The Nature of a review

Well, here’s a “be careful what you wish for.” When publishing a book we all wish for reviews especially by those grand old journals Science and Nature. Well guess what? Motherhood made it into Nature, only the review reflected more the bias of the reviewer than the message of the book – or at least what we all as contributors considered one of the main messages. There are many ways to do science just as there are many ways to combine career with science – and who’s to judge who is successful and who is not? In response I submitted a letter to Nature’s editor, only to learn today “there simply isn’t enough room,” though they did offer to print a correction. It’s the very least they could do – really.

Here is the letter and a link to the review follows:

This Letter to the Editor is in response to Myth of the Missing Mothers by Meg Urry, Nature 458, 150-151 (12 March 2009)

Dear Editor,

As Editor of Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory, I am compelled to respond to the book review by Meg Urry[1]. One of the primary goals of this book was to provide a forum for women and mothers who have pursued a variety of different career paths in the sciences. Contributors range from those who followed traditional paths through academia to the many other options available including government, industry, consulting, teaching and writing. Most of these women are not only satisfied with their choices as scientists and as parents, but also achieved a measure of success, personally, professionally or both.

With this in mind, I was saddened by Urry’s conclusion that women seeking success would do well to avoid this book. She thus infers that most of the women who contributed to this volume, other than those in academia, can be categorically deemed “unsuccessful.” While it is true that women in academic positions represent only about one sixth of the contributors – a conscious decision because I agree with Urry that there are many good books about combining a career in the professoriate with family- Urry’s implication that the contributors who followed career paths outside of academia, are not successful, is unfortunate.

As discussed in the book, a successful scientific community requires the contributions of scientists not only in academia, but also in education, policy, advocacy, communications – and other research venues such as federal and industrial research laboratories. I do not suggest that women, particularly those with children, give up the idea of being an academic scientist, but that scientific careers outside of academia can be a viable and rewarding option. The suggestion that academia is the only path to success in science is a disservice to those scientists who choose to contribute in other ways, to future scientists, and to society.

Additionally, though I would be thoroughly impressed had my twelve year-old daughter been able to contribute a chapter, the two daughters attributed to me, are the daughters of Anne Douglass, Atmospheric Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and mother of five.


1 Response to “The Nature of a review”

  1. 1 Shelley A. Adamo April 17, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Missing Mothers No Myth
    I was also unimpressed with the review of your book in Nature. Below is my letter to the editor which was also unpublished due to lack of space.

    Dear Editor,
    Below is a comment on a recent book review published in Nature (Urry, M. “Myth of the Missing Mothers”. Nature 458, 150-151 (March 12, 2009). doi: 10.1038/458150a URL:

    Missing Mothers No Myth.

    In the U.S., women who have children within 5 years of their Ph.D. are significantly less likely to obtain tenure than women who delay or forgo having children(1). Therefore, Urry’s dismissal of motherhood as a major factor contributing to the dearth of women in science (“Myth of the Missing Mothers”, Nature, 458:150) is perplexing. Urry(2) bolsters her claim that motherhood is no barrier to women in science by pointing out that grocery cashiers and medical doctors can combine both motherhood and career. These comparisons are specious. Cashiers do not compete for scarce appointments, grants and international recognition. Women scientists with children are competing against others who can, and do, put more time into their profession(3). Women in business, also a competitive arena, suffer a similar problem(4). Female physicians have long hours too, but they have three advantages. First, medicine pays much better than academia in North America, allowing more childcare options (e.g. nannies). Second, physicians in some specialties can practice part time while their children are small. Women scientists who work part-time have reduced productivity, decreasing their competitiveness for academic positions and extramural funding. Third, women in medicine are more likely to work in the same city in which they grew up than are women scientists. Therefore women physicians are more likely to have the support of an extended family to help raise the children.
    The type of barriers facing women in science will vary depending on the country. However, to assert that motherhood does not impact a woman’s career, especially in North America, is damagingly misleading. It flies in the face of available evidence and will only make it more difficult for those of us who are trying to make it easier for women to do both.

    1. Mason M.A. & Goulden M. Academe, 88, 21 (2002).
    2. Urry, M. “Myth of the Missing Mothers”. Nature 458, 150-151 (March 12, 2009). doi: 10.1038/458150a URL:
    3. Mason M.A. & Goulden M. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 596, 86 (2004).
    4. Glass, J.L. & Estes, S.B. Ann. Rev. Sociol. 23, 289 (1997).

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