It’s after midnight in the Netherlands, where I’ve come for the International Conference on Paleoceanography, and I’m skyping with colleagues back home in New Haven about the events of the day. We’re submitting our union cards to the National Labor Relations Board and asking them to oversee a union election for graduate teachers at Yale, where I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Geology. Nothing about this moment is what I predicted for my life.
I never thought I’d lead a campaign to win a union. If you’d asked me five years ago what the NLRB was, I would’ve had no idea. I also never thought I’d be a Ph.D. candidate in Geology.
During my freshman year of college, I took a vertebrate paleontology class, and I got hooked. The professor became a wonderful mentor, teaching me to do field work and write scientific papers. He showed me the joy of doing research on what makes you curious, chasing down the answer to one question, only to find a hundred other questions. And when I got my first taste of teaching, I found that getting others excited about geology thrilled me as much as scrambling over badlands to find fossils.
These experiences made me want to keep teaching and pursuing answers to questions about the Earth’s past. As a master’s student I spent weeks sampling volcanic ash in the Andes to reconstruct their uplift history. One of my advisors was a tough female field geologist who had recently won a big grant for her work. I remember thinking, “How can I be like her?”
Throughout my graduate work, most of the faculty were men. Some women left before finishing. And most of my female peers did not go on to get Ph.D.s. This is the “leaky pipeline”: there are fewer and fewer women the further you go up the career ladder.
When I arrived at Yale’s Geology and Geophysics Department, I could feel the competition in the air. We are all good at what we do, but fears of the job market haunt us all. Scientists are competing for too few jobs, and women scientists most of all — systemic bias means most jobs still go to men.
Women face sexism in many ways large and small. Senior faculty ask about our love lives. Male peers say they’re glad the new professor was hired because she’s hot. I’ve heard female peers criticized for having kids. One way to deal with this is just to put your head down and work harder. To succeed, you have to be twice as good as the men; even then, some men claim you’ll get hired simply for being a female scientist. I want to be hired for my skills and experience.
In our union in the Geology and Geophysics Department, I can speak openly with other graduate students teaching in the department about our work experiences. I can advocate for the changes that would make a better future possible. A union contract won’t erase the fact that the cards are stacked against women from the start. But winning language in a union contract to protect women in our workplace and establish a grievance procedure would seriously improve our daily lives as graduate teachers.
Geology and Geophysics is a collaborative department. Graduate teachers teaching in the department work together and discuss how to better teach the unique subject matter and avoid pitfalls that arise. I love that about the department. So it’s only fitting that we would work together to improve the conditions of our work as graduate teachers in the department.
When we get to our election this fall, I’m going to cast my ballot for a union where graduate teachers in the Geology and Geophysics Department can advocate for improvements in our teaching conditions with the same collective spirit we bring to teaching our students and pushing the boundaries of geology.
Robin Canavan is a graduate student in the Geology and Geophysics Department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .