The Problem of the Problem of Motherhood in Science
One other thing, if I see one more article about why there aren’t more women in science that concludes “it’s the children” I am going to run amuck. This one says “Women don’t choose careers in math-intensive fields, such as computer science, physics, technology, engineering, chemistry, and higher mathematics, because they want the flexibility to raise children…”
Say what? Good to know that it’s only the math intensive fields; so friends if you want a science career and a family go to the life sciences or the earth sciences or the agricultural sciences because it’s just the math that makes science careers incompatible with family life, Who knew?
Meanwhile, one of my readers recently called my attention to the 12 March 2009 issue of Nature, which has a book review of Emily Monosson’s Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory. The publisher calls “the unique difficulties of balancing a professional life in these highly competitive (and often male-dominated) fields with the demands of motherhood [an] obvious but unacknowledged crisis–the elephant in the laboratory”.
Is it really? Combining motherhood – combining parenthood – with a career in science is certainly no easy task, but is there, perhaps, an excessive focus on this as the issue for women in science? Is motherhood + science, in some ways, a red herring?
Here’s the key part of the Nature review:
More disturbing is the implication that in the absence of motherhood, women in academic science would have untroubled careers. This is naive. Evidence shows that female scientists without children do not fare better than those with children who remain full-time in
the workforce. Neither advance as steadily as their male counterparts, with or without children. Some explanation other than family must be the reason for the slow advancement
Furthermore, countries with enviable support systems for parental leave and childcare — of the kind rightly advocated by Monosson — have astonishingly low participation of women in science. For example, in Denmark, only around 10% of full professors of science, and 2% of physics professors, are women. The numbers are higher in the United States, even with its less generous childcare policies. Neither does physiology and family explain why the fraction of scientists who are women varies widely from one country to another, even when social support systems are similar; the percentage of female scientists is much higher in France and Italy than in the United Kingdom or Germany, for example. Women’s participation in science also varies widely from field to field: more than 50% of graduating MDs in US medical schools are women, whereas in physics and engineering, less than 20% of PhDs go to women.
Outside our universities, many women with young children have full-time jobs — 70% in the United States — and few of those jobs are as flexible or as well paid as jobs in academic science. There is no question that it is harder to raise a family as a supermarket employee than as a professor of physics, so why do academics seize on family as the explanation for the absence of women? The dominant obstacles to women in science — persistent, unexamined bias and lack of mentoring — are described clearly in Beyond Bias and Barriers (National Academies Press, 2007) and in Academeology, by the pseudonymous blogger Female Science Professor (LuLu, 2008; see Nature 456, 445; 2008). Young women trying to figure out the road to success in science might be better served reading those books rather than Motherhood.
My anonymous reader wrote to me:
I agree with…the article. We are all bending over backwards trying to find solutions for dual career and breast pumping and childcare for faculty, while forgetting that those are also
problems for women in the workplace in general…where there are many more women by
proportion than on STEM faculties.
Lest my Sciblings Isis and Sciencewoman and Janet, and other readers/bloggers out there currently juggling family and science careers take offense, let me hasten to say that I firmly believe things like dual-career programs and childcare and breast pumping rooms are good things for faculty. But it’s also true that the administrative and other support staff on campus could benefit from those services just as well. Lack of breast pumping rooms and on campus daycare has not kept women from dominating the ranks of the administrative staff in your department or college, has it? Come to think of it, it hasn’t kept them from dominating or predominating in the ranks of the faculty over in the schools of nursing, education, and various programs in human ecology. It hasn’t kept women from increasing their numbers dramatically over the past several decades in medicine and veterinary medicine and law and business.
Motherhood is an issue for a woman who chooses to work and have children, in science or in any career. It is not, however, the issue for women in science. In some respects, being constantly inundated with reports and articles and books, however well-meaning, about how it is teh babeez that are keeping women down and out in science is not helpful.
The swelling chorus makes it seem almost as if the problem of women in science is a problem women carry around with them in their bodies, and inflict on science, rather than something going on outside and around and enacted upon those bodies. Look out, science! She’s got a uterus and isn’t afraid to use it! It makes it sound like women are asking for special treatment in science when they ask for reasonable things like daycare and breast pumping rooms and dual career considerations – things that a normal society ought to be providing to all parents. It makes science sound like it is somehow some special amazing exceptional career, where women are just gonna have trouble if they want to have kids, unlike all other careers in the world where this issue has never come up, rather than just one more case in which the problem of how society should arrange for people to both work and have children must be addressed. Do you suppose that migrant field workers don’t have to deal with the issue of child care and breast pumping? I know childcare was a never-ending struggle for my older sister when her kids were young, in her various jobs in clerical work over the years. And just because they weren’t university professors, doesn’t mean that she and her husband never struggled with any dual career issues at various junctures.
The prejudice and problems that women with children face in science are a particular variation on the general theme of gender discrimination. It is important to pay attention to those particulars, and courageous women bloggers who share their stories have done much to make Researching While Procreating seem much more normal, at least for the women (and men) who read their blogs. This is no small service, and I am glad we live in a time where the internet gives us ready access to these stories, so we need not labor (pun intended) in isolation.
But we would do well to remember that the problems women face in science start long before, and go far past, having and rearing children (just as the problems of parenting in our society are far, far broader than the confines of science careers). I think here about the four amazing women scientists I worked with in my last postdoc. None of them have children, and none of them ended up in tenure track positions (or any sort of position) in academia, even though each initially saw herself going down that path, and each was extremely capable of doing so.
On the one hand, we have women speaking frankly about struggles to combine parenting with a career in science, working out issues and linking to a broader community of support. On the other hand, we have official reports which purport to tell us why women just aren’t going to be found in this or that area of science or engineering – because they insist on having babies, and you just can’t do science and have babies. It’s the former sort of discourse I find more helpful, and less obfuscating. It doesn’t deny the possibility of other types of discourse about the situation of women in science by pretending motherhood really is an elephant in the room, and so there’s no room left to speak of anything else.
Bunny Rock in Zuska’s Garden
Zuska is the kick-ass alter-ego of Suzanne E Franks. When not dispensing Zuska's wisdom, Suzanne can often be found gardening, reading, or having one of her thrice-weekly migraines.
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