Archive for the 'motherhood' Category

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.

And I used to think Title IX was all about sports

Back when I was in high school Title IX came along just in time for us to get our nascent lacrosse team bumped up from a club to a varsity sport. The new law also prompted one student, Jeff G. to join the women’s soft-ball team, claiming it worked both ways. Though our suburban school wasn’t known for great performances in sports (well, unless you count tennis) the softball team went to state finals that year. I’m all for fairness – but I wonder if Jeff G. has kids and if he does if he’s sharing equally in childcare and house work these days?

Title IX wasn’t just about sports, although apparently it was never really enforced in other aspects like academics or fields other than the green and grassy ones, like Science.

John Tierney explores this topic in his article, A New Frontier for Title IX: Science, published in today’s New York Times.

According to Tierney, “The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.”

No kidding? Although this is just a single sample, I’ve got a good college friend who’s an engineer working for a large military contractor who admits, she just doesn’t get a charge out of blowing things up like the guys do (but at this point after so many years invested, changing jobs just isn’t feasible with two kids in college.) Yes I know, there are likey plenty of women engineers out there who might feel otherwise.

But seriously, there is plenty of evidence as discussed in Motherhood the Elephant and elsewhere that at least in some sciences women now represent 50% or more of all graduate students.

Yet, as Tierney points out,

“They remain a minority in the physical sciences and engineering. Even though their annual share of doctorates in physics has tripled in recent decades, it’s less than 20 percent. Only 10 percent of physics faculty members are women, a ratio that helped prompt an investigation in 2005 by the American Institute of Physics into the possibility of bias.

But the institute found that women with physics degrees go on to doctorates, teaching jobs and tenure at the same rate that men do.”

Later in the article he refers to work by Susan Pinker, whose suggests that the disparity isn’t necessarily a question of opportunity but choice,

“Ms. Pinker says that universities and employers should do a better job helping women combine family responsibilities with careers in fields like physics. But she also points out that female physicists are a distinct minority even in Western European countries that offer day care and generous benefits to women.

“Creating equal opportunities for women does not mean that they’ll choose what men choose in equal numbers,” Ms. Pinker says. “The freedom to act on one’s preferences can create a more exaggerated gender split in some fields.””

Interestingly the greatest single field responding to the initial call for essays for Motherhood were physicists, so many that I feared if they all wrote, the book would be too slanted toward that one field!

It’d be interesting to hear their thoughts on Tierney’s article.

Brain drains and alternatives and women – oh my!

As many may know by now there’s a new report out, The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology, published as a Harvard Business Review research report. While I couldn’t get very far without shelling out $295, there are lots of snippets online. If you go to the Bean Chronicles , where I first found reference to the report you can click on a longer ABC article about the report, which found that:

“Even in the face of a worsening worldwide labor shortage of qualified professionals in the SET fields, 52% of our best and brightest female scientists, engineers and technologists are bailing on hard-earned careers and not looking back — precisely when they should be hitting their professional strides.”

With funding by several major corporations, the report then goes on to discuss details on programs designed to retain women scientists through

“several innovative corporate “antibody” initiatives being instituted by Alcoa, Pfizer and other private sector companies who are looking to reduce and reverse the costly “female brain drain” head on.”

What I tried to find, and couldn’t was where those women went – while there was some reference to men who also leave but who tend to “stay in the sciences” – there are some suggestions that women do not. Yet – without access to the full report it’s hard to tell what boundaries were set. Did “sticking with it” mean setting up the equivalent of a full-time 60-hr intense path – or did it include those who strike out into very different realms, like teaching – perhaps at Community colleges or high school? Or writing? Or part-time? I’d love to know (so if you’ve got access to the full report please let us know!)  Either way – it seems a primary goal of the report is to stanch the flow – or exodus – by providing details on corporate success stories.

Along these lines, the Bean Chronicles also directed me to another great blog, The Alternative Scientist, check it out.  Below is an excerpt from Alternative’s discussion on her own title (I chose this because the topic of wording came up at a recent Motherhood panel.  While I used Alternative to collectively describe the many different career paths described in some of the Motherhood essays – some felt there is a negative connotation to the word. )

Is there resentment at having my career be labelled “alternative”? The word “alternative” does not bother me. In my experience, the people who are most likely to be bitter and resentful about that word are those who are in alternative positions because they tried and failed on the tenure track. As far as I am concerned, “alternative” is a convenient catch-all term for what I view to be choices that do not receive equal and fair coverage in discussions about career options among academics.

