Thursday, September 18, 2008

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory:Women Scientists Speak out

Emily Monosson edited this fabulous book about women and science and motherhood, which I think is particularly timely. Her interview is below, but first, a disclaimer from Emily:

- I’m no expert on women in science or work-life balance! The only reason I started to read up on the topic of women/families and science was because the editor at Cornell asked that I expand the introduction and conclusion in order to get the book published! Although it’s something I think about every day – how to keep my career going while changing diapers and cleaning up Cheerios – it’s always been personal. I thought I was struggling because of the choices I’d made. Not because of any problem with the “Scientific Institution,” and that I was alone. That everyone else had “figured it out.” But, over the years, as I had to explain to grant agencies that no, I didn’t even want a full-time tenure track position, or to colleagues at universities that I’d have loved to apply for a part-time faculty position (non-existent at the time,) I started to think that there just has to be more and different opportunities for those of us who want to dedicate time to family, but who also remain dedicated to developing our careers. Then there was that NYT article, and the subsequent email to the AAAS list – and I realized I wasn’t alone – and that there were some really bright dedicated women struggling to balance family and maintain some shred of their career just like I was. So I thought it’d help to get the word out.

First, can you talk about the difficulties women scientists have forging a career while tending their kids?
This is a tough one – I don’t want to say that science is different from some other careers – I don’t know that it is. What I do know is that the typical scientist heads off to graduate school straight from college, and it’s not unusual for a PhD to take up to five or six years to complete – which means by the time many young women have PhDs in hand they’re nearing 30. Then there are the requisite post-docs. I think my mother had the hardest time understanding what a post-doc was. All her friends kids who were doctors and lawyers just went out and got jobs – but not her scientist daughter! I did post-docs, which are a sort of job-limbo, a time to “mature” as a scientist, to prove that yes you really can do research on your own (even if you’re in someone else’s laboratory), that you know how to write grants – basically prove to the greater scientific community that you’re worth hiring. For some that’s a two-year gig, for others it can last years. So now, our young scientist is early thirties and ready to take the plunge into her first job (if she’s following the traditional career track – which means starting up her own laboratory, writing grants, advising graduate students - she’s working far more than a 40 hour week.) Problem is, while she was “maturing” so were all those little eggs in her ovaries. It might have been an ideal set-up decades ago, for the average young man, whose wife took care of the kids – but I think for many dual-career families (not all) – something’s got to give. Basically the career track for scientists like so many others was designed by men whose family responsibilities (aside from financial) were minimal.

1. Have things changed at all since you wrote the book?
Well, it just came out May 2008, and I started working on it March 2006 – so that’s not a lot of time for real change. There is a lot of emphasis on developing family friendly policies (part-time positions, extended tenure clocks, redefined “personal time,”) at larger institutions though I think some are still trying to figure out just how to do that. I’m hoping as (or if) the book gains momentum and more women will speak up about their desire to remain in science while also caring for family – and that those in a position to hire these woman will take note of their dedication, experience, and willingness to work – even if not full-time (at least for a while. Some would love to scale back during certain years – and then step back into full-time when the kids have grown.)

2. Although the book is written about female scientists, are there any male scientists (single fathers, perhaps) that you know of who face similar dilemmas, and how do they solve the problem of combining being a parent with being a scientist?
Just to clarify – I’ve been focused on those who clearly are making space in their work-world for family. I don’t want to suggest that those who don’t (who work full-time or more than forty hours a week by choice) aren’t parenting their kids. I think my husband Ben is a good example of a male scientist who has the full-time science job – but he’s also there for the kids. He’s fortunate because he’s been able to succeed in his work (he’s an ecologist) without spending insane hours getting his research program off the ground. And he’s fortunate because his partner (me) decided I’d take on the primary child care. When things got ugly and I was pining away for a “real job” he didn’t hesitate offering to step back from his work so that I could go on the search for a full-time position (then I’d come to my senses – I think all-in-all I’ve had it pretty good.)

But if we’re talking about those who do struggle with the balance, it’s interesting that you suggest the dad would be single to take over family duties. When I was seeking essays (via internet, posted to various science list-serves) I actually got one guy who responded (well there were three – but two were wrote about their wives difficulties.) He was a single dad, Harvard PhD in chemistry, staying home with his boys (his ex-wife was a full-time business exec.) To pay the bills and keep up with science he’d turned to writing. I’m sure there are other men out there who face similar problems as women – but my guess is that the numbers just don’t compare.

To answer your question – there are NONE, not one male scientist that I know personally, who scaled back on work because of family by choice. I know a couple who assumed the primary care position out of circumstance. Their wives had tenure track positions, and they were in the difficult position of finding a job in the same location. This was also the case for one of the contributors to the book, Marla McIntosh – whose husband took care of family while seeking a job. Though I guess in a sense, those couples made a decision about who would take the lead when it came time to find jobs. This is another maybe even larger issue – many women in science tend to be married to other scientists or academics. It’s not the same for men. It’s hard enough to find one job for a PhD scientist, let alone two in the same locale.

I think (though I’m no expert in this area) if there’s going to be a primary care-taker – it’s usually the woman. But, in the book there are a couple of essays by women who split the housework/family care with their partners. Most work full-time as do their partners, one couple splits an academic position – and did so because they wanted to also equally share in the house/family work.

