grace not to say it in front of me.

But it is exactly this issue of how one’s colleagues approach a woman in mid-life that interests me. Having done a straw poll of around 25 women, it seems to me the population is split between those who say things got worse, to those who say it was a great improvement. I have absolutely no idea what determines which camp an individual falls into – is it their department, their discipline, their character, even how they choose to dress, or is it simply a question of luck? – but I know I certainly fell into the former grouping. As I moved up the ladder, I decided I must have become more threatening, moving from someone who could be patronised to someone who wanted their voice and views to be heard and therefore apparently had to be slapped down or ignored, even talked over. Maybe those who were doing this to me had no idea of how they came across. Conversations in more recent years suggests this is likely to be true. Indeed, in one case, it seemed they actually thought my success was in part attributed to their leadership. Hmmm, is all I can say.

Of course, I must add ‘not all men’ (and let’s face it, in my case, there were no women involved as their numbers were so low). Other key individuals were massively helpful, supportive and understanding, but there were a number of years when those around me who set strategic direction and had the power did not want to accept that, as a professor and an FRS, maybe I had a right to be listened to and treated as ‘one of the boys’. I find this a difficult topic to talk about, because I have no desire to identify individuals publicly. Perhaps they may just not have known how to cope with a professional woman, when their interactions with women were largely limited to either girlfriends or mothers. I didn’t fit in to either heading so how were they supposed to deal with me? These days, I would like to think that men are more accustomed to female scientists being quite good at their jobs, as good as the men around them, and therefore they have more practice at being professional with them. However, in the straw poll of mid-career women I conducted, there were undoubtedly a number who identified with the idea that men were non-plussed and awkward when dealing with a woman in a leadership role, or who commented how it appeared they had become a threat as they became more senior, in ways that had not been so at earlier career stages.

On the other hand, there were other women who commented how nice it was to become more senior because they were no longer subjected to the same levels of harassment. What a damning statement about the world in which we live. I am glad to hear they had a better environment as they progressed, but the reality is a number of women will have been completely lost to the system by the toxicity they encountered. If they were lucky, maybe these women suddenly found themselves with power and kudos, and that all the academics around them listened to their wise words. Sadly, it may mean no more than that their situations were better than they had been, and they felt able at least to voice their opinions. I cannot tell.

The trouble is, there remain systemic problems for women. If they are bad enough, an individual may choose to walk away, never realising their dreams or their potential. If they get through the early stages, with or without actual harassment, then they will hit the mid-career problems faced by all researchers and identified in the podcasts, as well as those specifically related to the fact they are a woman. The recent article by Julie Jebsen et al in Nature Chemistry spells out where systemic problems lie in our current system of research funding, together with some recommendations for what can be done about them. It highlights many challenges that readers of this blog are likely to recognize. Funding is just one part of the problem, a very important part, but individual actions by those around remain a potent obstacle. Women in academia have been limping on for far too long, with slow improvements visible on a number of fronts. Yet too many obstacles remain. When I set out, and when I was mid-career, I kept thinking that the next generation and the next, would find themselves in an equitable environment. We are far from there yet.



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