Dr. Mom

A new book explores the challenges of balancing motherhood and a career in science

By | August 22, 2008

When toxicologist linkurl:Rebecca Efroymson;http://www.esd.ornl.gov/people/efroymson/index.html 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 linkurl:women,;https://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54852/ 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, linkurl:__Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out__.;http://www.amazon.com/Motherhood-Elephant-Laboratory-Women-Scientists/dp/0801446643
Editor linkurl:Emily Monosson;http://www.eoearth.org/contributor/emily.monosson has collected the voices and personal stories of 34 linkurl:mother-scientists;https://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/16673/ 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, linkurl:Gina Wesley-Hunt,;http://insidemc.montgomerycollege.edu/showStory.php?id=2699 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 linkurl:pregnant.;https://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14237/ 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 linkurl:"the leaky pipeline.";https://www.the-scientist.com/2008/1/1/67/1/ She discusses the growing body of evidence which points to the demands of motherhood as a major cause of the leaky pipeline, citing the linkurl:work;http://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/marriagebabyblues.pdf of linkurl:Mary Ann Mason;http://www.grad.berkeley.edu/deans/mason/ and linkurl:Marc Goulden,;http://facultyequity.chance.berkeley.edu/about/leadership.html#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." linkurl:____Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out__.;http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/cup_detail.taf?ti_id=4821 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.__ __Emily Monosson has established an accompanying website and online community to discuss issues of motherhood in science, which can be found at linkurl:http://sciencemoms.wordpress.com/;http://sciencemoms.wordpress.com/__

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 23

August 22, 2008

Word of advice to young scientists - if you are a "power couple" both with demanding careers in academia, be aware that the nanny will be raising your kids instead of you. If you are going to have kids, one of you should consider dropping back to part-time work - either the the father or the mother (although women in general seem to be more adept at the multi-tasking required to run a household). I ended up not getting tenure partly because I was not willing to work 70-hour weeks while my wife was building her business, \nbut at least I didn't have some stranger raising my kids.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 23

August 22, 2008

Being a scientist is not easy at all. Being a woman scientist is just much harder. However, let's also acknowledge that there has been very good progress made since the 1960s in the US. \n\nIs it true that she was given a chance to defend her proposal at NIH? If so, she was better treated than most of us (perhaps 99%+, both men or women). We have never been offered a chance to face our reviewers! Dad
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 22, 2008

I almost was in tears reading this article. I am a 5th PhD student and have a 15 month old baby at home. I understand the frustration, quilt and exhaustion that are a part of juggling a science career along with motherhood!
Avatar of: Taek You

Taek You

Posts: 6

August 22, 2008

This is not an easy task to take as a woman scientist. In my case, we have waited a baby until my wife almost finished the degree.\nWhen she had a real job, it was not getting any easier at all. Fortunately, I could babysit for a year or so when she started her career in the real world (I became a post-postdoc babysitter). Now, I am in academia with 9 month contract and I try to spend as much time with my teenager children with guilt feeling of the past.\nNothing is easy, especially with the higher degree. Employers have expectations. For many years, my two children were with babysitters all day. There were many instances that the babysitter could not babysit. Well, we had to make urgent arrangements under pressure.\nMy wife and I were lucky enough that our advisors (through both Ph.D. and postdocs) were so much understanding. Looking back, I really appreciate those mentors and they had great impacts in my wife's and my life.\nI think that it is fairly important to find a lab or employer that give full understanding and respect of your family value.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 22, 2008

I can't wait to read this book. I actually left research last fall, a little less than a year into my first postdoc, so that I could spend more time with my two young children, then 5 months and 3 years old. I'm now teaching part-time at a local university, and am contemplating what to do next. In my situation, life in the lab was just too demanding for me to feel that I was giving my best in both my career as a scientist and as a mother/wife.
Avatar of: Jill Cooper

Jill Cooper

Posts: 2

August 23, 2008

At least if you are working in academia, you may have the option of part-time work, which seems like the ideal way of keeping your career ticking over whilst not becoming a stranger to your children.\n\nIf you are working in industry, then this is not an option. I was forced to leave my industrial career rather than have my baby son in care for 12 hours/day. My (apparently family friendly) workplace tried to railroad me back into full time work then paid me to leave when I refused. \n\nI don't regret my decision but there seems to be no way back to a science career from here.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

September 17, 2008

Excellent review - thanks to all involved in this much-needed book. As a mother of 3 working in industry full-time my entire career I think I have seen everything. I am lucky to have a husband (also PhD scientist) who is like-minded about career compromises and sharing the home and work juggle. I like to tell new scientist moms that it will work out but that they need to decide what kind of career will be satisfactory for them. Being a high profile scientist who is in the lab and gets lots of awards and grant money and is on the road all the time, and a mom who goes to her kids' games and Scout campouts and knows their teachers is (in my opinion) not possible. It is possible to get part of the way there however - to me the best of both worlds.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

September 17, 2008

I have 3 children ranging in age from 8-16. I get to nearly every school program, local soccer and basketball games in which my children participate. I have a Ph.D. husband who shares in all of the responsibilities of raising children and maintaining a home equally. I serve on more committees (chairing IACUC and others) and teach more than nearly all of the men in my department (I am the lone female). I have succeeded in my field despite the total lack of departmental recognition for my accomplishments in science (because I don't have the appropriate anatomy). You can do it all and you can do it well if you are able to position yourself in your field and gain recognition from those that matter.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

September 22, 2008

As a mother/scientist, I am constantly making compromises to balance work and home. I am the only one of eight female tenured/tenure-track faculty in my department that has children. Be prepared to defend your position to both male and female colleagues, accept alternate definitions of success, and get the best possible child-care you can manage.

Popular Now

  1. Can Young Stem Cells Make Older People Stronger?
  2. Thousands of Mutations Accumulate in the Human Brain Over a Lifetime
  3. CRISPR to Debut in Clinical Trials
  4. Two Dozen House Republicans Do an About-Face on Tuition Tax