Push to Address Long-Standing Challenges for Parents in STEMM
Push to Address Long-Standing Challenges for Parents in STEMM

Push to Address Long-Standing Challenges for Parents in STEMM

The organizers behind a Mothers in Science conference say that it’s time academia provide more support to researchers who are pregnant or looking after children.

Amanda Heidt
Jul 21, 2021


At first glance, this year’s inaugural Mothers in Science conference would have looked familiar to anyone who has attended a professional event in the last year: it was remote due to the pandemic, speakers fidgeted with their mute buttons, and more than one person revealed themselves to be wearing sweatpants.

But throughout the daylong event, held on May 8, it would quickly have become clear that this event was something unique. Ryan Watkins, a planetary scientist and program manager at NASA, spoke from her home in St. Louis, framed by a virtual background of a human landing capsule. Towards the end of her presentation, a disembodied hand pierced the capsule’s window; in reality, the arm belonged to her youngest daughter, who was home sick. Watkins finished her presentation on the barriers faced by mothers in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM) while doling out snacks to the toddler on her lap.

On Twitter, parents shared photos of their children attending the conference alongside them, and presenters opened talks by commiserating about the challenges of balancing work and family. Aaron Clauset, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, had his three daughters with him and needed his speaking time changed to accommodate their schedules.

This honest discourse, and the empathy extended to struggling parents, is just the behavior the team behind the event, the nonprofit Mothers in Science (MIS), is working to normalize. For too long, say the organization’s founders, academia has sidelined the contributions of parents, prompting many to abandon their careers. Studies report that women worldwide shoulder a disproportionate burden of household labor, and mothers specifically earn less money, are less likely to be hired or promoted, and are more likely to drop out after starting their families than fathers or childless peers are. (Little research focuses specifically on trans or nonbinary parents.) Pregnant people also face prejudice, so much so that the US Department of Education included pregnancy discrimination under its 1972 Title IX civil rights law. With a pandemic straining many working parents, the motivation is there to advocate for change—before the world returns to a normal that suits only some.

Since launching MIS in 2019, Isabel Torres—the organization’s cofounder, a PhD in genetics, and a mother of four children—has seen the group swell and its influence grow, in part because women are speaking out about the challenges they face. “There’s a lot of silence and stigma around motherhood, and women know . . . that it is used against us in the professional setting,” she says. Despite a subtle closing of the gender gap in recent years, Torres continues, change has been slow, and motherhood is still seen by many employers as a liability.

The conference brought together researchers studying gender disparities in academia, drawing almost 200 participants from 46 countries. During presentations and panels, scientists detailed how the system fails working mothers and pregnant people; highlighted existing solutions; and brainstormed new strategies for research and policy. “Mums are scared that everything will go back to the way it was, so our organization is really pushing for change now,” Torres says of her team’s decision to host the conference during the pandemic. “We hope to bring a deep change to the system, because it’s so overdue.”

Attendees of the Mothers In Science virtual conference in May
Isabel Torres 

Raising awareness of the barriers for working parents

Torres’s ardor stems from her own experiences as a new mother during her PhD studies at the University of Cambridge. “You go back to the lab, and you don’t feel different, but you feel that people see you differently,” she says. Torres was no longer as involved in research planning, and colleagues stopped inviting her out to network because they expected she was overwhelmed, she recalls. While her career goals remained unchanged, “they just assume you’re no longer ambitious, that you just want an easier, more flexible job,” she tells The Scientist. She left academia after completing a postdoc at the UK's Medical Research Council, and now works as a science writer and editor.

For researchers who spend long stretches in the field, however, parenthood can in fact be difficult to reconcile with career aspirations. Gemma Collins, a molecular ecologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany who was not at the MIS conference but has shared her parenting challenges with MIS through social media, scheduled her first pregnancy around Antarctic field seasons during her PhD work. After waiting one year, Collins decided not to postpone again. But when she contacted her funders about rescheduling her second expedition, they declined. “The fieldwork that I’d managed to get funding for, they just gave the slot to someone else,” she tells The Scientist in a video recording. “I was gutted, and a bit bitter about it.”

Mums are scared that every­thing will go back to the way it was, so our organization is really pushing for change now.

—Isabel Torres, Mothers in Science

The decision to delay parenthood also affected Monica Malta, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. Initially, she wanted to start a family once she was more secure in her career. But as a postdoc approaching 40, she forwent applying for a tenure-track job and took a leave of absence to have the first of her three children via in vitro fertilization. “I think it’s very common for most women in STEMM to wait . . . because our training takes a lot of time,” she says, adding that many of her friends who wanted children ultimately chose work instead.

Stories such as these have played out in countless iterations, with mothers facing a number of barriers collectively called the maternal wall. Several women from STEMM backgrounds tell The Scientist that in addition to having colleagues assume their priorities, as happened to Torres, others had their competency questioned when, for example, they needed time to get themselves back up to speed. Still others say they have been asked, illegally, about their family planning during interviews and felt that the job depended on their answers.

This kind of anecdotal evidence is common, says Torres, with women communicating through whisper networks. But research presented at the conference is providing hard data to support the experiences of exasperated mothers. In one 2019 study highlighted at the event, sociologists Erin Cech and Mary Blair-Loy investigated how people’s careers changed after having children. Using data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), they found that nearly half of all new mothers leave full-time STEMM employment following the birth or adoption of their first child, while roughly one-third leave the field entirely. “The sheer size of the attrition was really striking to us,” Cech tells The Scientist, adding that mothers rarely return even once their children enter school. “Once you’re out of full-time STEMM employment, it’s really unlikely that you will jump back in.” The effects weren’t limited to mothers: nearly one-quarter of new fathers surveyed also left full-time employment in STEMM after becoming parents.

