Archive for the 'motherhood' Category



C&EN review and career paths….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this whole book process is that you’ve got to do a lot of promotion. Cornell’s been great – but for books that’s just not enough.  Even though I’m not promoting just myself but 33 other women – its not something with which I’m comfortable.

But sometimes others do the promotion for you – and I’m happy to announce a great review of Motherhood published in last week’s Chemical and Engineering News. I’m particularly pleased because 1) I’ve always liked this publication for its in depth analysis of various issues in toxicology, and 2) because I felt that the reviewer, University of Oregon chemist Geraldine Richmond, really got what I was trying to convey in both the intro and conclusion to Motherhood. That is, there are many different ways of contributing to science, and that maybe the traditional definition of success in science could be revisited, with so many workers (men and women) contributing to many different sectors – other than academia.

But for scientists, particularly for women scientists involved with improving “pathways to the professoriate” this can be a touchy subject.  I recall a conversation with the editor when first submitting the proposal. “Some people won’t be happy with this,” she’d said, followed by “but that can be good.” Meaning controversy sells books.  One thing I worried about while pulling this whole project together, which depended on the 33 other women scientists, several of whom not only pursued the professoriate but who are actively seeking to help others find their way, was that I make my position clear.  Publications like Parenting and Professing already existed. I wanted this to be different.

While this hasn’t been particularly controversial – there are undercurrents.  Last week on a conference call about a future Motherhood-related panel, one participant voiced her concern that by advocating integration of these other particularly part-time career choices into the scientific mainstream, we may be backsliding.  I truly understand this argument – and there’s not a day (well OK, maybe a week or a month) that goes by without my wondering if by choosing to do the part-time non-academia thing, while my husband does the full-time PI thing, I’ve helped to perpetuate the status quo.  Though the status quo has shifted from what it was decades ago – perhaps back then I wouldn’t have even been able to hang onto any semblance of a career – the fact is women just aren’t entering the professoriate in numbers that reflect those stepping into science with degree in hand.  And it’s something of a catch-22 for some of us, to really change, to make research and academia more amenable to parents, we need more science moms (and a few dads and husbands wouldn’t hurt either) who are truly interested in changing the academic system.

Or maybe we just need an economic disaster. Four day weeks, reduced work-time, less focus on grants, hands-on-faculty, a return to valuing teaching – who knows what might shake out?

Women’s work is never done: redefining success

OK, now that I’ve had a few days to digest last weeks events (the two panels) I’m ready to post a few details.

After what we all thought was a lively diverse panel at UMd, with discussion about non-traditional careers, developing and maintaining part-time careers (this particular panel had a large contingent of some-time part-timers with a colorful patchwork of jobs), when to have a kid (no great insights there – what works for one won’t necessarily work for another), what would help retain women in research (flex-time, more part-time, even instituitional support that doesn’t cost much - such as library priveledges to those working periferally but who’d like to come back at some time), when to seek advice and when to ignore it – and encouraging our partners to participate more on the home front, I think it was clear that for the most part, most of us felt we’ve had some success both at home and in our careers, although our careers are not what would have be called successful (at least a few years ago) by the bean counters at NSF, AAAS or even some of our own graduate or post-grad advisors.

That is when one of male admin of the college stood up to adress the crowd.  In what felt like a slightly patronizing tone he let us know that he’s with us, he “gets it,” just like us, he too has redefined success. Years ago he aspired for a higher office at the college, but now realizes that he’ll have to be happy with Dean. Among some other comments that I could comment on – but won’t for fear of offending anyone – it took me a while to figure out why I was so bothered by this one particular comment. But, now I know.

I may or may not be speaking for all of us – but I’ll stick my neck out and say that I think the gentlman was confusing “lowering the bar” for redefining success.  I don’t think anyone one of us would consider that we’ve lowered our standards for what we want to achieve.  I think we’re all still striving towards our goals, that’s why many of us were there, that’s why we wrote essays, that’s why we attend panels.  We continue to work towards exellence, in immunology, environmental health, physics, education, in addition to speaking out for greater opportunities and options for other women in science. 

