Category Archives: women in science

Science Magazine and my thoughts on good journalistic practice

Recently, I clicked on a link to this article in Science Magazine about open data. As I read through it, I was surprised to find my name staring back at me. I was even more surprised to find that not only was my affiliation wrong, but a quote from one of my blog posts had been cherry-picked and stuck smack-dab in the middle of a section arguing that not everyone supports open data.

Let me clarify something that many readers of that article may not realize: I was never contacted for the piece. The author, Eli Kintisch, could easily have shot me an email to check my affiliation, give me a heads up, or even request an interview to find out more about my thoughts on open data. He did none of those things. Had I been asked to sum up my views on open data, I would have responded in support of it, as I have done in other venues. The author took one sentence from a much more nuanced discussion and placed it in a new context that gave a different impression and, I felt, misrepresented my views. (I am not the only quoted source who feels their views were misrepresented.)

All my blog posts are openly licensed. No one has to ask me every time they link to one of them or quotes something I have written. People often do this and I take no issue with it. In fact, I appreciate people sharing my posts. But here’s where this situation differs.

First, after conversations with several other sources quoted in the piece, it became clear that the author had contacted them and given them the opportunity to correct any errors or clarify their views. I would have appreciated being afforded the same opportunity. The detail has not escaped me that every other source besides myself quoted in the piece is male.  If as a journalist, contacting all your male sources and not your female ones doesn’t look like discrimination to you, then you might want to reexamine your definition.

Second, when questioned by Karen Cranston via Twitter on the lack of female representation in his article, the author tweeted this:

eliklint_tweet

In short? “I couldn’t find any women to ask.” Hmm. The author quoted my post, so he obviously knew I existed and where to find me. Yet he never contacted me. I also don’t buy the argument that it’s so hard to find women to interview (see my previous post related to this). The first item retrieved in a Google search of ‘open data, women’ (search conducted July 4, 2014) retrieves this post about the Women in Data group.  That post lists three women who Kintisch could have interviewed or asked for referrals.  Just a few days after the Science article was published, Kristin Briney inquired on Twitter about women advocating for open data and received four names in a matter of hours. See? It’s not that hard, but you do have to make the effort.

I contacted Kintisch personally to discuss my concerns and he got back to me by email the same day (June 20). He offered to correct any factual errors in the piece, such as my affiliation, and to have a phone conversation. A few days later (June 24), we spoke over Skype. To his credit, he did express regret that he had not contacted me and for his tweet about not having any women sources to contact. He said he would try to do better in the future. He also corrected my affiliation (more on this below). While I do appreciate his actions, there are a few things that have left me unsettled and thinking about journalistic practice. I am not a journalist, but I think the following should be considered good practice for anyone reporting or writing on the internet:

1. Do not assume you can tack on an institutional affiliation when  quoting articles people have posted on their blogs.

In correcting my affiliation, I explained to Kintisch that there is none listed on my blog by design. I prefer my writing here to be independent of any institution for which I work. True, anyone can Google me and find out where I work. I have also written for media outlets using my institutional affiliations. However, in those cases, I have made the conscious decision to list that affiliation and have often accompanied it with a disclaimer that the views are my own.  It is very different for me to decide to add that information to something I write than if someone else decides to add it for me. Please understand that you can even get people in trouble if they work for a government or federal institution and you add that affiliation without permission. If in doubt, ask your source.

2. Corrections to a published article should be explicitly noted with the date, time, and reason for which they were made.

I revisited the Science article a few days after talking with Kintisch to check that the correction to my affiliation had been made. It had, but there was no indication on the article of when or why – the old text simply disappeared, replaced by the new information. Although this is perhaps a minor point, I think most people agree that it is not good journalistic practice.

3. Contact diverse sources.

This one largely speaks for itself. Want a richer, well-rounded, representative piece? Reach out to women, people from different countries, diverse ethnic backgrounds, etc. There is no excuse for not finding diverse sources. Look hard. Then, look harder.

4. Contact sources on both sides of the argument. 

This is a no-brainer. If reporting on a controversial issue, talk to people on both sides of the argument and discuss different perspectives. Otherwise, what you’re writing is not news, it’s an opinion piece and it should be labeled as such.

