Warning: I interrupt your regular open science blogging service to bring you a more personal and emotional post. But this has to be said. Normal service will resume when I calm down.
Yesterday, Nature published an article about women building successful careers as scientists while also building families. I think they had the best of intentions. I think they wanted to highlight some great women making it work. I think they wanted to support other women out there who are doing the same by voicing their situation. I think they wanted to reassure women who haven’t yet started families that it is possible to be a mom and a scientist.
I think it backfired.
I am a mom of two and a scientist. You’d imagine I’d be supportive of efforts to show that it is possible to do both. And I am. But I don’t think this article accomplished what it set out to do – quite the opposite. For women already doing both, it made us angry that such a rosy picture was painted with little mention of the significant hurdles and the problems inherent to academia that create those hurdles. It made us frustrated that there was no discussion of the reforms that should be put in place to encourage and support women scientists with families. And for women who don’t yet have children, it gave the daunting impression that you have to be superwoman. The article presented women who are not, by most accounts, representative examples. Some published their first Nature papers in their 20’s, applied for more than a dozen grants in a year, won multi-million dollar awards, and all are starting independent research groups before the age of 40. And they did it all while being moms.
Well, not exactly. Two of them have not yet had their children. “I’ve been preparing for this all my life”, says one. I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude, but no. You may have taken care of children, thought of many eventualities, even watched others juggle parenthood and an academic career. But there is nothing that truly prepares you. You cannot plan this. Children take every good plan you have and toss it out the window. Plan to take your child to work, pump milk at every opportunity, hire a babysitter for that week the grant is due? Something will go wrong. Often. And it will throw off your plans for weeks, months, even years. Can you adapt? Absolutely. But part of that adaptation process will involve letting things go. The productivity these woman enjoyed in past years will almost surely not continue. And it will likely hit a low just when it will hurt them the most – the years that will contribute to their tenure evaluation. As one reader commented:
Can you please go back to these women in two years time and see if they are still smiling? -Jennifer Koenig
Yes, let’s do that. And then maybe we can have a real discussion about how women scientists are evaluated and what impact this has on their careers. To give a personal example, I had my children in graduate school – one of them just after I finished coursework and comprehensive exams and the other after I finished my research and was writing my dissertation. I wouldn’t change this decision. But it obviously affected my productivity. I didn’t publish while in graduate school and I attended no conferences. Applying for predoctoral grants and supplemental stipends, I was dinged for these holes in my CV, despite explaining in personal statements that I was working my way through graduate school with children. After graduation, my lack of publications continued to present a problem as I searched for jobs. As much as I thought it fitting, I couldn’t list my children as “extenuating circumstances” on my CV. In my calculation, having my children in graduate school meant that by the time I was seeking tenure, they would be older and things would be easier. What I didn’t account for was that my decreased productivity in the meantime made it difficult for me to be competitive and land that tenure track (or even postdoc) position in the first place. I eventually did find a postdoc and later adjunct professorships. Since graduation, I have been publishing at a steady rate of 1 article per year. But it’s not enough. I can’t erase those gaps from my CV and ‘catching up’ is hard while my children are still young. I say all this not to complain or so that others feel sorry for me, but rather to illustrate the difficulties women scientists with children face in demonstrating their productivity and competing in academia.
Now, I don’t fault these women for sharing their stories; these woman are impressive in what they have accomplished and they should be recognized for that. What I object to is that the article largely glosses over the ugly parts of being a mother and a scientist. Let’s take another example briefly discussed in the piece: childcare. Some of the women featured work in countries with good childcare systems and family to help them. But many women aren’t in that situation, especially as academia often requires us to relocate frequently, leaving immediate and extended family behind. MIT, where another of the women works, has a day-care facility. Great. But what about all the other universities that don’t? And what about the costs? Childcare costs in the U.S. are outrageous, even at university-run facilities. Faculty may be able to afford the expense, but for graduate students (and some postdoctoral researchers) the cost is prohibitive. Where I did my dissertation research, childcare at the university-run facility cost $500-700 per month per child. To put things in perspective, with just one child in day-care that ate up about half of my monthly graduate stipend. When I became a part-time postdoc, two children in day-care consumed my entire monthly salary. We had to take out loans to pay for childcare.
And that’s just the tip of the problematic iceburg. By all means, let’s talk about women as successful scientists and mothers. But let’s not pretty it up. That doesn’t help either those of us already in the trenches, or those thinking of jumping in. Let’s take the kid gloves off, admit that women in science are facing discrimination, great obstacles, and some very nasty decisions. And then let’s figure out what we can do to fix it.