Maybe while we’re at it we can even redefine the meaning of “a woman’s work is never done,” because for us it’s not.

Motherhood Panel Update

Just got back from two great ‘Motherhood the Elephant’ panels, one at University of Maryland, College Park, the other at Montgomery College, a community college near UMd . As always it’s great to be with contributors to this book, we’ve now done five panels and I think we’re finally getting the hang of it (e.g. less us talking, more audience participation.)

At UMd we had ten contributors, and seven at Montgomery. It’s an amazing group of women, young and old(er), physicists, biologists, geologists – all moms.  For the most part, we’d never met each before these panels (the books was done all via e-mail – though I admit I did recruit a friend or two to write) but I truly value the opportunity to get to know them a little bit better with each panel.  An unexpected bonus from doing this project (at least for me.) And each panel is always very different, even though the panelists might not change.  I think we’re all learning, and of course, the audience contributes a great deal.

It struck me as we sat in front of the Montgomery students, that just having a bunch of women, all PhDs – whom students might be more used to interacting with as professors, or in a more professional capacity – up there talking openly and candidly (sometimes humourously and sometimes quite seriously) about their life in science, their lives at home, their kids, just has to be a positive thing for anyone who’s contemplating a career in science.   

Advice wanted for re-entry: hosed out of the pipeline at mid-career

I am posting this for Gen, a scientist who recently wrote to this site about her career, seeking advice from readers:

“As an NSF predoctoral fellow in the life sciences, I climbed pretty high up the ladder at a soft-money research institute.. It was crazy trying to balance a toddler, two pregnancies and a new baby with what has been called an “extreme” career as a laboratory head. However, I did contribute a number of significant, recognized papers to my field.

As an independent investigator I earned four research grants (2 federal and 2 private) over the course of ten years. I was awarded a five year R01 just after having my second and last baby (at age 42–don’t think it is easy–I was just lucky)! I was an Associate level researcher before my lab was shut down because my R01 wasn’t renewed after two tries. During this time I had two sons and a miscarriage. This contributed to a “productivity problem” that grant reviewers have been eager to point out as a reason not to renew my grant (we all know there doesn’t need to be much of a reason to deny a grant these days). I published three papers on a single R01 grant as my only source of funding, with only one post doc in the lab. Two more papers nearly ready to submit. Well, at least you can say I was efficient?

Now what? I have been out of work for nearly a year. I have some well-recognized publications and the colleagues I have contacted stated they regard my work highly and are really sorry that I am no longer engaged in my research.

I do want to return to my former career trajectory and become a full professor in 5-7 years time, but with certain modifications. I believe that I will need about three years to regain my publication “quantity”: my publication “quality” is excellent. I currently have a small grant, with funds I can make last for 2-3 more years. I can probably get work as a “research track” faculty member (i.e. superpost-doc) in someone else’s lab. I’m not currently competitive for a faculty position because I am a 50 yr old woman and it seems that most places would prefer a younger, “hotter” new investigator. Is it a good idea to take a downward step for a few years while my youngest (age 8 still needs Mom a lot? If so, can I get back on track…ever?

Any advice would be tremendously appreciated!”

Am I guilty of enabling?

I am thinking about the recent review of Motherhood, in American Scientist. Londa Schiebinger, author of the review writes, “The women who succeed—and there are many in this volume—are those whose partners take an equal share of the responsibility for raising a family and making the household function..”

Although grateful for the positive review, I am also realizing that once a book is on the loose the interpretation is up to the reader. While I guess I knew this for fiction, it never occurred to me for a  collection of nonfiction essays.

