role models and disenchantment

Julia Frugoli jfrugoli at
Wed Jun 7 16:08:15 EST 2000

Paul wrote:

"WRT images in the media, I'm not sure anyone beyond the age of about 15
(i.e. when you're deciding what to do in life) really pays much attention to
role models they see on TV and in the movies." 

That's an ageist statement if I've ever heard one.  I didn't decide to be a
scientist and get my BS till I was married and had 3 children.  Grad school
came later, after 4 years in a government lab.  There's a posting just today
from someone thinking of going back to school at 48.  We just took on a new
graduate student in our lab who's starting school well into his 30s.  I'm
not sure everyone knows what to do at 15, and quite frankly, the influence
of culture is very subtle.  If you never see "someone who looks like me" in
a job you want, you're unlikely to imagine yourself in that job.

"Sure, all boys want to be fighter pilots at a certain age, and in fact I
knew from a very early age (like 8-10) that I wanted to be a scientist.
Surprisingly, nothing I saw on TV between then and when I made career
choices at school changed this decision."

Of course not-because there were male scientists-even if they were only in
commercials or narrating the filmstrips you saw in school.  Even if there
were mad scientists in the media, there were sane ones too.  None of my boys
wanted to be fighter pilots ever-in fact the one who's now a scientist (an
environmental engineer) was already in college before he chose that path. 
So I think generalizing your experience to the rest of the world is a bit
risky.   It's like the pseudo science people who say "I got better wearing a
copper bracelet, so therefore it's as good as a prescription drug."  Your
statements aren't backed up by sociological and psychological research on
how people choose careers.  The presence of role models in everyday
experience, which for today's children is the 30-40 hours a week of TV they
watch or the video games they play, has been shown to have a bearing on
career choices.  THE AAUW study in the early 90s was an eye opener about how
subtle things, like the comments of a guidance counselor or the  male/female
ratio in a physics class, keep girls from following initial dreams of
becoming scientists.  We're all the poorer for that.

"In fact, I'd even go so far as to say we don't want to give kids a false
impression that science is a glamorous career.  We already have problems
with people leaving the profession dis-enamoured.  At least a few such
departures could have been avoided if these people were told the truth from
the start.  At least that way we only spend precious training funds on those
who are serious about it, rather than providing a "clearing house" for
schools throwing out delinquents who only end up doing a degree to keep
themselves occupied until something better comes along."

I don't think seeing science as a glamorous career is a problem-the problem
is that people see it as a drudge.  I've met very few people in grad school
or my postdoctoral work who weren't serious about science-most who weren't
were gone after year one. But of the ones who stayed, most of the women I
know have left.  Why?  Because they looked at what science as practiced
today demanded from women (better, smarter, faster, and, oh yes, you
probably won't see that full professor slot) and compared it to what they
wanted from life and saw they weren't compatible. The few women in the
department lived lives my friends couldn't imagine living themselves and
seemed to fight twice as hard for half as much as the men.  Then the MIT
study comes out and tells us it's true-it's not just our imagination.).  I'm
starting to think that on a personal level these women are better off,
though the mass exodus of women from science at the postdoc level means
things will never get better. 

I think there's something here-perhaps women jump off the treadmill earlier
because they see no reward, while men see other men as successful and so are
inspired through those long years of poverty/little reward.  While I can see
a reward-that's why I'm here-I can also see why my friends have left.  I
take a lot of comfort from the attitude of Emily Toth, who's "Ms Mentor's
Guide to Women's Survival in Academia" is my new favorite book.  Not only
can it allow you to laugh at the mess, but she has some pretty tough/ good
suggestions as to how we can get tenure and slowly change the system.

Julia Frugoli
Department of Plant Pathology & Microbiology
Texas A&M University
Norman E.Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement 
2123 TAMU
College Station, TX 77843
phone 979-862-3495
FAX 979-862-4790

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