5. If you quote sources that were not contacted, make that explicit.

In the interest of transparency, most news pieces indicate that a source was contacted for comment but did not respond or declined. A similar statement should be added for sources that were never contacted, to indicate that the writing is an independent action by the author and not necessarily endorsed by the person quoted.

And one last recommendation. If you as a journalist have been contacted by sources who felt their views were misrepresented, listen and make amends the best you can. You won’t be able to please everyone, but I think you owe it to people you quote to at least try. Kintisch and his editors were only prepared to correct factual errors (my affiliation). So, the piece stands as is with no indication that at least two people quoted therein feel their views were not properly represented. I see no reason why they couldn’t add a note at the end, simply to indicate that concerns were expressed.

To Science Magazine, I have this to say. Where was the oversight? It seems to me there were several failings here that editors could have caught and corrected prior to publication. But I understand that everyone makes mistakes. I only hope that this situation inspires a review of some of the journalistic practices at their magazine.

Parents in Science: Links edition

Since establishing the Parents in Science series in March of 2013, I have come across many great posts by others describing their experiences of being a parent and an academic. Below are links to some of my favorites, which I have organized wherever possible based on career stage (in no particular order within category). Please let me know in the comments if there are other posts you feel should be added. I’ll update this list regularly.

Graduate students:

Graduate School With Children: A father of two describes his concerns and tries to remain optimistic as he and his wife prepare to enter graduate school.

Graduate School With Children Part 2: “My life in graduate school with kids could no longer be compared to working on an assembly line. It was more like juggling bowling pins…someone was tossing in more bowling pins, and I was struggling to keep up.”

Graduate School With Children Part 3: A father of two reflects after a year in graduate school on how being a parent has made him a better scholar, and the reactions to his choices from those around him.

Why So Few Doctoral-Student Parents? (HT Balancing Jane): Some sobering numbers on why many women choose not to have children in graduate school, including lack of paid maternity leave and the stigma attached.

Giving Birth in Graduate School (HT Balancing Jane): On timing, the struggle to graduate while pregnant, and the decision to apply for the tenure-track route as a mother of two.

Grad School and Parenting: If I knew then what I know now: Some practical advice for graduate students with children. “…furthering our education and achieving our personal goals sets a good example for our children.”

Mamacademic: how I hack parenthood, grad school, etc.: Practical advice for graduate students with children, including find a guidance committee, write something everyday, and try not to panic!

So You Want to Be A Grad Student Mama: “There are penalties and benefits to being a graduate student mother, but given the decision again, I could not choose between these parts of my life.”

Fieldwork, Forest, and Babies….how mothers do it: One woman’s amazing story about taking her daughter into the forests of India to do field work.

Postdoctoral researchers:

Postdoc Purgatory (via @5BrainyBirds): “I am going to live my life, day by day, keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities as they come, academic or other.  And I am going to breed on my own terms, dammit!”

The Guilt: One Mama’s Thoughts From the Field (via @5BrainyBirds): “Because I choose to have such a career doesn’t mean I love my kid or my family any less.”

What a generous maternity policy you have! (via @5BrainyBirds): A postdoc’s perspective on the ways in which institutions could help women by providing more options for maternity leave and childcare.

Of Babies and Interviews (via @5BrainyBirds): A postdoc openly describes the difficulties of preparing for a job talk and interviews with a new baby.

The Balancing Act: A Postdoc’s Perspective: Some things institutions could do to help academic with families, including the option for longer postdoc appointments.

Should women in science have to choose between starting a career and starting a family? (via @NothingInBio, HT @BabyAttachMode): “To the extent that our system is incompatible with the familial constraints, we should ask why.”

Unsettling Stats About Women in Science: See especially #6. Work culture favors those without families.

I’m a Mom in Science – Hear Me Roar! (via @TenureSheWrote): A woman writes a brilliant response to a female scientist who chastised her for speaking about the difficulties of being a mother and an academic.

