By Nan Pazdernik
Oh what an interesting dichotomy I have experienced in the last two weeks. On Oct. 11, I attended a conference in Indianapolis, IN sponsored by AWIS, or the Association for Women in Science, entitled “What Works Workshop”. The goal of the workshop is to increase professional skills, explore some of today’s workplace challenges, better understand scientific leadership characteristics and opportunities, and of course to network with other female scientists. AWIS asked me to present a session that addressed the issue of motherhood and science. The talk was probably one of the more difficult that I had ever prepared, because I just felt that I wasn’t an expert on combining motherhood and science, and in fact… who IS??? There isn’t really any scientific literature, and definitely very few charts and graphs to include. In fact, all I really used was Emily’s statistics showing that women are leaving the academic tracts.
I structured the discussion very loose, and began with a short introduction about how the Motherhood, Elephant in the Laboratory came to be. I then presented statistics that demonstrate how females who receive PhD’s are approximately half of all the PhD recipients, yet they are much underrepresented in tenure track positions. And I pointed out that the term “leaky pipeline” and the fact that all we chart are academic appointments really makes no sense. Many different careers paths are still valuable and important enough, that we should stop measuring our success against the academic tract. I ended the section by simply pointing out that many female scientists have many unique permutations between their work and their family.
Since the book was structured based on simply discussing everyone’s unique paths… I talked about my story, and how I am currently a full-time mother with a part-time scientific career. I talked about how I found myself as a stay-at-home mom, mainly due to my husband’s scientific career being more lucrative, and, his job being transferred to an area with no medical research, which coincided with birth of our first son. Then, everyone in attendance formed a circle so we could have a discussion. I simply wanted everyone to brainstorm about the following questions: (1) What essentials do we need in order to combine a scientific career with family, and (2) What are some current policies/attitudes that make work life conflict with family life.
The discussion was very good, although it took a while for everyone to open up. We had one mom-to-be in our discussion that was expecting her first baby. She disclosed that she was “moved to another position” as soon as she told her employer she was pregnant. We had a discussion about how she could try to open a dialogue about her expectations and her employer’s expectations about her job once the baby was born. But really just learning that another employer may be more friendly to her pregnancy, opened her eyes, and I really hope that she can find a way to work it out with her employer or to move to a more acceptable situation.
We also had a mother who proclaimed herself as a feminist, and expected her husband to take an equal role in raising the children. We had mothers whose children were grown which always offers a nice perspective, because they now have more time for their careers and their children turned out just fine. We covered different points… about childcare near the place of employment as well as at scientific meetings. One of the attendees was not allowed to bring a stroller into a poster session that she and her husband were attending together. They had to alternate when they could go to see posters so that one was available for childcare.
The final question was “How do we resolve these problems?”, and since time was short, I simply ended our discussion by pointing out that keeping the discussion going was one of the best ways. I asked everyone to go back to their employers. First identify the major issues, such as childcare or expectations for working weekends and nights. Then set realistic and obtainable goals to resolve any issues that are detrimental to women working and having a family. Set up committees or work with existing networks to find resolutions. But most of all, keep on talking!
So this meeting left me feeling very torn. I really felt out of place with the other female scientists, mainly from Eli Lilly, Roche, and Dow Agrosciences. Did I make a mistake taking myself out of the bench scientist world? Was the global Technology and Intellectual Capital Management leader for Dow Agrosciences really only 4 years older than me? She was talking about all the stages of career advancement, and here I am her age, and I haven’t been through any “advancement”. And so even though I co-wrote a textbook, and I am teaching nursing students anatomy and physiology, I didn’t feel like the same type of scientist. Wow!
Now, I just have to contrast this conference to my last weekend. I attended the Southern Illinois retreat for La Leche League leaders. What a different experience. The goals for the retreat were simply to discuss what we like about helping moms learn to breastfeed, what we found the most challenging, and what problems/questions/concerns we have. No business suits, no formal attitudes, simply a discussion. We introduced ourselves and talked about how many children we have and how old. I brought my 21 month old daughter, and no one cared when she cried or was disruptive. [Dad had to come to the AWIS conference and watch her and my son’s while I attended the meeting.] I made a bracelet to wear while my daughter spread beads all over the floor. But here is the interesting discussion we had… It is a long standing unwritten policy that you cannot apply for leadership if you work outside the home. Some exceptions are made, but usually to moms that work only part-time or have their children so close during the day that they have very little separation. Now I am working part-time, and this is okay because I became a Leader before I worked outside the home. We had a long discussion on whether or not someone with a career can apply to be a La Leche League Leader. So I really don’t fit the mold of the typical La Leche League leader either. I work part-time, and I like it. I think that separation between me and my daughter has been extremely good for our relationship. I love being at home with my kids and I love my adjunct position. I love writing. So…
I guess to summarize I just feel like I am out of place in both worlds. Not quite a full-time stay at home mom… not quite a career scientist. Hmmm…split personality or balance? Wonder how I should categorize it.