(Editor’s note: The WVU Magazine online features women who have made their career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.)
As Kasi Jackson neared her college graduation, she wrote admissions letters to graduate schools discussing the research that she loved.
“I was really interested in this idea of research on female animals,” she said. “Has it been shaped by sexism?”
She wanted to find out how a field largely shaped by males affected research about the “female of the species” and how it would have been different if females of their own species had been involved.
But her advisers offered caution, wondering if schools would find the idea too political and, she thinks, too feminist when gender studies was seen as more controversial.
It’s a distinction she grappled with as a student and throughout her professional life: How does the majority affect an individual, even when the majority’s response isn’t overtly negative? And what happens when the individual, like Jackson, challenges the majority’s views?
Challenging conventional views was something she found herself doing often.
Jackson, now a professor at West Virginia University, took part in heated discussions in graduate school in which the male graduate students were resistant to policies that would encourage women with children to take part in the academic workforce. It was easier, she said looking back, for her male professors to agree to the policies. They after all already had jobs, but her male colleagues were in a less secure economic position.
“It was really a very valuable experience for me as a thinker,” she said of this kind of debate. “But there were other experiences where it became clear to me that the way certain things affected me wasn’t the way it affected other people.”
When she asked a male presenter if he would consider her as an assistant in fieldwork on animal behavior in Trinidad, he said the area was too dangerous and he would never take a female assistant there.
But the next speaker that day was a woman who had researched in Trinidad. And in the discussion that followed, her male colleagues didn’t think it strange that the researcher would want to protect women.
“For me, it was like a door is shutting,” she said. ”?I just wanted to say ‘If you think a place isn’t safe, why are you taking any graduate student there to begin with?’”
She isn’t sure how her viewpoints affected others, but she felt the discussions had a positive effect on her. They left her feeling at times as if she didn’t fit in, but they left her more prepared to work at the meeting place of two ideas.
Getting women and science together
At WVU, Jackson created two classes: women in science fiction, and sex and science on film. From the (now viewed as sexist) roles of women in the original “Star Trek,” which were still progressive at the time, to the more recent “The Terminator” and “Battlestar Galactica,” she walks her students through gender bias and especially the linking of female sexuality and technology, and the often-perceived threat from that combination.
Her most recent assignment is at the core of WVU’s push to recruit and retain women into various scientific fields. As a co-principal investigator for the WVU ADVANCE Center, she meets with departments and helps with plans to ensure a more diverse makeup.
From studying the issue, Jackson knows that typically women or members of any minority can be overwhelmed with the demands on their time as departments and universities strive to become more diverse institutions through committees and initiatives that require diverse representation.
And then there’s the unresolved issue of enabling faculty to manage families and careers. Jackson says this especially applies to women who, according to studies, are still doing the majority of the housework in academic couples.
She’s heard from female scientists with children who decide to avoid academia because of its pressures on family life. Others will tell her they are able to make it work.
“Some students report being advised against having children in some fields?or faculty say they steer women toward medicine instead of research if they want families,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone should make that choice for another person.”
Not all of the issues making academic science less accessible for women are related to childcare. There’s an expectation that a productive academic will work continuously and thereby turn out a better product. That hasn’t been the case for her.
When she was continuously working until 1 or 2 a.m. and at home on weekends, she wasn’t as productive.
“I thought by working all the time, I was being really productive, and I was showing everybody ‘Wow, I’m a real worker.’ That was my identity: I work hard; I work all the time. But the ironic thing is that by working less, I get more done.”
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