On parent-friendly science (via @BabyAttachMode): “it is the academic culture that makes it incredibly difficult to pursue an academic career as a woman/parent/both.” Some thoughts on how to fix it.

Scientist parent (via @mwilsonsayres): “It is not impossible to be a rock star career woman and rock star mom…It isn’t about choosing one over the other, but finding a career, and a way of parenting, that lets you succeed at both.”

Adjunct faculty:

Contigent Mother: The Role Gender Plays in the Lives of Adjunct Faculty (HT @krisshaffer): “women academics who are mothers become caught in a bind that facilitates a secondary status as contingent faculty.”

Tenure-track or tenured professors:

Breastmilk isn’t free: high points and challenges as a Professor + Mother  (via @TenureSheWrote): A tenure-track professor at a R1 university takes a positive but realistic look at her experiences.

Female Professors Face Family Quandary on Tenure Track: 3 female professors talk about their experiences, decisions about timing, and the stigma attached to having children.

Managing Motherhood and Tenure: Female professors discuss the importance of family-friendly institutional policies.

Finding Work/Life Balance in Academia: “Your child does not need you 24 hours a day. Your students don’t need you 24 hours a day.  Your research is not important enough to be done 24 hours a day.”

On gender, parenting, and academic careers (via @hormiga): Fathers face many challenges and stigmas in academia. “my male Dean expressed concern about my request for paid parental leave…because that was intended only for mothers and not fathers.”

Juggling summer parenting and research (via @hormiga): Summer is the time research programs ramp up, but it’s a difficult time for academics with children.

Unspecified or multiple career stages:

Getting a research career established with small babies: Some great advice from a female academic with two kids to a colleague who had just learned she was pregnant.

No kidding: research is as demanding as a newborn (HT @BabyAttachMode): For many female academics, maternity leave doesn’t really mean stopping work.

On Being a Great Dad vs a Great Mom (via @drisis): About the unequal expectations placed on female and male academics with children.

In The Ivory Tower, Men Only: At all career stages, there are very real penalties for women academics who decide to have children.

How does she do it?: Experiences and advice from female professors who had children at different stages in their careers.

Don’t tell me you couldn’t find any women speakers

On November 16th, 2013, Entangled Bank Events will host a panel of distinguished scientists for a unique day of presentations and discussion. You, too, can attend!

Just don’t go expecting to see any women scientists.

Go ahead, visit their page and get a look at the overwhelming diversity. All six presenters are men. (Let’s put aside for the moment, the glaring lack of age and ethnic diversity, too.) In a preemptive strike at what organizers knew would be coming, they decided to add this gem to their FAQ page:

EntangledBank_FAQ2

Fortunately, the online site Jezabel cached the page and exposed Entangled Bank (EB) before they had a chance to delete the text. If you visit EB’s FAQ page now, the above text has been replaced by this:

EntangledBank_FAQ

Summary: “We tried to make a joke. Our bad. Sorry we offended people. And no, still no women cuz we couldn’t find any.” Wow. Us ‘feminists’ feel sooooo much better.

And dear EB, I call BS on:

[The error] “should have been spotted by us, but as soon as our attention was drawn to it…we removed it.”

Really? You either tried to make a joke, or you didn’t. If you tried to make a joke, then the text was posted intentionally. It didn’t need ‘spotting’ or ‘attention drawn to it’. It’s your site and you know what goes on there. You didn’t post it by mistake. The error was in thinking it was funny.

It’s not funny that a scientific panel is exclusively men. And it’s not funny that nowhere in EB’s ‘apology’ do they talk about remedying the situation. Instead, their response is an all-too-familiar one: “It’s not our fault. We tried, we really did. We just couldn’t find any women speakers”.

I’d like to make something very clear to conference organizers everywhere: We – and I don’t just mean women; I mean men and women of the scientific community – are NOT buying the “I couldn’t find any women speakers” excuse. Never. Ever. Again. No, not even just this one time. No, not even because the event was “set up at short notice”. It’s BS. Plain and simple. Best-case scenario, it’s laziness. Organizers just couldn’t be bothered to make a few more phone calls, write a few more emails, to actually SEARCH for talented female speakers. Worst-case scenario, it’s sexism. (Yes, sexism still exists in science, so let’s not bother arguing that one.) Jokes don’t make up for a lack of diversity; they just make it all the more obvious how insensitive organizers are to the problem.

