Home > Naming Experience, What They're Saying, Why Aren't You Reading This?, Why There Are No Women in Science > Author of “Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory” Responds to Nature Review

Author of “Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory” Responds to Nature Review

A few days ago I wrote about The Problem of the Problem of Motherhood in Science, a post inspired by Meg Urry’s book review of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory by Emily Monosson. A vigorous discussion ensued in the comments – thank you all for participating! It turns out the author of the book was paying attention, and she contacted me by email. Emily Monosson told me she feels her book was misrepresented in Meg Urry’s review. I agreed to post here the contents of her email to me.
Here’s the email:

I am writing, as editor of Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory, in response to your blog post which quoted Meg Urry’s Nature review of the book.
I have responded to the Nature review in a letter to the editor because the review is an inaccurate representation of our book. While we all take from books what we want to see in them, it saddens me that a scientist like Urry would bring so much of her own agenda into a book review, rather than carefully reading and reviewing the book. The message of the book was that there are many ways of achieving success in science, not that children are an impediment to a successful career in science. Not one of us suggests that our careers would have been easier had we not had kids as Urry implies. In fact, a few reveal how having children has shaped their research so that it may more immediately benefit the next generation.
Most disturbing is that Urry dismisses the career choices and contributions of those women whose career paths led them away from academia, suggesting that academia=success in science. While she’s entitled to her opinion, had she stated it as such, I would have felt less compelled to respond to her review as many in science (unfortunately) feel similarly. Contributors to this book work for NASA, FDA, EDF, they write, they teach, the volunteer as scientists and yes, several are in academia.
I do agree with Urry on one point – there are many good books on parenting and professing. This book was meant to add another dimension to the body of literature on science/family/success/, one which highlights the contributions made be those outside of the ivory towers to the sciences in addition to those made by academics (there were six academic moms out of the 34 contributors to the book.) Most importantly, among the contributors, no matter which career track we’ve chosen to follow, we support and respect each-other’s choices. I’d like to think we are a model of a health scientific community. It takes all types.
Last but not least, Urry attributes the two daughters who wrote chapters to me, which suggests that there were at least four essays she couldn’t have read very closely. The Douglass sisters are the daughters of Anne Douglass a successful NASA scientist and mother of five.

Emily Monosson has promised to send me a copy of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory for review so I hope to offer you my own perspective on the book in the near future. I’m interested to see what it has to say in light of Monosson’s comments here. I do note, however, this excerpt from the book blurb on the publisher’s website:

About half of the undergraduate and roughly 40 percent of graduate degree recipients in science and engineering are women. As increasing numbers of these women pursue research careers in science, many who choose to have children discover the unique difficulties of balancing a professional life in these highly competitive (and often male-dominated) fields with the demands of motherhood. Although this issue directly affects the career advancement of women scientists, it is rarely discussed as a professional concern, leaving individuals to face the dilemma on their own.

and juxtapose it with this quote from Urry’s 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 of women.

For the time being, I’ll stand by what I said in my earlier post: 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. But as I said, I look forward to getting the book and taking a closer look.

  1. March 31, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I’ve read Monosson’s book very carefully, unlike the Nature reviewer who misattributed two of the essays to Monosson’s daughters (Monosson has one son and one daughter, both of whom are far too young to be writing career essays. This is another point that the the Nature reviewer might have picked up on, had she read Monosson’s personal essays in the book at all carefully).
    Urry’s review also suggests that she skipped over the sections of Monosson’s book which extensively cite the academic literature on the impact of motherhood on science careers. I agree that motherhood is not the ONLY factor in the “leaky pipeline.” But the evidence is strong that it is a MAJOR factor. Anyone with an interest in these issues should be aware of the groundbreaking work by Mary Ann Mason at the University of Berkeley. Mason and her colleagues have been working on the “Do Babies Matter” project, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation. Working with data from the national Survey of Doctorate Recipients, Mason has found that yes, babies matter a great deal. When she examined a cohort of science Ph.D.s who received their doctorates between 1979-1999 (and who were still working in academia 12-14 years after their doctorates) she discovered that the women who had babies early in their careers were significantly less likely to achieve tenure than women who did not have babies. From the studied cohort:
    55% of women with “early babies” (defined as born before or within five years of their mothers’ doctorates) had achieved tenure.
    Contrast with:
    65% of women who had no babies or “late” babies had achieved tenure.
    And
    77% of men who had early babies had achieved tenure.
    In fact, while women with children were less likely than women without children to achieve tenure, MEN with early children were actually slightly MORE likely than child-free men to achieve tenure.
    (See Mason’s presentation slides at http://www.aps.org/programs/women/workshops/gender-equity/upload/Mason_Mary_Ann_APS_Gender_Equity_Conference.pdf
    Also available as a draft document at http://www.grad.berkeley.edu/deans/mason/Babies%20Matter1.pdf )
    Moreover, women with babies are much more likely than child-free women to “leak” from the academic pipeline at far earlier stages, before ever entering a tenure-track position. Mason’s analysis of doctorates in all fields found that *women with babies are 29% less likely* than women without babies to ever enter a tenure-track position (“Marriage and Baby Blues: Redefining Gender Equity” http://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/marriagebabyblues.pdf)
    Clearly, babies matter.
    Other factors matter, too, however, as Mason’s own work bears out. It’s a complicated issue. Interestingly, family structures and pressures regardless of children appear to negatively affect women’s careers and not men’s careers (though only if you consider anything other than the traditional tenure-track at an R1 university to be a “negative.) Still, I was quite surprised by the negative review of Monosson’s “Motherhood” book in Nature. I quite agree with Monosson that the review greatly misrepresented her book—and not just in the misattribution of essay authorship.
    I could go on. . . but I”ll save it for my own blog!

  2. becca
    April 3, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Wait, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation knows this and yet they only fund minorities in PhD programs, and not women with children?
    Not that I’m not thrilled for my Ronnie-bear (and not that he isn’t secretly trying to find ways to funnel it to me, should it be needed), but he is already funded by an NIH R01 supplement for minorities.
    I know. I know. I sound like one of those horrible white males whining about minorities. But money has been terribly easy to come by for him; and I’m only quasi-guaranteed funded through this year…

  3. kiwi
    April 8, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I would love to know who the researcher was who took time out for 8 years and is now a distinguished professor. In fact, I’d like to hear more stories like that, about women who have come up with alternative solutions to work and children (or other work-life balance issues) and made it through.

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