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Full-time Scientist VS. Stay-at-home Mom

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.

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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!