Final Thoughts on my PhD Experience

Last month I got a survey in my email called the AEA Climate survey. I only bothered to open it because I thought it would be something related to environmental economics. (While I don’t consider myself part of the economics community anymore, my current job is marginally related to environmental economics, plus it is just a topic that I still find interesting.)

Turns out it was about the other kind of climate, i.e. discrimination and harassment within economics, but I decided to take the survey anyway. I was never sexually harassed during grad school (probably some combination of everyone being super respectful and my un-sexy motherhood), but I thought I would share with you all what I wrote in response to an open-ended question about whether we ever felt discriminated against. (I don’t remember the exact wording of the question but it was something along those lines.)

“My main issues came from the fact that I was raising children while I was in grad school.  I originally wanted to do time series research, but our time series professor had a reputation as someone who expected his grad students to work super long hours, and I obviously couldn’t do that since I had a toddler and a baby.  I had heard stories of professors (including this one) dropping grad students after years if they were not successful enough.  I didn’t want to take my chances and end up getting dropped, so I went with someone else, which meant changing my field. I would not describe this situation as active discrimination, per se, since I never made a strong effort to work with this professor.  However, one could make an argument that non-support is a form of passive discrimination at some level. If you want to make the decision that mothers are not welcome in graduate school, then fine, but otherwise an acknowledgement has to be made that mothers/primary caregivers do not have as many hours in the day to devote to graduate school and have other challenges, including financial challenges, and make at least some tiny effort to support them. In general, I felt the need to hide the fact that I was a primary caregiver, due to the competitive work culture.  I never saw any evidence that the department wanted to support parents or make us (well, mainly me – I was the only female parent in our department, and the men were never the primary caregiver) feel welcome. I’m not suggesting that the department should have bent over backwards for me, but even just a small gesture, like someone reaching out to ask how things are going, would have made a huge difference.”

I wrote this in a hurry, so it wasn’t incredibly well thought-out, and I hope it doesn’t sound super whiny. It is all true, though! Honestly, sometimes I wish I had been a little more of a trailblazer and tried to force one of those “tough” professors to accept that I had maybe 20 hours a week (at best!) to devote to research and take me on as a student anyway. But I did what I could with the personality that I have. I like to think that just existing in that space as a mom, and especially as an autism mom, helped in some minuscule way to move the needle in the right direction.

Law-mom: Econ-mom, actually, from a legal standpoint, I think you were discriminated against. In the law, what you experienced is a called a “disparate impact,” this “passive discrimination” that you refer to. It’s when certain policies or employment structures have a “disparate impact” on only certain groups of people. Of course, to *prove* that in the court of law is a whole other ball of wax. But, being a woman who understands most of what you experience as a mother in today’s culture, I believe that your department’s policies probably had a disparate impact on women–namely, in this case, women who are also caretakers. Of course, a huge percentage of women of a certain age *are* also caretakers. So, they are nearly synonymous terms.

I say, good for you for saying something! I am sure there are people in that department who have probably never thought about that issue before in their life.

3 Replies to “Final Thoughts on my PhD Experience”

  1. In general, academia is very allergic to parents/parenting/etc.
    (with the exception of certain universities with adequate maternity/paternity leave).
    There is a reason why *all* of my friends (particularly women) from grad school (ranging in age from late 20s – mid 40s) do not have children.

    1. Ugh, yeah, academia is intense. I’m not surprised to hear that your grad school friends don’t have kids yet! I do know of some women who are successful academics and have kids, but they ALL had them after tenure! For me, I was already 30 when I started my PhD so that would have been too late for me.

      1. This is Law-Mom now. I was having a somewhat related discussion about my “Mommy penalty” regarding my career (particularly in terms of current salary) with a friend. I do think that women are better off, from a career standpoint, waiting for their careers to be more established before having kids. But from a biological perspective, this does not always work or make sense!

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