You Need to Know the X-Gals

Back on October 6, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a column titled The X-Gals Alliance and I missed the chance to blog about it at that time. The second in the ongoing series of columns from these fabulous women is now out, Balance It Out.
From the original column:

“We” are the X-Gals, a group of nine female biologists who began meeting weekly over a few beers in 2000, as several of us wrote up our dissertations. (Our name is a double-pun on the X-Men superheroes and on X-Gal, a laboratory chemical sometimes used in biology.)
Back then, we read one another’s dissertation chapters, shared tips on everything from text formatting to data analysis, welcomed newborns, griped about advisers, and encouraged one another in our darkest hours. As we graduated and took far-flung jobs and postdocs — in six states and on two continents — we have continued the dialogue through an e-mail discussion list.

Their stories promise to be helpful and inspiring and should serve as an excellent model for young women currently working on their PhDs. I belonged to a similar group when I was in graduate school, though the group’s members did not come from the sciences or engineering. I was part of an interdisciplinary women’s studies reading group. We met every two weeks to discuss a reading; later, to discuss and critique each others’ writing. We would spend about half an hour or more on the official purpose of the meeting, and then another hour on discussion of personal lives and issues we were having with faculty advisors, administrators, job-searching, whatever. It was a real lifeline. It didn’t matter that we were all from different disciplines.
You can read about the experiences of our reading group in the following essay:
“The Evolution and Process of a Successful Graduate Feminist Reading Group,” S. F. Shedd, S. Park, E. Newman, M. LaRocque, A. Hubler, M. Haussman, A. Forrest, and G. Brock. In Engaging Feminism: Students Speak Up and Speak Out, ed. Jean O’Barr and Mary Wyer. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1992
I was known as S. F. Shedd back then. (See answer to question number 1 here.)
Contact with one of the women in my reading group, Angela Hubler, led to my job at K-State as director of the Women in Engineering and Science Program. (Thanks, Angela!) So you never know who is going to help your career along. But even if that particular outcome had never happened, being in that reading group was one of the most important experiences of my life. Without it I doubt I would have finished graduate school. So, thanks also to Duke Women’s Studies, who organized and fostered the interdisciplinary graduate women’s studies reading groups. And thanks to Jean O’Barr, for giving us the opportunity to step back and think critically about what the experience meant to us, through the vehicle of writing our essay for publication. Writing about it helped me value it even more; it legitimized it in my eyes as an actual part of my graduate educational experience, and not just something “we women” were doing “on the side”. I learned as much there as I did in any of my classes and the discussion was sharp and honest. Where else in the university did I have the opportunity to discuss a range of topics with someone from English, history, political science, psychology, philosophy, and economics? It was graduate school as I always dreamed it would be.
I suspect for the X-Gals, the experience has been/is somewhat similar, minus the interdisciplinary thing. (Although, given how diverse biology is, there is plenty of interdisciplinary to be found just within the discipline!) I hope that writing about their experiences will be good for them. It sure seems like it will be good for the rest of us.
Writing is powerful. Writing can be cathartic. I encourage women in science to write about their experiences, even if they are writing only for themselves. When you put it down on paper (or in a blog) it becomes real and you will look at it in a different light. (Though I still think it is useful to print stuff out once in awhile and look at it on paper. Different feel.) Read what other women scientists and engineers are writing – read their blogs, read their books. You won’t feel so alone.
Every woman in science or engineering should have some sort of support network of fabulous interesting women. But you can’t always find them in your profession. So craft one out of whatever fabulous women you can gather to your path. If you don’t have a group right now, let the X-Gals be a substitute group for awhile. Here’s what Greta starts out with in the second column:

I really dislike the phrase “work/life balance.” Just look at it: Work and Life (which aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way) are in a stubborn deadlock, pushing up against one another in a heated battle. Work appears to be tipping the barrier that separates them in its favor, pushing Life (and Balance) out of the way and vying for more than its fair share of your precious time.
And Balance is way off by itself, completely unconnected to (and mostly ignored by) Work and Life, who just keep fighting with each other but never really achieve anything resembling Balance.

Greta offers six tips to make “deliberate changes in our lives and attitudes that will move us beyond the clichéd ‘struggle for work/life balance’ and put us all firmly on the road to true balance in our lives.” Check out the article to see what she has to say.

  1. November 7, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    This article made me think back fondly on the little support group I had in grad school. It was nothing so “formal” as the X-gals, just me and two other women who had come into the same program at the same time. I know that I would not have stuck it out without them by my side, and I suspect they would say the same thing. You are absolutely right when you say that “every woman in science or engineering should have some sort of support network of fabulous interesting women”—it’s not just a nice thing to have, it’s really a necessity for survival. Go, X-gals!

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