Tag Archives: guilt

Open pipes gushing water

Re-post: Pipeline Guilt

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 9, 2012.

One of the most common metaphors for discussing retention problems for women in science is the leaky pipeline, which paints a picture of women slipping out of the track to the upper echelons of scientific research. The idea is that for, say, the track to being a professor in the sciences, even if you start with a large proportion of undergraduate women studying some field, if some leave before graduate school, before doing postdoctoral research, before landing tenure-track jobs, before landing tenure, or really at any point before becoming department chair and Nobel laureate, that is A Problem. The pipeline that was supposed to shuttle women to the top is leaking. And you can see how the same idea could apply to women reaching any position of power that involves many steps to get to: if you lose women at each step in larger numbers than you lose men, those at the top will be mostly men.

The pipeline metaphor is a useful one for encouraging people to think about the many career stages and how women’s choices are constrained differently at each one. For example, the fact that women are assumed to shoulder more of the burden of child-rearing, as well as the physical tasks of pregnancy and childbirth, affects the work situations of women of parenting age far more than men. And as women get older, they are less likely to receive cultural support for their voices as voices of authority, whereas for men the opposite is true. It’s important for these issues to be discussed among policy makers and hiring officers if women’s experience in the workplace is to be normalized, in order to increase their representation at later career stages, and in this sense the ‘leaky pipeline’ is an apt description of the problem.

But there is another effect of this idea that I’ve observed among women in science that is far less helpful: pipeline guilt.

One of the most natural reactions for women working in a field where women are under-represented, who have heard about the leaky pipeline and want to be an advocate for women in that field, is the desire not to contribute to the leaks. Knowing that women leaving a career progression early precludes women from occupying positions of power at the end of that progression, it can be pretty difficult to change your own path. This is related to the idea of a model minority, and wanting to be the most successful representation of your minority group possible to show that your group can do X, whatever X may be. And even people who embrace alternate models of success for others can have a difficult time accepting those models in their own lives; it is easier to tell someone else that leaving academia to write books is a valid choice than it is to make that choice yourself. It’s a heavy burden to want to be the best example for women in your field, at the expense of your own happiness. And it’s easy to hear about the leaky pipeline and see it as prescriptive, implying that individual women have to choose to stay in the pipeline in order to help solve the problem.

However, I think that there are other ways to look at the prospect of leaving the pipeline. I’ll stick to the sciences as an example, but this analysis can apply to many other fields.

For one, leaving research science and its prestigious end-pipeline positions does not necessarily mean ceasing to be an ambassador for women in science. Science communicators, science writers, science teachers, and science policy makers all serve as faces and voices of science, and having women in these roles does quite a bit of good. People in science outreach and education can also help get young people into science, which adds to the number of women entering the pipeline. People in policy and activism roles can provide support for women still in the pipeline, and work to promote cultural and institutional acceptance of women in science. In fact, it’s really important to show that these support and outreach roles matter, since they are routinely undervalued and dismissed. And even those people who choose careers or life paths completely unrelated to science are still scientifically literate citizens, perhaps raising their children to enjoy science, perhaps raising their voices in support of science during discussions with friends and family, perhaps throwing their vote behind scientifically literate candidates. Most parts of the world have a problem with public understanding of and support for science, but change can start small, on the individual level. And I for one would enjoy having more musicians, novelists, and lawyers who know anything about science, just as I enjoy finding scientists who know the slightest thing about art, business, or history.

Thinking about the leaky pipeline can definitely be helpful in identifying when underrepresented groups leave career paths that seem stacked against them. But when it comes right down to it, ‘the pipeline’ is a very simplistic view of what constitutes achievement in the world. Not only is it important to make decisions that will make you happy, but it’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to advocate for underrepresented groups, and many ways to lead by example. Many of them are outside the pipeline, and it isn’t a betrayal of all the women who couldn’t make it to the top to choose a different path.

Open pipes gushing water

Pipeline Guilt

One of the most common metaphors for discussing retention problems for women in science is the leaky pipeline, which paints a picture of women slipping out of the track to the upper echelons of scientific research. The idea is that for, say, the track to being a professor in the sciences, even if you start with a large proportion of undergraduate women studying some field, if some leave before graduate school, before doing postdoctoral research, before landing tenure-track jobs, before landing tenure, or really at any point before becoming department chair and Nobel laureate, that is A Problem. The pipeline that was supposed to shuttle women to the top is leaking. And you can see how the same idea could apply to women reaching any position of power that involves many steps to get to: if you lose women at each step in larger numbers than you lose men, those at the top will be mostly men.

The pipeline metaphor is a useful one for encouraging people to think about the many career stages and how women’s choices are constrained differently at each one. For example, the fact that women are assumed to shoulder more of the burden of child-rearing, as well as the physical tasks of pregnancy and childbirth, affects the work situations of women of parenting age far more than men. And as women get older, they are less likely to receive cultural support for their voices as voices of authority, whereas for men the opposite is true. It’s important for these issues to be discussed among policy makers and hiring officers if women’s experience in the workplace is to be normalized, in order to increase their representation at later career stages, and in this sense the ‘leaky pipeline’ is an apt description of the problem.

But there is another effect of this idea that I’ve observed among women in science that is far less helpful: pipeline guilt.

One of the most natural reactions for women working in a field where women are under-represented, who have heard about the leaky pipeline and want to be an advocate for women in that field, is the desire not to contribute to the leaks. Knowing that women leaving a career progression early precludes women from occupying positions of power at the end of that progression, it can be pretty difficult to change your own path. This is related to the idea of a model minority, and wanting to be the most successful representation of your minority group possible to show that your group can do X, whatever X may be. And even people who embrace alternate models of success for others can have a difficult time accepting those models in their own lives; it is easier to tell someone else that leaving academia to write books is a valid choice than it is to make that choice yourself. It’s a heavy burden to want to be the best example for women in your field, at the expense of your own happiness. And it’s easy to hear about the leaky pipeline and see it as prescriptive, implying that individual women have to choose to stay in the pipeline in order to help solve the problem.

However, I think that there are other ways to look at the prospect of leaving the pipeline. I’ll stick to the sciences as an example, but this analysis can apply to many other fields.

For one, leaving research science and its prestigious end-pipeline positions does not necessarily mean ceasing to be an ambassador for women in science. Science communicators, science writers, science teachers, and science policy makers all serve as faces and voices of science, and having women in these roles does quite a bit of good. People in science outreach and education can also help get young people into science, which adds to the number of women entering the pipeline. People in policy and activism roles can provide support for women still in the pipeline, and work to promote cultural and institutional acceptance of women in science. In fact, it’s really important to show that these support and outreach roles matter, since they are routinely undervalued and dismissed. And even those people who choose careers or life paths completely unrelated to science are still scientifically literate citizens, perhaps raising their children to enjoy science, perhaps raising their voices in support of science during discussions with friends and family, perhaps throwing their vote behind scientifically literate candidates. Most parts of the world have a problem with public understanding of and support for science, but change can start small, on the individual level. And I for one would enjoy having more musicians, novelists, and lawyers who know anything about science, just as I enjoy finding scientists who know the slightest thing about art, business, or history.

Thinking about the leaky pipeline can definitely be helpful in identifying when underrepresented groups leave career paths that seem stacked against them. But when it comes right down to it, ‘the pipeline’ is a very simplistic view of what constitutes achievement in the world. Not only is it important to make decisions that will make you happy, but it’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to advocate for underrepresented groups, and many ways to lead by example. Many of them are outside the pipeline, and it isn’t a betrayal of all the women who couldn’t make it to the top to choose a different path.

Letting down my entire gender

Years ago, probably around when I started my master’s degree, I had a chat with a friend about grad school, and she was telling me about how she’d made the decision not to continue on for her PhD. She had a lot of good reasons that just made a lot of sense for her life and her family and her goals, but she mentioned that although she was sure it was the right choice for her, sometimes she felt like she was letting down her entire gender because so few women continue on to do a PhD.

I’m reminded of this because that’s a theme that’s come up in a few comments on my recent post about impostor syndrome.

Quill says,

I’m torn because there’s still time, I could go back to studying computer science. I do think female representation in STEM is Important and I hate myself for taking the “easy” option and leaving a hostile environment (rather than continuing to try to fix it)

Restructure says,

I felt really bad for dropping these courses, because it felt like I was letting down my entire gender, and by dropping the course, the male students’ stereotypes about women would be confirmed.