And another thing, conference organizers: No, one ‘token’ woman speaker does not absolve you. At a very minimum, the representation of women at scientific meetings should be equal to their representation in the field. If 26% of tenure-track faculty in the field are women, then even 15% female representation at your conference is not acceptable. (Neuroscience, I’m looking at you. See my previous post on this.)

There are many talented, eloquent women scientists out there who should be heard. Some scientists have even started to compile online lists of potential women speakers to make it easier for conference organizers.

So, don’t tell me you couldn’t find any women to speak at your scientific meeting. That’s just not good enough.

[Hat tip to Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics), who wrote about this on his blog.]

Where are the BRAINI women?

Like many other scientific fields, neuroscience has an obvious gender gap. There are too few women. This isn’t new, and overall representation of women in science is improving. But several events over the last few weeks reminded me how serious the problem still is.

It started with a personal experience. I was asked to do an interview for a Nature podcast about the new BRAIN Initiative. I did the interview and then eagerly waited for the podcast to come out. I was excited to hear the different perspectives.  The podcast posted at the end of April. (You can find it here; the BRAINI discussion starts at 18:54.) The first person interviewed was Colin Blakemore, a neurobiologist at the University of London. The next to comment was Bill Newsome, a neurobiologist at Stanford and co-chair of the BRAINI working group. Finally, they interviewed Donald Stein, a neuroscientist from Emory. As the piece came to an end, I realized none of my interview had been included. At first, I was disappointed. But then I realized there was a much bigger issue at hand: not a single woman (besides the interviewer) was included in the final podcast.

Now, let me be clear: I do not think my interview was excluded because I am a woman. Maybe the editors felt they did not get the sound bites they wanted from my responses. (It was my first recorded audio interview, and I’ll admit I was nervous and could do with more practice.) However, there are many other women neuroscientists who are experienced in this type of interview and could have given their perspectives on the project. How about Cori Bargmann, BRAINI working group co-chair? Or, Eve Marder, also a member of the BRAINI working group? I don’t know who was originally interviewed but didn’t make the final editing cut. I also don’t know if some women neuroscientists declined to be interviewed. But I find it hard to believe Nature couldn’t find a single qualified woman with a single good sound bite to include.

Of course, Nature isn’t the only culprit here. A few days later, a Scientific American article came out interviewing 3 neuroscientists about their thoughts on BRAINI. The interviewees: Rafael Yuste, Partha Mitra, and Douglas Fields – all men. Clearly, all of these neuroscientists, just as those in the Nature podcast, are highly qualified to weigh in on BRAINI. But again, why weren’t any women interviewed? Articles in other media outlets have also interviewed or quoted exclusively men. For example, this New York Times piece (written before the official White House announcement when the project was known as the Brain Activity Map, or BAM) interviewed or quoted 6 people – all of them men. This NPR piece, featured on the radio program All Things Considered, interviewed 3 people – all men. This KQED radio show had 5 guests – all men. I could go on, but you get the idea…

Some of this may be self-selection. Perhaps women are agreeing less often to interviews. Interestingly, this piece mentions, “ScienceInsider has not been able to reach [Cori] Bargmann for comment since she was named co-chair to the working group.” But I don’t think this is the only explanation for lack of female representation in the media.

What about the composition of the BRAINI working group? The full roster of what has been referred to as a ‘Dream Team’ is available on NIH’s website (right column). The group includes 15 members, only 2 (13%) of which are women. Admittedly, a woman (Cori Bargmann) has been given a leading role as co-chair. But shouldn’t the overall representation of women in the group be higher?