Of course, it would be better if there were no “traditional” or “alternative” career paths…just different career paths. But I think quibbling about semantics is a low-yield and impractical activity. For example, we could call this blog “The Everything-But-Academic-Tenure-Track Scientist” or “The Differently-Traditional Scientist” or all sorts of other names that do not include the word “alternative”. I don’t believe that that would change the minds of those who think that people with alternative careers are failures. A much more effective way of changing academic culture with regard to career options is to promote open discussion and to encourage people to make career choices based on what they want to do rather than what they think they are expected to do. And that is precisely what I hope this blog will accomplish.” – From

Alternative is definitely a site to keep track of, thanks Bean!

Topic of the Week: Ask for what you want, you’re worth it

One theme that came up several times throughout the book and in a recent comment (again by Andrea Kalfoglou) is that women need to ask for what they want. As an independent worker for years – I’ve got less experience with this one. The only two times I did ask – it was for long-shots. The first time, I asked for part-time while applying for a job described not only as full time but as 50-hrs of full-time.  But – just asking that question prompted the employer to consider moving the job to an office closer to my home. The other was while applying for a faculty job – although I’d been warned to get the interview and then negotiate if offered the job – I knew I couldn’t in all honesty apply for a full-time position when I knew my goal was part-time.

But, as several contributors suggest, when you ask for something reasonable the response is often reasonable.  One contributor to Motherhood negotiated four days a week in the lab/office and one at home. Another asked for, and got longer maternity leave.

Writes Andrea (elsewhere on this blog)

“Draw your line in the sand and stick to your guns. Ask for what you want whether it’s three months maternity leave, better pay, or part-time employment. I was able to get all three simply by asking. When I asked four mentors about negotiating for more pay, the two women told me “don’t rock the boat.” Guess what the men said? “You always negotiate!” You’re probably worth it.”

So, don’t be shy, speak up.

Topic of the week: Daycare, daycare, daycare

STILL?? Isn’t this beating an old topic to death? Day care seems to be the issue that just won’t go away AND it’s really one of the primary concerns for many mothers (and fathers) who wish to maintain part-time or full-time work.

Personally and naively I’d never thought much about it in advance. But once our son was born – it became a necessity. While my husband was there to pick up blocks of time, as the self-designated part-timer, if I was to maintain any sort of science going (at the time I was basically working independent of any one institution, part-time, with colleagues running field and laboratory studies) I needed day-care. And I needed a day-care where I felt comfortable leaving my then six-month old – so that I could concentrate on the day’s work.

Beginning with the industrial-sized Long Island day care – where Sam was consistently sick – to the local family day cares we found once moving to rural Western MA (one of which I not so affectionately referred to as the Militia Day-Care, after finding a large pile of guns-and-ammo boxes set out curbside on recycling day) it quickly became a matter-of-fact that there just weren’t satisfactory options, although there were options we could live with, at least for a while.

While I recognize that for those of us on our own, day-care really is ours to figure out. But, for those working at large institutions, particularly government institutions, it seems that the situation ought to be much better. Unfortunately, and as many readers know, this isn’t the case at all. In some cases its worse (without all the home day-care options, and with tighter working hours.)

Below is an excerpt from a comment left on this blog by Andrea Kalfoglou one of the contributors to Motherhood:

“Adequate daycare is essential. In my chapter in the book, I discuss how stunned I was to find out that there was a 2 year waiting list for children to attend the NIH onsite daycare — and the largest facility wasn’t even onsite, but was 3 miles north in Rockville. There are currently 1100 children on the waiting list. What is NIH’s alternative? A list of local centers that you can visit and evaluate yourself. When I was doing my postdoc at NIH three years ago, that’s exactly what I had to do. All of the centers I visited in the Bethesda area that had openings were substandard. I’m not fussing about a lack of the latest educational toys. They smelled like urine, they had infants trying to sleep in the same room with 10 rowdy 4 yr olds (the daycare provider’s “solution” was to cover the faces of the infants with blankets!) They had broken playground equipment on postage stamp sized yards, and women who all spoke different languages. I’m all for raising bilingual kids, but you have to be able to actually talk to your child’s teacher to find out how his day went. And, it would seem that it would be a difficult work environment if you couldn’t even speak with your coworkers. I eventually found a decent center, not through the referral center at NIH, but through the NIH parent’s list serve — an essential resource for any parent working for NIH.”