I wish I could say I’m immune to this, but when you’re one in a small minority (be it due to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability/ability, etc.) it’s hard to deny that it’s a factor. Guilt about not being able to do everything strikes everyone. Parents, teachers, pastors… probably even politicians. But I think it’s worse for those of us who are minorities in some way. You might be the only person “like you” your colleagues will ever see. You want to be a paragon of people like you. You want them all to come away with you as a shining counterexample the next time they hear someone say “$minority can’t do $foo.” It’s not just that you need them to be impressed by you, but that you’re representing your entire minority. There’s a world of difference between competing on a sports team and representing your country in the olympics. You want to do your best not only for you, but for everyone like you.

And that’s just the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Then there’s the requests for you to represent $people-like-you. “We need women for our co-ed sports team” or “we need you to advise the board on how we can better meet the needs of disabled folk” or “I need some dating advice and you’re the only woman I know…” or “we need you to talk about your experiences as an immigrant.” And you’re suited to the job, and maybe you want to help even, but you’ve got 30 of these requests and you barely have enough time to do your own job let alone all these other things.

Saying no is extra hard when you’re trying to be that paragon super-$minority and improve the world for $minorities worldwide. What if being on that committee resulted in them hiring more $people-like-you? What if your conference talk changed someone’s opinion of $people-like-you? What if you inspired more $people-like-you to do what you love? Are you cutting off these possibilities by saying no?

And then there’s the spotlight. You are one of few $people-like-you, so people notice what you do or don’t do. People can be more resentful when you say no because they don’t know who else to turn to, and they can’t understand why you might choose to turn down such a great opportunity because they haven’t got 10 of those on their desks for that day alone. You try to gripe about it to people, and they’re utterly unsympathetic, “Oh, my life is so hard, everyone pays attention to me. wah wah.”

So you feel guilty. For yourself, for other people. You feel like changing the world rests in your hands, and you let the world down because you had to say no. You had to quit. You had to hide. You were capable of doing it — that was not in question — but you didn’t want to and you’re worried people will think that was a sign of weakness. You chose not to. And you’re feeling guilty.

I wish I had some magical advice to deal with the paragon guilt, but sadly I don’t. But I have a few non-magical things I’ve found help me:

  • Practice saying no, and learn to say “Let me check my schedule and get back to you on that…” so you have time to think and make the best choice you can in a sometimes very hard situtation.
  • Seek out more $people-like-you. Maybe they’d be happy to do some of the things you can’t (e.g. there are women who’d be happy to speak who just don’t get asked as often). Maybe you just need someone who can empathise with your problems. Maybe they’ll know a better way to help.
  • Seek out allies who aren’t as much like you. They can help with some of those requests too, and it can’t hurt for them to understand the problems you face.
  • Remember sometimes the demands on $people-like-you are just going to exceed the resources because there are few of you. That’s not your fault.
  • Try not to let guilt stop you from making choices that make sense for you. You’re probably going to want to make some sacrifices for $people-like-you, but you can’t help anyone if you’re burned out, so try to find a balance.
  • Remind yourself of all the awesome stuff you have been able to do. Save thank you letters. Contemplate indirect impacts you might have had. Think about things you did well that weren’t related to being a minority at all, but are awesomeness that people might now associate with your minority.

So… what makes you feel like you’re letting down your entire gender/race/sexual-orientation, etc? What are your coping strategies? I think this sort of guilt is felt by lots of people, just magnified by being a minority, so feel free to provide links to advice and coping strategies that are more general.

Apologising for success

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. Questions are now closed, another round will run in early 2011.

Here’s my question: How does one deal with feeling guilty for doing well financially?

Even in this bad economy, I’m an IT geek in an expanding specialization, and doing quite well. I sometimes find myself apologizing for not being financially distressed. I’ve seen other geek women apologize for the same thing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man apologize (and most of them give me an uncomprehending stare when I mention the issue, because it simply does not make sense to them; or they understand, but can’t imagine why I would feel that way).

I’ve worked very hard; I was vastly underpaid for years (and I’m still underpaid, for that matter, just not as much so). Once my income improved, I mostly kept my frugal lifestyle and saved — a lot. I bought a house, while I’ve had friends almost lose their homes to foreclosure. I was unemployed for six months and, while I was emotionally stressed by being unemployed, I had plenty of cash to tide me through. I got a job and am rebuilding that cash cushion. I give to charity. I save for retirement. I buy stuff I don’t need. I pay off my credit card every month. I’m almost done with my graduate degree.

It makes no sense for me to feel bad for succeeding at what I’ve worked so hard for. But knowing this doesn’t stop the feeling.

Advices?