8 January 2009
Lab or babies still a tough choice
Juggling family life and a career in science is a struggle for women, Elizabeth Whitelegg observes
This book presents autobiographical accounts of American women who have endeavoured to combine science careers with motherhood. It reveals the struggles of “ordinary” women scientists, who strive to achieve a balance between their roles as mothers and their ambitions for a career as a scientist. The accounts are contextualised by section introductions that provide some references to the literature on women’s position in science, but this is not the main thrust of the book. The book’s strength lies in the women’s personal accounts. These accounts are grouped by the decade in which each scientist was awarded her PhD, spanning the period from the 1970s to the 2000s. The chapters could have been ordered differently, but this approach is effective because it allows themes to emerge that can be compared across the decades, so providing impact when comparing the situations faced by the scientists in the earlier decades with the present time.
The earlier chapters are written by women who have largely reached an accommodation with their lives as scientists and as mothers. With the benefit of hindsight they put their experiences into perspective, seeing how sometimes painful career choices may have led towards new opportunities. This reflection leads to a somewhat more positive picture emerging than can have been present at the time. It suggests that despite the difficulties faced by these pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s, when viewed from their current eminent positions, the struggle to progress careers in the early years (when children were small and the women were fledgling scientists) was relatively short-lived and the hurdles easily overcome. In addition, we might think things are different 30 years on.
However, the final section of the book, set in the 2000s, offers a different and more worrying picture. Here we hear from US postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers facing institutional systems that appear to have improved little since those earlier decades. The stories they tell are sometimes shocking, certainly to those of us working in more enlightened institutions, for more flexible bosses, in countries where maternity leave is a statutory right and where childcare may be subsidised. The women in these chapters reveal, for instance, a lack of statutory maternity leave for postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows; one even talks of being sacked for getting pregnant. These hurdles may also be present in research and academia beyond science, but are multiplied by the demands of working as a research scientist, in the laboratory or in the field.
A recurring theme that spans all four decades is that of the tenure track system in US universities. Tenure is generally achieved five to six years after gaining a PhD on the award of substantial research grants and publication of papers in prestigious journals. Because PhDs are often gained later in the US than in Britain, the candidate may then be in her late twenties or early thirties, and all the while the biological clock is ticking, so it is not surprising that many women scientists start a family at one of the most difficult times in their careers – while trying to achieve tenure. Many of the authors write about the need for flexibility in their careers, or the need to work part-time, none of which aided their push for tenure. As a result, their ability to manage their careers and their children depended to a great extent on the sympathetic attitudes of some far-sighted superiors.
Above all, the stories spell out the need for a culture of flexibility, by the women themselves and by their superiors and institutions. Many highlight the need to adjust goals and aspirations in order to combine careers with motherhood. There are those who emphasise their love for science as the motivation to achieve success, despite the hurdles, while others emphasise the need for compromise and careful selection of location, bosses and colleagues.
Any scientist who is also a mother will recognise and empathise with many of the experiences in this book, while those who are yet to have children would benefit from the advice given here. Many of the stories are inspirational and one can only hope that the achievements they document will provide encouragement to women who follow. They reveal skills, achieved through the experience of motherhood, which these women were able to feed into their careers; benefits to the institutions that hired them and to science by relating different ways to pursue a career; alternative ways of measuring success; and new perspectives.
While the accounts here are of the US system, and so some career barriers may be different from those in other countries, there is much that will speak meaningfully to women scientists and to those contemplating this journey, as well as the institutions that employ and fund them.
Also see review at in the Gazette a publication of the Status on Women in the American Physical Society:
When toxicologist Rebecca Efroymson flew to Washington D.C. to defend a grant proposal before a federal agency, she lacked child care options and was forced to bring along her sick toddler. On the day of her presentation, she left her feverish, screaming son in a hotel room in the care of his grandparents, who had taken a train down from Philadelphia to babysit. Fatigued by lack of sleep, Efroymson admits that she did not give her best presentation, and her grant was not funded. “This was the first time that my split life might really have impacted my work and the viability of my job,” she writes.The “split life” between work and child rearing is one familiar to millions of working parents. For women, balancing work and family can present particularly difficult challenges in the highly competitive, often male-dominated world of research science. Efroymson’s story is one of many told in a timely new book, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out.
Editor Emily Monosson has collected the voices and personal stories of 34 mother-scientists working in various fields. In eloquent and often witty essays, these women directly address the challenges of being mothers in the scientific workforce.
Contributors to this volume include biologists, physicists, geologists, and oceanographers. They are professors, writers, independent consultants, science policy experts, teachers, and government researchers. For those who fear that motherhood is incompatible with traditional scientific research careers, this book offers some stunning examples to the contrary. An atmospheric chemist writes of raising five children as she works and rises to a position of leadership at NASA. An astronomer raises four children, each born only eighteen months apart, as she first achieves tenure at the government Space Telescope Science Institute, then takes on a faculty position at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Other women seek non-traditional careers in a quest for balance, and forge new paths for themselves. The editor of the anthology, Monosson, is a prime example: trained as a toxicologist with a Ph.D from Cornell, she has established a career as an independent consultant, researcher, and writer.
The diversity of career paths described by Motherhood’s essayists is impressive and eye-opening. These women demonstrate that there are number of different ways of balancing work and family life. Even for those who eventually end up in traditional careers, the road may be circuitous. Some of the women in these pages drop out of the workforce for a few years while their children are young, or work part-time. Many have setbacks, and make career compromises for a spouse’s or their children’s sakes. Some eventually return to the lab and tenure-track careers; testament that these traditional careers – often thought of as rigid, unyielding pathways – may have more flexibility than we have been led to believe. Indeed, the fluidity of scientific careers – the shifts between home life, academia, industry, government, and back again – becomes a major theme.
It is not all sunshine and success, of course. Many of these women also write movingly of the sacrifices they have made. Full professors admit wistfully that they wish they had been able to spend more time with their growing young children. Meanwhile, some of those who deviated from traditional research tracks report a twinge when they envision the scientific careers they might have had.
These pages also reveal that discrimination is alive and well in the twenty-first century. In one harrowing chapter, Gina Wesley-Hunt, an evolutionary biologist, tells of how she was fired in 2006 from a postdoctoral position at an unnamed institution. The reason for her dismissal? She was fired for being pregnant. As she learned to her shock: “The equal opportunity office and office overseeing interns and postdocs told me there was no policy that protected me. It was entirely up to my PI, and I was on my own.”
Essays in the book are arranged chronologically, according to the date by which the writer’s PhD was conferred. The book opens with scientists who received their PhDs in the 1970s, and marches onward through the 80s and 90s, ending with the voices of women who are in graduate school today. In this way, the book tracks the sweeping social changes of the past thirty years. Despite the great influx of women into science careers over the last decade, it is sobering to read that conflicts between work and family have not changed. Indeed, some of the essays in the last section read as though they could have been written decades ago.
Monosson provides social and historical context in her introduction, and to each section of the book. She notes that in the 1970s, women earned only 17% of the doctorates awarded in science and engineering. Today the figure is around 45%. However, women continue to be underrepresented in the highest tiers of scientific employment, and are more likely than men to work part-time or to leave science altogether. Monosson closely examines this phenomenon, dubbed “the leaky pipeline.” She discusses the growing body of evidence which points to the demands of motherhood as a major cause of the leaky pipeline, citing the work of Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, among others, who found that women academics who have babies at early stages of their careers are less likely than childless women to achieve tenure. As early as the 1970s, Monosson notes, there were published calls for more family-friendly and flexible career structures in the sciences. These calls have been repeated in each succeeding decade.
It is often said that motherhood is not for the faint of heart. The same could be said for a career in science. The debate over what causes the leaky pipeline, and remedies to address it, rages on. The pace of institutional and cultural change can seem glacial. In the mean-time, scientists who are also mothers can find support by sharing their stories with one another. Monosson’s book provides a valuable medium for doing so. As one woman writes in the opening pages of Motherhood: “In the final analysis, every woman finds her own way. It’s just good to know that none of us is alone.”
Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out. Emily Monosson (Editor). Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2008. 232 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4664-1. $25.00.
Vanessa Fogg is a freelance scientific writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She holds a Ph.D in molecular cell biology from Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a mother.
From American Scientist, magazine of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society
BOOK REVIEW: Changing Assumptions
WHY AREN’T MORE WOMEN IN SCIENCE? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Edited by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. xx + 254 pp. American Psychological Association, 2007. $59.95.
MOTHERHOOD, THE ELEPHANT IN THE LABORATORY: Women Scientists Speak Out. Edited by Emily Monosson. xii + 219 pp. Cornell University Press, 2008. $25.
What is the most reliable and current knowledge about men’s participation in domestic labor and child care? Should more men be doing that sort of work? Is it because they have less aptitude than women for managing the home and family that they take less responsibility in the domestic sphere, or are men simply less interested in such activities? Might innate differences in ability explain the unsettling statistics, or is culture to blame? Put another way, is society holding boys and men back? Or are they perhaps ill equipped intellectually?
It is significant that the two books under review here—Why Aren’t More Women in Science? and Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory—do not ask these questions, just as national granting agencies do not fund research into male ability to perceive body temperature within a half degree by touch alone, nor do universities hire faculty who meta-analyze male cognitive abilities in caregiving. Yet we as a society do support endless studies of sex differences in spatial perception—the ability to determine whether a two-dimensional piece of paper can be folded into a three-dimensional shape, and the like. The crucial question is, Why?
In Why Aren’t More Women in Science?, Cornell University psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams propose to bring together “the most reliable and current knowledge about women’s participation in science,” which they interpret narrowly as consisting principally of the literature on cognitive sex differences. In so doing, they miss much that is exciting and new in the field of gender and science. Research into the question of women’s underrepresentation in science has at least three dimensions: the participation of women in science, gender in the cultures of science and gender in the results of science. This volume does not begin to open up this “results” dimension, best described as “gendered innovations” in science.
The consideration of gendered innovations turns away from the narrow focus on women’s cognitive abilities (the science reported so prominently in the Ceci and Williams book) and instead asks new questions—for example, How has human knowledge, including knowledge of the natural world, been shaped by the exclusion of women from science and by the gender system that supports that exclusion? Several government granting agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the European Commission, now require that requests for funding address whether, and in what sense, sex and gender are relevant to the objectives and methodologies of a particular research proposal. This is where the action is today. We as a society will not solve the problem of how to increase the numbers of women in science until we understand the roots of their systemic exclusion. This is where we should be investing our scarce resources and the power of scientific inquiry.
Readers who, like me, have grown tired of the “Larry Summers industry”—the many analyses of former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers’s 2005 comments on women’s scientific abilities—should be forewarned that Ceci and Williams dig once again into Summers’s explanations for the low numbers of women in science. In his remarks, Summers noted that the “unfortunate truth” about why so few women are aeronautical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or chemists at the University of California, Berkeley, is that not nearly as many women as men are performing at the highest level in math and science. He added that women also shy away from “high-powered” jobs requiring an 80-hour workweek.
Several chapters in this volume focus on the issue of math performance, and how scores for both men and women follow a bell curve, with men more highly represented in the high-end tail—the top 1 percent. It is important to remember that data used in these analyses come primarily from the Scholastic Aptitude Test taken by high school students or from the Graduate Record Examination. The authors of these chapters tend to privilege the notion that brilliance in math or science careers is rooted primarily in cognitive abilities—and not in educational preparation, the availability of research funding, personal persistence, insight, creativity or serendipity.
Later in this volume, we learn that, in fact, particular groups of females outscore males in all areas of math. Japanese and Taiwanese girls perform better in math than North American boys; and Singaporean girls beat out everyone else—by a full standard deviation. In light of these findings it is indeed remarkable that the Harvard math department has had on staff not one woman full professor since its founding in 1638. If for a moment we accept Summers’s argument that hiring at world-class institutions follows cognitive ability, we might expect Harvard’s math department to include at least one Singaporean, Japanese or Taiwanese woman among its tenured faculty.
Despite its focus on cognitive factors, the book by Ceci and Williams does contain a number of thoughtful chapters that analyze broad social and cultural forces keeping women from rising to the top in science and math (working at the second level of analysis mentioned above). Virginia Valian nicely summarizes work on how to evaluate what constitutes talent in science and how our mental codifications of gender skew our perceptions and evaluations of men and women. Carol Dweck documents that people who believe that mathematical talent is innate, fixed and unchanging perform worse on tests and in school than those who see it as malleable and susceptible to improvement with hard work and learning. Janet Hyde discusses how schools, parents and other sociocultural forces shape math and science abilities and career choices. Diane Halpern illustrates how biological and psychosocial influences affect each other.
Halpern’s “take-home message”—that “what is needed is a society in which sex roles are more equalized so that men share in child care and other caregiving”—provides a nice segue to the second volume under review here: Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory, edited by environmental toxicologist and mother of two Emily Monosson. In these heartrending essays, women who are well-trained and well-situated in science detail the compromises they have made in order to raise children and be scientists.
That most of us have heard such stories many times does not make them any less moving. Individual observations are also backed up by data—the scientific evidence demanded by Ceci and Williams. For example, in her essay “Reflections of a Female Scientist with Outside Interests,” Christine Seroogy cites research conducted by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden at the University of California, Berkeley, as documentation for her claim that “women who have children soon after receiving their graduate degrees are much less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts.” Further, numerous studies have now revealed the micro-inequalities (cumulative disadvantages) that squeeze active parents (mostly mothers) out of the laboratory.
Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory makes evident the institutional structures that block parents’ careers, but, more important, it reveals the myriad ways in which male partners of mothers don’t shoulder their fair share of the physical and psychological labor associated with child care. What’s going on with these men? Some of them probably think that because they are more established in their careers or make more money than their partners, they are justified in leaving domestic drudgery to the women who were once their intellectual companions.
But, as this book also shows, a number of women are complicit in allowing men to shirk their responsibility. As one woman put it, after the birth of her son, both she and her partner “slipped into the pattern of treating his workday as more important than mine.” Another woman reports that her husband’s job is more stable than hers, and “as a result, we protect his job usually at the expense of mine.” These are women who will find it hard to dig out and get back on track as children grow and eventually leave home. Playing second fiddle to one’s partner becomes self-reinforcing—his job is more important because it is allowed to be.
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. One couple approaches their family the same way that they do their scientific careers: as a team. Raising children in a two-career family is not easy, and it requires that men become team players, getting to know their children well—what they are doing and what concerns they have. And it requires that men become experts in childhood disease, physical injury, laundering fine fabric and cooking nutritious meals. One assumes they have the cognitive ability to do so.
Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory would be nicely supplemented by a companion volume written by fathers. Fathers who are involved parents and companions encounter many of the same problems that mothers do (although these days one often encounters a daddy “bonus” and mommy “penalty”—colleagues are impressed by men bouncing babies on their knees but worried by women who do the same).
All in all, both of these books are highly readable. But what we need to understand is where these problems come from. Why are we a culture that presumes that women are cognitively frail when it comes to science but empathetically robust with respect to child rearing? We can trace women’s structural exclusions from science back to the 18th century, when Western societies produced cultural ideals and economic imperatives such that the power and privilege of the scientific domain fell to men, whereas the home spun its sphere of intimacy around idealized and nurturing females. These divisions in power, cultural endowments and cognitive abilities pervade modern institutions and assumptions. But they are historically wrought and can be changed. We’d best get to it.
Londa Schiebinger is the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science and the Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Her writings include The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Harvard University Press, 1989), Has Feminism Changed Science? (Harvard University Press, 1999), Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering (Stanford University Press, 2008), and Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know (forthcoming from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research in August 2008).
From New Scientist:
Review: Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women scientists speak out by Emily Monosson
- 04 June 2008
- From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
- Alison George
WOMEN trying to squeeze a career and family duties into one 24-hour day will gain much affirmation from this collection of essays. The writers, who all balance science careers and motherhood, provide a fascinating insight into a world too often kept hidden. For those without children it should come with a health warning: the juggling and compromises these women have learned to live with may add up to a sobering reality check for those who still think they can have it all. For some it may prove a powerful contraceptive.