3. Can you tell readers about your own experiences (I know this is in the book, but I'd like to bring it out here) balancing motherhood and science? Where do you think you best succeeded--and where did you fail and why?
At one point, a post-doctoral advisor characterized me as a “thoroughbred,” I was ambitious, had raced ahead, had a good “pedigree” and was off and running. It didn’t hurt that I came to him with my own funds, having convinced a New York funding agency that I could do whatever it took to get the job done while following my husband-to-be to North Carolina , where he was just starting his PhD. I don’t think he was too far off. I was truly dedicated to my work. In those days, I loved mucking around with fish, particularly when it involved field work. Before husband, I had the opportunity to steam out to Georges Bank in a converted U.S. river gunboat which was, at the time the EPA’s “Research Vessel.” I was seeking the least contaminated winter flounder I could find on the east coast. That boat was long and thin – exactly what Sebastian Junger described as the wrong kind of boat for the banks. Fortunately the weather was calm. I’ve also had the “thrill” of wading waist deep, with my colleague and good friend Adria, in contaminated New Jersey muck setting out caged fish for an experiment (you can imagine our surprise when someone actually bothered to steal those cages.) We’d bring live wild-caught fish into the lab and keep then for weeks or years – it was always a challenge just to keep them alive so that we could then expose them to various environmental contaminants. I loved the combination of field and laboratory work. I had fulfilled my idea what a scientist was, and loved it.

But once my husband graduated, one of us needed to find a real job. By that time we our first child Sam was six months old. I couldn’t imagine leaving him all day long while both my husband and I worked. I was also a bit cocky, I’d survived pretty much off of soft-money, from one grant to another for a few years and thought I could keep going. Maybe it was the hormones and I wasn’t thinking clearly – or maybe I was enjoying what seemed to be the perfect combination of motherhood combined with the ultimate in flexible work. As long as I got the project done – it didn’t matter when or how I worked. Only after a while, depending on soft-money not only got old, but got harder. Especially when one is essentially unconnected to any university – and doesn’t have a lab of her own (I had set up an aquatic lab in an old concrete block building that UMass allowed me to use.) And then Sophie, our second child was born. With two little ones, two years apart, reports and manuscripts to complete I was busy enough – and essentially stopped thinking about “what next,” it took too much energy that I didn’t have at that time.

Fortunately a few months later, literally with Sophie at the breast – I received a call from a consulting group looking to hire me for a large project. It wasn’t field or lab work but it was literature research and synthesis – something I could do at home. Once again I was off and running. Since then I’ve continued to work primarily from home, adding in some teaching at one of the local colleges and writing.

My biggest failure? I think that by taking this route, at some point, I strayed too far from the lab to easily return except as someone’s lab tech or as an “elderly” post-doc (positions which at this point, I’m not interested in considering.) I’d also strayed too far from research and academia to consider applying for a faculty position. When I realized I’d strayed down this one-way street I think I was pretty depressed. What had I done? I was no longer the scientist I thought I’d be.

My biggest success? The flip side of the above. My time is my own. I’m free to pursue whatever topic science I’m interested in, though not always paid, and not in the laboratory and, I can volunteer to coach the kids’ soccer team or chaperone the school trip to Vermont or hang out by the river with my daughter on a hot spring afternoon. In terms of career, I really enjoy what I do. Ferreting out data, reading new studies, digging into the history of a contaminant and putting that all together – it’s like a puzzle. And hopefully in some way, the outcome is a useful contribution to the science, even though I’m not mucking around in the field, am unaffiliated (I do have loose connections to the local colleges, which have provided me with the most valuable tool of all – access to the vast scientific literature and an occasional opportunity to teach) and never know what I’ll be doing a year from now.

4 Given the need and desire of women to work, what do you think it will take for more places of work to simply provide quality childcare onsite?
It seems to be such an obvious solution to me, with so many benefits, yet companies are loathe to do it. Is there a psychological reason for this rather than a monetary one? Not having been associated with any institution that would be offering daycare I’m not sure I can address this question. I do know years ago one EPA laboratory I’d worked at had onsite (or very nearby) daycare. This was before I had kids, but it sure made life easier for those who did. I know one contributor to the Motherhood book who worked for one of the federal agencies in DC and faced a 2-year waiting list with over 1000 kids on the list! But I think in addition to day care – job flexibility would also help retain women (or whoever chooses to be the primary care-giver.) Not just flex-time but more part-time job options. These are easier to come-by (I think) for those who have worked at a particular institution for years probably because they’ve had the opportunity to “prove their worth,” and dedication. But as I mentioned earlier, many times the first job coincides with the first child. But I think there’s a perception that those of us who work part-time just aren’t as dedicated to our work – maybe to some extent that’s true – since we’re not willing to sacrifice time with young kids for work – but I guess I’d hope one day it’s not a question of either-or. I know it’s cliché – but it’s true – it’s the quality of the work not the quantity!

5. One scientist, Marla Mcintosh states apologetically that she did not want to be with her kids 24/7 and still wanted to be in the world of science. Do you think that's part of the problem, that women have been made to feel guilty for wanting a life outside their kids (as if wanting that meant they didn't still adore their children?)
I think women, particularly those of us raised in the 60’s and 70’s got a lot of mixed messages. Having a career was important – go for it and all that. But then there were the all pervasive role models (our parents, television moms, moms in ads – which haven’t really changed – she is washing the floor, preparing dinner, cleaning the bathroom and changing diapers. She’s not rocking the baby with one foot while responding to reviewers comments, or writing a grant. She’s not handing her baby off with a package of Pampers to the daycare provider.) So yeah, I think some women may be made to feel guilty if they don’t take on that role. And, there are certainly times, particularly when things aren’t going so smoothly that I’ve wondered if I’d be a better mom if I’d spent less time with the kids – and let someone else deal with them afterschool.

Lastly, what question didn't I ask that I should have?

Maybe “what it means to be successful in the sciences?” Science as an institution is still male-dominated and traditional, for scientists in many fields there is the perception that if you’re not a tenure track academic scientist there must be something wrong. I’ve heard this even from government scientists whose careers have been quite successful by any measure yet they still feel like “second class scientists.” If they feel that way imagine how the rest of us do! This needs to change.

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