The final straw that inspired me to write this post came 2 days ago. NSF and the Kavli Foundation arranged a meeting of the minds, inviting over 100 neuroscientists, physicists, and mathematicians to begin the process of brainstorming BRAINI’s goals. I watched the live stream of some of the sessions, and as the discussions progressed, one thing became painfully obvious: there was a conspicuous gender imbalance. I wasn’t the only one to notice:

BRAINsession

There were women present, but relatively few. And by my estimate, around 80% of the comments in the discussion were by male scientists. Since it was difficult to judge from the live feed alone how many women versus men were present, I turned to the official attendee list. Of the first 111 faculty listed (not including attendees listed under rapporteurs, media, journals, etc.), only 17 (15%) were women. Of course, I have no way of knowing how many women were originally invited and declined, but I doubt it would make up for that dismal number.

So, what is going on? Is it just that we don’t have enough women in neuroscience? That’s certainly true. A recent survey of The Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (ANDP) shows there is a huge ‘leak’ in the academic pipeline. While 52% of neuroscience predoctoral trainees are women, the number drops to 44% of postdoctoral trainees/non-tenure track faculty and falls even further to 26% of tenure-track faculty. It’s not that the field of neuroscience fails to attract intelligent and capable women; it’s that the field, like many other STEM fields, fails to retain them. 

Putting aside for the moment the important discussion of why retention of women in STEM is so poor (a topic for another post), the number of female tenure-track faculty still does not fully justify the low representation seen in media discussions of BRAINI or in forums like the NSF/Kavli BRAINI meeting. Zero female interviewees is inexcusable when ~26% of neuroscience faculty are women. 13-15% female representation in working groups and conferences is still about half of what it could be given the percentage of women in the field.

And gender isn’t the only demographic in which BRAINI could stand to be more inclusive. Let’s talk about age. And by that I don’t necessarily mean physiological age (though it is related), but rather academic age. Many of the professors being interviewed in the media and many of those attending the NSF/Kavli meeting obtained their PhDs 20, 30, 40+ years ago. There is very little representation so far of investigators that qualify as early-stage (10 years or less since obtaining their PhD). While senior-level scientists are a necessity –  they are highly qualified, have the many benefits of experience, and may have a more panoramic view of the field – they can’t be the only voices. Early-stage investigators bring new perspectives, may be less attached to long-standing dogmas, and ultimately will be the future of the field. They have to be involved in the discussions.

In one of the brainstorming sessions at the meeting, Terry Sejnowski mentioned the need to be inclusive and to bring to the discussion those who were not at the meeting. I agree. Let’s start by bringing in more women and early-stage investigators. If BRAINI is to be successful, diverse perspectives and approaches will be key.

Parents in Science: Discrimination or strategic hiring?

This guest post is written by a scientist who has asked to remain anonymous. I respect her wishes and thank her for sharing her story. It is a story that unfortunately may sound familiar to many, and one that I hope will open constructive discussion. 

When I was pregnant with my second child, I saw an advertisement for a postdoctoral research position that I was really keen on. At the time, I was between positions (aka ‘freelance’), so I wasn’t going to stop applying for jobs just because I was pregnant. I applied and got an interview. Then, I was faced with the dilemma of whether to mention my pregnancy. I was about 5 months along, but they decided to do Skype interviews; they wouldn’t be able to see that I was pregnant. I had long discussions with colleagues and friends, and decided that I’d rather know whether I could get the position based on my abilities without my pregnancy being considered. So, I didn’t mention it. Afterwards, I felt very guilty because I prefer to be open and honest. I hadn’t lied but I had omitted, especially when asked how available I was: “Very available in the immediate term…”.

I got an email about a week later saying that I had been second choice. I was sad I didn’t get the post, but was pleased I was so close to getting it. About two months later, I got a call out of the blue saying their first choice was leaving and offering me the post. I immediately said I was interested but now very pregnant. I’d only manage a month of work before having to go on maternity leave. I was asked to email my suggested work plan, including how long I wanted for maternity leave and if I would want to return to full-time or part-time employment. I wrote the email, asking for 6 months leave and to return to work initially 3 days a week, ramping up to full-time. I waited. Eventually, I received a response saying they had offered the post to someone else.