More recently, a study by Clauset and others, published in Science Advances and shared at the MIS conference, found that researchers in computer science, history, and business delay having kids by several years compared to the national average, and that respondents who self-identified as women tended to have fewer children than the average US parent. Parenthood was also linked to a sustained decline in publications for mothers—between 17 percent and 48 percent, depending on the field—compared to women who did not have children, while fathers’ output changed very little, on average, compared to men who did not have children. Within computer science, mothers wrote roughly 18 fewer papers in the decade following their child’s birth, a gap that would take five years to close. “I didn’t really expect it to be so much,” says study coauthor Allison Morgan, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder who analyzed the data for her dissertation. “It’s meaningful because so many academics become parents,” she adds, noting that nearly 80 percent of respondents over 40 had children.

PARENTS SPEAKING OUT: As one of their first actions after launching in 2019, Mothers in Science designed and distributed a survey about parenting in STEMM that received almost 9,000 responses from academics living in 128 countries. Participants included self-identified men, women, and nonbinary individuals living with and without children. Results from two of the questions are presented below for women and men, who accounted for around 97 percent of the respondents. 


Designing and implementing practical solutions

Shortly after launching MIS, Torres and her team developed their own survey to capture evidence of what they believe is a global phenomenon. The survey, which was sent to universities worldwide and publicized on social media, garnered nearly 9,000 responses from more than 120 countries. Watkins, who is also the research manager at MIS, presented preliminary results at the conference about the challenges parents face, reaffirming what has been shown on a smaller scale in other studies, either in particular countries or within specific disciplines. This replication of existing findings on a larger scale will be important, she says, when MIS delivers its final report to various groups that help shape academic policies. The group’s advocacy work “might start small, at the institution level . . . [but] ultimately we’d like to get up to government levels, finding out what representatives we can take this kind of information to,” Watkins tells The Scientist.

In addition to generating data that could help shape policy, the survey provided a space for parents to express their opinions about what needs fixing and share their ideas for long-term solutions. Mothers and fathers have long been frustrated by insufficient parental leave, for example, suggesting that policies addressing this issue could be powerful recruitment and retention tools. In Morgan’s survey, half of the women respondents said leave policies were somewhat or very important in choosing their current job, but only 60 percent of the surveyed institutions offered paid leave.

Some funders are already playing a part in bringing about that change by offering flexible deadlines, grant extensions for parental leave, and subsidies for childcare. Deadline extensions during COVID-19 garnered more applicants who self-identified as female, and both the NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have initiatives geared towards parents, including paid leave for doctoral and postdoctoral fellows, funding for faculty to hire technicians to assist with research while academics are on leave, and annual subsidies for childcare. The NIH’s Office of Extramural Research tells The Scientist in an email that such policies have benefited thousands of scientists, and in response to their popularity, the agency plans to expand its childcare subsidies over the next fiscal year.

For parents wanting to reclaim their careers, nonprofits are offering programs to help academics re-enter STEMM following extended absences. In the US and Canada, the American Physical Society’s M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship provides funding to women for one year to cover childcare, salary, equipment, and tuition, while in the UK and Ireland, a fellowship from the Daphne Jackson Trust provides money and training to scientists of any gender resuming research after a break of two or more years.

One Trust awardee is Aisha Baba-Dikwa, now a microbiologist at the University of Manchester. She had been teaching for five years while she started her family, but missed the intellectual curiosity of conducting research. “It took a wake-up call—starting a family—to make me realize I had to go back into research, because that was my passion,” she tells The Scientist from her car, speaking between errands with her son, now eight years old.

For parents wanting to reclaim their careers, nonprofits are offering programs to help academics re-enter STEMM fol­lowing extended absences.

Applying for the Daphne Jackson Fellowship required Baba-Dikwa to submit a research proposal to potential host institutions, which provided additional funding in addition to lab space and an advisor. The money allowed her to ease back in by working in the lab part time, and her adviser trained her on new molecular tools. “It was really a drop in the deep end, as a new mother,” Baba-Dikwa says. Her son was then only two years old, and her pregnancy had been difficult and draining. The fellowship gave her confidence and the experience to land the first job she interviewed for afterwards, she says. “They really give you all the tools you need as a person returning to science.”

Making the most of the moment

The proliferation of groups such as MIS signals that greater awareness, and real change, may finally be on the way. Still, breaking through cultural and structural barriers to equality and equity within STEMM will require moving “beyond the sense of this being an individual problem, where mothers must be . . . educated about how they might best game the institution,” to a broader understanding of academia’s failings, Cech says.

All scientists should reject unfair policies, initiate conversations about what parents need, and extend empathy to their colleagues with children, say Torres and Watkins. As a new mother, Watkins asked her postdoctoral advisor for space to pump breast milk, which he had simply never recognized as a need but happily granted. Collins similarly approached her male supervisors as a PhD student about setting aside an empty room for her to use. Her outdated building didn’t even have a women’s restroom or diaper-changing facilities at the time, and the room gave her privacy to pump in a clean and quiet space.

With conversations on these issues coming to the fore amid a broader discussion about what work will look like after the pandemic, Torres feels confident that change is coming, the success of the conference being just the latest example of a groundswell of support. “It might be slow, it might go step by step, but I think this is definitely the moment,” she says. “Mothers are at the breaking point; the system is at the breaking point. I just hope we’ll be able to push enough to really change the system irreversibly.” 

Correction (July 23): The seventh paragraph of this article has been amended to note that Torres left academia after completing a postdoc at the UK's Medical Research Council, not after completing her PhD. The Scientist regrets the error.