Scientists and Motherhood

BlogHer Original Post

Any job can be complicated by pregnancy or motherhood, but scientific careers may be in their own special category. Depending on the field, you've got exposure to toxic chemicals, radiation, or all manner of microorganisms in the lab; the multitudinous dangers of field work; and the odd and sometimes exceptionally hours required of some experiments or observations in the lab and field.

Many science bloggers reflect regularly on what it means to be a mother and a scientist. I wanted to share some of their posts here, as even those of us who are not scientists in any conventional sense can learn from their experiences.

drdrA writes about family-friendly labs--meaning labs that are supportive of men and women who are parents. drdrA believes her own lab is family friendly, but she wonders how that policy will affect her chances of gaining tenure:

I was having a conversation with some science friends recently- about this crossroads of 1. maternity ‘down time’ = lost productivity for 3 month stretches with 2. labs with reputations for family friendliness. See, those labs with reputations for family friendliness – end up having way way more downtime, than those labs that don’t,….. because the ‘family friendly’ labs end up having whole runs of employees on maternity leave. In three month blocks. Take my own lab for example- let’s just say I’ve had a lab for 5 years (now I’m just making shit up)- and I’ve had 4 employees out on maternity leave… for three months each-… that’s an entire productive person year gone… during the most critical (pre-tenure) time of my career.

And that’s just for the maternity leave itself. When my younger daughter was born- she was ill for about the first year of her life. I slept at my desk, took her to the doctor, and wandered through my project, as only a person enduring a solid year of complete sleeplessness could. Poorly. I use this to illustrate that when your lab members become parents and the maternity leave is over, it may be back to business as usual- but ‘business as usual’ after the baby may be dramatically different than ‘business as usual’ AFTER the baby…and changes in productivity can stretch on beyond maternity leave. These changes in productivity are compounded in ‘family friendly’ labs that carry the weight for the rest of academic science.

The Urban Scientist points us to an article in Scientific American that in turn points us to a study by the NSF that suggests some reasons why more women aren't tenured science professors. The study looks at tenure-eligible women scientists in six disciplines in major research universities. Oddly, the report does not address (and states as much) what may be some of the biggest challenges to women's success in the sciences, namely "the constraints of dual careers [and] access to quality child care[...] In particular, the report does not explore the impact of children and family obligations (including elder care) on women's willingness to pursue faculty positions in R1 institutions."

Dr. Isis writes a thoughtful response to a letter from a postdoc who wonders how many children she should have. Here's an excerpt from her response regarding scientists and babies:

Now, to address something that is unique to this question, do people with advanced degrees have the responsibility to have more babies to destupify the human race? I sincerely hope not. If that were the case, Isis the Scientist might not be here. Neither of my parents have a degree, let alone an advanced degree. I was raised, in part, during my teenage years by two wonderful non-English speaking family members who never went to college and worked as laborers. My uncles are still laborers. But, my brother and I went to college because my family told us that an education was important. Not because they already had advanced degrees. I'm not so sure brilliance always begets brilliance. Trust me. I've met some pretty stupid scientists.

I mean, can we all just agree on the complete wackaloonery of the idea that PhDs and MDs have a responsibility to spawn more? Do I need to adress it further? Frankly, mama's tired and I want to get to the important part of the question.

Nicky at Grad Ovaries also blogs regularly about pursuing science and motherhood simultaneously. From a recent post:

And you know, I get that the world doesn't revolve around me, and having a baby is a choice that I made and I can't expect everyone to make lots of allowances just for me. But at the same time, I also believe that having a baby is a normal part of life, that it's the price you pay for employing human beings. And I'm also angry, because in my particular field, students take leaves of absence ALL THE TIME for other personal purposes, like starting a company or working somewhere for a year or traveling the world, and nobody blinks when they interrupt things to leave for several months and then come back and spend two months talking about it, before finally getting back to work. My leaving to have a baby isn't all that different, except that yes, I continue to take care of the baby even after I returned to work. But AdvisorA never had children, and just kept making side remarks about women and choices and careers and being taken seriously. And it pisses me off.

Last but not least, Pat of Fairer Science points us to a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Family-Friendly Policies May Not Help as Much as They Should, Conference Speaker Says." The article cites Karen R. Stubaus, director of Rutgers Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, who suggests that family-friendly policies like being able to slow down the tenure clock after having a baby means women's careers proceed at a slower pace, which in turn delays salary increases and promotions. Comments Pat,

I would call this a dirty, little secret but while it's dirty, it's not little and neither is it a secret. The idea that in some institutions women are punished for choosing to follow institutionally approved policies stinks. Dr. Stubaus may be right that "the environment isn’t what it needs to be for female academics to seek the relief family-friendly policies offer;" but isn't that what Offices of Institutional Diversity and Equity are supposed to change? If rather than fixing the problems, we discourage women from taking advantage of family friendly polices, for their own good, then the environment will never be what it needs to be.

What are your thoughts? What are the challenges motherhood presents in your own field of work or study?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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