As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, I came to the realization that there were issues that women in science face that were causing the women in my department to drop out of the program at a higher rate than men. Upon talking with other women graduate students, I found that we had very similar stories about discrimination--both overt and covert--similar concerns about balancing family and career, and concerns about the problems faced by dual-career couples. There were also many of us who had personal or professional issues that caused us to experience graduate life differently than our male counterparts.
In response, I organized a group for graduate students called "Women in Life Sciences." This group intended to improve the retention rate of women in the department by providing a sense of community and a forum for discussion of these issues. We organized seminar series, panel discussions, invited lectures, and group discussions on issues such as balancing career and family, mentoring, the retention of women in science, dual-career couples, gender bias in research, inclusive teaching techniques, affirmative action, and sexual harassment. We offered a forum for discussion of many issues that women typically face, providing support, resources, information, and community.
We had a large group of active members, and the ideas for events came from different members. I was particularly interested in how gender affects one's research and gender bias in research, so I (along with three other graduate students) organized a course called "Redefining the Role of Women in the Sciences." We invited prominent speakers such as Evelyn Fox Keller and Margaret Rossiter to speak and had an incredibly successful series. I felt that this type of information is not part of the traditional curriculum and thus added an element of richness to the university.
Another event that we hosted was a panel discussion on "Dual-Career Couples." We provided a provocative discussion by inviting the department chair and the dean from a department that had recently lost women faculty members due to their inability to find adequate situations for their spouses.
There was a semester where the faculty was not planning to host the weekly seminar series, and I (with another graduate student) decided that the series was important in building a sense of community in the department and also was integral to our graduate experience. We polled the students to see who they wanted to invite, got money from the department, and organized a successful series.
It was during the panel on dual-career couples that I started to wonder how my activism might affect my long-term career. I was very active in the department and always had an opinion! I actively sought appointments to departmental committees, and I voiced my opinions on topics ranging from the sensitivity of professors as advisers to encouraging the hiring of women and minority faculty members as "Target of Opportunities."
Eventually I did hear that some of the professors began to label me as someone who "stirred up trouble." I am still not sure what the long-term effects of this are, but I definitely feel that I added significantly to my department and to the university. I felt that the benefits of being an active member of the department outweighed the risks. I think for many years I provided a forum for discussing issues of concern to women scientists, and I helped develop a sense of community for women graduate students where they could benefit from each other's experiences. I think that in order to have an impact on the institution of academia, you must speak out whenever the chance comes; you must be active in shaping your own graduate school experience. I feel good about my contribution and satisfied with myself that I took the opportunities to voice my opinions. I think graduate school is about research and teaching, but it is also about how you learn to make your own experience out of the resources you are given. I certainly feel that I am a much stronger candidate for an academic position because of these experiences.