The power of illusion and disillusionment for women in STEM

The power of illusion and disillusionment for women in STEM

As women in STEM careers, it’s easy to fall under the power of illusion that we can “have it all” and “do all the things”. But that mentality creates unnecessary pressure. And when the gap between reality and illusion becomes too large to ignore, disillusionment can hit hard. The first step in regaining our sense of power is awareness.

The power of illusion and fulfilling the image of “professional working mom”:

When I graduated with my Sc. D., I was a very new mom to my second child.  I stepped into my employment trying to fulfill my image of the perfect “professional working mom” – working full time, infant and toddler in day care, and being fully present at both home and work. 

This illusion I was weaving was quickly challenged as I, who had the “flexible” job in higher education, tried to manage an infant and toddler with back-to-back cases of the croup. 

My flexible job put me in the position where I could “work-from-home”, respond to the calls from the day care to come pick up a child who was running a fever, and be the parent that took the kids to the doctor’s office. 

That month, I spent 17 hours physically in the office.  This was pre-pandemic when presence meant working and absence presumed not working.

I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do ALL of the things that I had WILLINGLY signed up for.

Despite the cracks in my illusion, I continued to try and fulfill my image of what my work-life SHOULD look like.

While establishing myself in my research career, I committed to being the parent to respond to the calls from the daycare to pick up the child who was running a fever, take the kids to the doctor’s office, or bring cupcakes in for a party.

Before I knew it, I had jumped on that HAMSTER WHEEL at full speed.  I gave work ALL OF THE SPACE it demanded.  I gave my family ALL OF THE SPACE they needed.  I worked, and gave, and worked, and gave. 

And then in 2018, I was forced to look up from my working and giving.

A dear friend and colleague (who happened to be a few years younger than me) passed away suddenly.  Her death threw me off my hamster wheel in a way that I can only describe as a bifurcation.

My life divided into the time before, and the time after. A month after her passing, I was still raw and processing.

So I crafted a NEW illusion for myself.

I convinced myself that resigning from my job would make everything better. In the span of a few weeks, I wrote (and deleted) three different resignation letters.

In the wake of serving her family in their loss, I was preparing for a conference that I felt I had to attend.  I was stepping back onto that hamster wheel and I couldn’t figure out WHY.

Hours and hours of working for year after year? 

I spent well near 15 years on that effing hamster wheel – writing grants, publishing papers, presenting at conferences, and fulfilling all of the unwritten (and unacknowledged) expectations that higher education demands of us.

And truth be told, I was sick of ALL OF IT.

The DISILLUSIONMENT was real, with seriously sharp edges on inspection.

This was what I signed up for when I got a Sc.D. and took a position within higher education, wasn’t it?

This is what I wanted when I pursued a Ph. D., right?

I LOVE doing research.  I LOVE finding creative solutions for problems.  I LOVE working with my students and seeing them grow, knowing I had a part in that.  Right?

But, the DESIRE to leave felt just as strong as my LOVE of the work I was doing.

So I was STUCK.  I saw no new path forward, but couldn’t continue on my previous path.

I spent a lot of time parsing out what about my JOB was making me so resistant to staying.  I did a lot of BLAMING: my boss, my colleagues, higher education, the SYSTEM – they were all stakeholders in my misery.

And then I did a lot of SHAMING: I let them take advantage of me, I gave them permission to abuse my good will, I didn’t set boundaries – I was SOLELY responsible for my misery.

And then I settled on the fact that it was all true.  We were all stakeholders responsible for my misery.  BUT there was only one stakeholder that mattered – ME.

It came down to a single question that I now ask all of my STEM career coaching clients:

What are you working towards?

I realized that in the 15 years of being on my hamster wheel, I never formed a specific answer to this question.  If I ever thought about it, it was short-term like the next research proposal or vaguely a chance for a tenure track position.  I let the answer to that question just sit out there on the horizon as “something in the future”.

Here’s the rub though.  No one in my personal or professional circles ever challenged me to refine the answer to that question either.  Maybe they assumed that as a Ph.D. I had it all figured out.

Maybe as STEM person, the answer is implicitly defined and so remains unspoken.

We can overcome the power of illusion (and disillusionment).

What I have come to understand is that if we can get clarity on the answer to the question, what are we working towards, then we can make INTENTIONAL decisions on our priorities.

We can set MEANINGFUL boundaries.

We UNDERSTAND the purpose of our sacrifices.

We skip the hamster wheel and hit the path on our way towards our success.

It is possible to transform both the power of illusion and disillusion to experience more success, time, energy, and meaning in our STEM careers. ON OUR OWN TERMS. Isn’t it time for the blaming and shaming and silent suffering to end?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. As a woman in STEM working in higher education, can you relate? And what powerful illusions are holding you back?

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