More on women in science

because neither addresses the root cause of the problem: Women want to mother their children, not simply give birth.

Amanda Lea Taylor(
Jun 5, 2005

While high-quality daytime care is an essential support to working scientists who are parents of young children, neither extended hours nor government subsidies is a solution to the under-representation of women in academia,1 because neither addresses the root cause of the problem: Women want to mother their children, not simply give birth. To suggest that women will succeed if only they could gain more time away from their children is to confuse childcare, which the market can supply, with parenting, which it will never be able to provide.

Women are faced with a choice between minimal time with their children, coupled with perpetual exhaustion in meeting work and family demands, or the prospect of falling behind one's colleagues while investing the substantial time required for responsive parenting. Most women with family desires ultimately reject scientific careers, because they rightly view both these options as unsatisfactory, yet lack an alternative pathway other than leaving the field entirely. This "opting out" is part of a larger phenomenon among professional women across other disciplines,2 and is a logical calculation in which mothers place the best interests of their children ahead of their own, even at great personal cost.

Some wonderfully constructive ideas to keep academic science attractive to women are being proposed in the University of California system3 and elsewhere, notably temporary part-time workloads, job sharing, and postdoctoral reentry fellowships. Many universities have a policy that stops the tenure clock for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. These measures directly address the challenges facing working scientists as they parent, and, if they can be made a part of academic culture, are our best hope for enabling women to continue making innovative and elegant contributions to science for decades to come.

The status of women in science can be improved in a number of ways. Particularly important is having more women in positions to hire women. There seems to be an assumption that things work from the bottom-up: First there must be more female graduate students, then more female post-docs, more faculty, and so on. But the statistics suggest otherwise. The number of women in top academic ranks has been nearly the same for about 10 years, although the number of women graduate students in the sciences has grown to almost 50% of the total student population.45

Suppose we invert the pyramid and put women in positions with authority to hire and promote? The present poor rate of success justifies this approach. Of course, this still requires that the women placed in these positions are people who have an interest and skills in faculty development, which is something that all chairs should have. The chances of finding women like this, one might assume, are greater than finding men: If men were equivalently interested in women's faculty development, wouldn't more women be in senior positions?

A crucial caveat is that the promotion of women to certain positions of authority, such as graduate school dean or vice president of research, is not sufficient. Such positions do not provide the necessary authority to hire faculty. This ultimately makes having female chairs of paramount importance, as they can both hire faculty and are key to promotion in many cases.

Your editorial seems to suggest that women are voting with their feet and choosing not to apply for jobs that they feel are incompatible with their lifestyles. It might be interesting to find out how many men working in senior academic positions have children, and if they do, do their wives stay at home to look after the children, or do the wives also have demanding careers so that the husbands have to share the responsibilities. You might find that some men are selective in applying for senior academic positions also.