One goal I’d hoped for the book was that it’d begin some discussion about science careers in general – and what makes or defines a “successful” science career. According to Schiebinger, as a mother whose husband has the full-time job, I have not succeeded, only enabled. Perhaps. Maybe there is some truth to this that I have suppressed. Or maybe I really did want to be home for the kids after school, or maybe I didn’t want to relinquish control over the kids day-to-day lives to my husband (yes, I’ve been known to be something of a control freak when it comes to household minutia) – if there is any enabling, I think it’s that I accepted the consequences. That isn’t my husband’s fault. So if I’m guilty of anything – it’s in accepting that my career isn’t as illustrious as it could have been (or not – I could have worked full time and still be on the same “level” in terms of ladder climbing that I am now.) Perhaps had I picketed outside of the local colleges, or federal agencies carrying a sign something to the effect of, “Took time off, but I’ve still got a brain!” I wouldn’t be so guilty of perpetuating the all or nothingness of academia and research.

I do however, fully agree with Schiebinger that I’ve been “complicit” in allowing my husband to “shirk [his] responsibility,” although here I might suggest using the word partner rather than husband or even spouse. I am guilty of perpetuating the idea that my part-time career is less important than my husband’s full-time career, leaving me and “only me” open to doctors appointments, picking sick kids up from school, and sticking around for snow days. This doesn’t mean the work doesn’t get done – it gets done – but what I’ve lost is my own time. To be honest this has always been a sore point – a place for resentment to build – and so I will try harder to claim my time on the job as just that – my job my time.

Motherhood media

I’m happy to announce that the video of the first Motherhood Panel, held at the Cornell University Bookstore is now available. Tune in (though I’ll warn you it’s long!) and hear Joan Baizer, Marilyn Merritt and Gina Wesley-Hunt, along with Cornell faculty dicussants Shelley Correll, Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Lisa Fortier, Margaret Frey, and Barbara Knuth, talk about motherhood and science.

On another note in addition to Ellen Galinsky’s excellent commentary on motherhood and work (Ellen is President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute) Motherhood the Elephant was also highlighted on a recent broadcast of Hartford CT’s WNPR Navigating Motherhood and Work episode of “Where We Live.”

I’m afraid I didn’t do the book and the contributors justice. No excuses but nerves got the better of me! Now that I have the luxury of letting my fingers do the walking across the keyboard (where my brain has some time to think) I feel I can better respond to host Diane Orson’s excellent question, “what did I learn from the other scientists.”  I mentioned patience, particularly from those who navigated the motherhood/science path before me. It is certainly possible to have the desired career along with the desired level of input into the day-to-day family care – but maybe not both at the same time (of course depends of the level you desire!) Sometimes somethings got to give – and sometimes there are opportunities in the future you’ve just got to plan, keep a hand in the game and be patient.

I’d also add the confidence to ask for what you want. Several contributors pointed out that flexible hours, extended maternity leave, the ability to work from home didn’t just happen. They asked.

Finally (though there are many other good lessons learned) I think it’s that success in career/science really is what you make of it. Don’t wait for external validation. Though it’s nice when it comes, for many, particularly those who work independently or who have chosen non-traditional paths, it may be a long time coming!

News on the balancing act from the EU

I was scanning the ScienceCareers site today and came across an interesting blog entry – Career vs. Family: An ESOF Smackdown, by Katie Travis. For those (like me) who don’t know, ESOF is the European Open Science Forum.  Having no experience with work-life balance in Europe and elsewhere around the globe – I’d always assumed that motherhood was greener on the other side of the pond.  I’m not referring to wooden toys and cotton diapers – but rather I’d always assumed that the desire to combine work with family was better developed and appreciated over there.  Maybe that’s not so.

Writes Travis, “I heard something I haven’t heard expressed out loud in a while: Women do need to choose between a career and family.”  Baffled by women who suggested that women must choose, Travis kept looking until she found other perspectives, one offered up by a physician, field researcher and mother of four who she writes is “…. a “trailing spouse”–her husband’s diplomatic job takes the lead and takes them around the world. She’s got a self-described service mentality, so even though her husband’s career has been the most consistent, she’s applied her expertise in whatever region she’s in. “I believe it’s my responsibility to prepare myself to say yes to opportunity,” Tokola says. She adds that she’s managed work-life balance by having a husband who’s 100% supportive and by having outside help with childcare.”

For more of Travis’s observations, check out her entry Career vs. Family: An ESOF Smackdown.



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