Right or wrong? By law, as far as I understand, it was wrong. I was very angry at the time. However, I knew that the post had a scheduled end date and was only for two years. Did it really make sense for them to employ someone who would promptly go on maternity leave? They’d have to get a replacement for me until I returned, and then it would take a while for me to come up to speed, only for the project to end within a year. I think their decision was the right one – they couldn’t take me on. It would have been to the detriment of the project. In hindsight, I wish I’d discussed my pregnancy from the outset. It’s clear I would never have been offered the post, even if they are not supposed to consider such factors in hiring. But my field is a small world; it’s better to be open and honest. And I still believe it’s a good organization and a good bunch of people.

It is difficult as a parent of young children to maintain a career in science. You can’t put in the same hours as a similarly qualified person with no young children. For example, I had to take large blocks of time off this winter to look after the kids while illness after illness plagued our house. But I also realize how difficult it is for those who are employing you to do the research. They receive pressure as well – from university officials and funding agencies – to produce and to justify the money they are spending. Why should they hire us? I hope it’s because I’m worth the investment. But the returns on that investment may materialize more slowly. What could higher-ups and funding agencies do to help? I’m not sure what the answer is. One possibility would be to allow time extensions on projects that employ academics with children. This type of flexibility is encouraged by schemes like the Athena SWAN Charter in the UK, which recognizes and awards higher-education institutions that implement hiring and employment practices to increase the representation of women in STEM fields.

Looking ahead, there are newly advertised positions I am going to apply for, and this time I’m going to be completely open. I will list in the chronological history of my CV the time I spent on maternity leave to help explain my situation (slow publication rate, etc.). I will be honest in my interviews. As a female tenured scientist said to me, “Why would you want to work in a place that discriminates against you?”. I’m not quite sure I agree with her fully on this – the desire for tenure is too strong, and with family and a partner’s career to consider as well, things aren’t quite as simple as that. But I would agree that honesty gives you the best chance of finding a position that is the right fit.

Parents in Science: weighing career and family

Renata

This guest post is by Renata Migliati. Renata is a scientist, a self-taught artist, and a mom of two. She was born and raised in Brazil and has lived many places, but currently finds herself in Texas, USA. She is a certified teacher and has taught at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

I got my PhD at the age of 29, and then moved from Brazil to the US when I was 30 to do postdoctoral research and possibly get established as a principal investigator (PI). I joined a lab whose research was in basic mitochondrial sciences – the kind of subject that is not ‘in fashion’ and therefore not appealing for getting grants. I worked hard to produce a few high-impact publications, but it required being in the lab weekends and extra hours. Then, the economy in the US started to fail. We felt the crisis really early, and I realized that if I kept working as hard as was required to get grants in that funding environment, it would take all my time and I would probably loose the opportunity to be a mom. I decided I should not postpone the decision any longer.

When I was 35, I had my first child. He was born when my husband, who was working on his PhD, had finished classes and passed his comprehensive exams, so we thought things would be easier. But my husband still had to finish his research, and we couldn’t afford childcare with our salaries. Things were even harder as foreigners because we were not guaranteed the right to stay in the country without a visa; if your job ends you must leave. I had to work part-time as a postdoc for awhile so we could manage to take care of a baby and my husband could finish his dissertation. My productivity decreased and it became harder to keep up the publication rate needed to get grants. Eventually, I ended up going to teach at a community college where I taught lab/lecture integrated classes. I enjoyed it a lot. It was a way of being involved in science without having to neglect my child and personal life.

My husband graduated and went on to postdoctoral positions. But given how often PIs run short of grants, we had to move several times so he could continue his work. This, and the fact that I wanted a second child, made it more difficult for me to pursue my own career as a PI. I would have had to neglect my kids completely if I wanted to grow to the point of having my own lab. And faced with that reality, it was a sort of an easy decision. I knew I did not want to do that. I still love science but I guess I now think of myself as more of a teacher and a science writer than a PI. It is sad that a lot of women with a lot of creativity are being pushed out of science because they face this very same decision.