Success is how you define it…

“Success is how you define it,” is easier to write than to practice. I know. I’ve been struggling with this for years, and it’s a topic that came up several times during the Motherhood panels. Too often our gauge of success involves external validation – particularly for us working on our own, or without ties to any one particular job or institution – we wonder “what do they think of my work?” or we’re concerned that others might think our choice of a nontraditional career route meant we failed to make it along the traditional route. Additionally we often forget to include our lives in the “success” equation.

Below is a comment recently left on the post about the AAAS Panel, by Suzanne Epstein, immunologist, mother of two, musician and one of the contributors, writing about success:

“A happy and successful life, as a scientist-mother or in general, does not correlate with fame, fortune, prestige, or any other particular circumstance. People in quite varied situations that are not at all what they expected can end up quite happy and fulfilled. On the other hand, people who do exactly what they planned and expected, and are very successful, can end up happy or very unhappy. Depends on their attitudes, whether the plan really suited their natures, other events, and so on. Being an optimist helps.

I guess that’s small comfort to a young scientist who doesn’t know what will happen and is fearful. There is no shortcut, and many people go through painful experiences, even if things work out fine later. This is true for the other difficulties and transitions of life. But the improvements in scientific career conditions and institutional features we talked about might help. Also, maybe people could really learn to skip the apologizing and guilt, and just get on with it.”

Thanks for the reminder Suzanne.

L’Oreal Women in Science Booklet: if only it included the non-traditional routes too…

A friend just sent me the link to the AAAS Science website page announcing the release of the L’Oreal Women in Science Booklet, which describes it as:

“….a collection of truly inspirational stories from women in all walks of life whose common passion is science. Not all are famous, but they are all successful in their own right, whether it be receiving awards, juggling both a job and a family, or fighting discrimination or cultural restrictions.”

I realize the job of AAAS is to get more scientists into science – but I can’t help but feel that a significant portion (like many of the contributors to Motherhood) would be left out if Science were defined as strictly as it seems to be in the sections of this booklet I perused.

Of course I immediately clicked on the PDF about Juggling Work and Family, which led to an article published back in February 2008.  While the focus is on academia, and women who chose to do it all – tenure + family – suggesting this is what they mean by “successful in their own right,” I was glad to see the following section which paid tribute to one women who made a different choice:

“This was the case with chemist Elizabeth Grayson. She wanted to raise her children full-time rather than hire a nanny or place her children in day care. Nevertheless, she felt unfulfilled, even though she had kept up her interest in chemistry by doing editing and translations of scientific texts (she is fluent in German and French). After a gap of 19 years, at the age of 47, Elizabeth applied for and was awarded a Daphne Jackson fellowship in 2001. With the fellowship she took a half-time teaching position at Durham University, UK. Now she combines teaching with research—though not as an independent investigator, and her research is unpaid. “I’m really just happy to be able to use my skills. I really love teaching and I’m able to do that and carry on with the research that I’m interested in.”

As a more mature—and maternal—person, Elizabeth finds herself a popular figure. “Being one of not many women in chemistry I get approached by a lot of students because they know I’ll give them my time.”

This last line reminded me of an acquaintance and Philosopher (I suppose one of the few of us who truly has a PhD) whom I occasionally see around town. Nina works part-time (school hours, she’s got a young son) and is married to an ecologist who, like me and mine, is the one with the full-time research career. As a part-timer, and partner in a dual-career marriage Nina keeps her brain busy and her Philosopher -self alive by providing an invaluable yet under appreciated service to local colleges teaching intensely creative courses, as an adjunct, lecturer, visiting faculty, you name it. Fortunately, what keeps her going is that students tend to value what the colleges do not. While colleges count the beans, research papers, and grant money – students know that time spent with an experienced caring faculty is a valuable and rare thing these days.

What the students get from Nina is a fully devoted faculty member who has the time not only to offer new and exciting courses – but also a Philosopher who has the time to sit down and have coffee with them – or discuss their writing projects. These are intangibles for the college – yet so real and important for students.

I am sure that there are many Nina’s out there (both men and women) who offer their minds and their hearts to students at local colleges. My hope is that someday their efforts will be recognized and appreciated by their host institutions.


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