Sometime ago I read an article* about a woman that managed to be very successful in science and was a mother of two. I thought her strategy was very smart. She decided to couple with other female scientists in her department and they worked as a team. They collaborated on projects and they would cover for each other every time one of them had maternity leave or needed childcare. I think this could be a great solution for many women, especially if the current funding environment continues as is. Groups of women in sciences can form cooperatives to collaboratively mentor students, write grants, and monitor lab productivity. Of course, this requires a lot of team effort, and a sense that the group result is more important than the success of the individual. This will require a change of mentality in the sciences, where the competitive environment encourages people to hide results, not want to share data, etc. For cooperatives to work, egos will have to be put in second place to give priority to women occupying their rightful space in science.

Though my career direction has changed, I remain positive. I value the experimentation and creativity we get to exercise in sciences. And I feel my formation gave me a spectrum of opportunities, special problem-solving abilities, and so many other things that are valuable in life. I loved teaching and would like to go back to that, or to a management position in science…maybe just as soon as kid number two goes to school!

*Editor’s note: We were not able to track down the original article that discussed women scientists forming cooperatives. If anyone knows the reference, or of similar stories, please leave a link in the comments.

Related posts
Mixing motherhood and science
‘Parents in Science’ series

‘Parents in Science’ series

There’s an elephant in the room.

elephantroom (1)
Credit: John R. McKiernan

Instead of openly and honestly discussing the difficulties of raising children and navigating an academic career, many choose to ignore the issue, sugarcoat it, or throw blame back on those of us who have chosen to do both. Well, if others aren’t going to paint an accurate picture, I propose we do it.

More often than not, mixing parenthood and an academic career involves some hard decisions. That next conference at which you’d like to present your work? It’s several states away and nearly a week long. Do you leave the kids behind? Who will care for them? And will you miss important moments while you’re gone? A week doesn’t sound like that long. But with small children, it’s long enough to miss new words, an important school performance, or that first tooth falling out. With all that in mind, my husband and I have often opted to do this:

conference_1
Credit: John R. McKiernan

We take them along. The kids have had great fun making themselves name tags, playing with free toys from the vendor booths, and meeting new people. I think it has been healthy for them to see their parents working and be exposed to science from a young age. But it hasn’t always been easy for us to accomplish what we needed to with kids in tow. My kids are rarely aren’t always as well-behaved as depicted! My husband and I usually take shifts to attend talks, which means one of us often misses talks we would have liked to hear. And it’s hard to convince other scientists you’re paying attention to what they have to say when one eye is on the toddler who is about to pull down a row of posters.

We’ve used creative solutions. Our kids have taken naps under our posters while we presented. We’ve paid the daughter of a faculty member to come and run our kids around outside the conference hall. Our older son was once so inspired that he brought his own poster on the solar system and presented it at our university research forum. But there’s one thing that would have made things so much easier: affordable childcare at conferences. Few conferences have childcare at all, and those that do charge high rates. I don’t pretend to have the solution as to how such care could be paid for. All I know is that more parents, and especially women scientists, would be encouraged to come to meetings if they could bring their children.

The rest of the time, my life as a mom and scientist looks something like this:

worklife_1
Credit: John R. McKiernan

Now, before the authorities come knocking on my door, let me clarify that I’m not usually never that irresponsible. But there are a lot of times when a deadline hits and I simply have to let the kids play. I wish I could devote every moment while at home to playing with them, but doing that would mean I wouldn’t eat, sleep, or pee the rest of the day in an effort to get things done. Do I feel guilty? Absolutely. In those moments, I try to tell myself that in some ways this may be good for them. It creates a certain sense of independence. On the other hand, it makes me angry that the pressures of a scientific career are such that I sometimes have to swallow my guilt or risk not ‘making it’.

Of course, I’m not the only one living this. And I’m happy to announce that several academics at various levels, from different countries, and with children of different ages have agreed to share their stories here in the following weeks for a ‘Parents in Science’ series. The idea is to openly discuss the ups and downs, strategies that worked and those that didn’t, and suggestions for reforming academia to make it easier for those with children to be successful. I hope that by bringing the problems out in the open we can move towards fixing them.

*A big thanks to my very talented father, John R. McKiernan, who provided all the illustrations!