Monday, January 20, 2014

Women in Science

Women in science is a hot issue right now. There is still gender inequality in the field and this has been talked about at length but rarely is anything positive done to fix this. Here and there you'll see a drive or a grant come up to encourage women in the STEM fields. Recently however, the editors of Nature, one of the most prestigious journals spanning the sciences, published an article that suggested that the reason women are less represented in the sciences is because women stay home with children and cannot keep up with the pace of research and publishing and we should stop trying to make the genders balanced. ( to read the full excerpt for free try Nature editors did quickly backtrack and make a comment on the article about how they strongly support women in science, blah blah blah.

Now I have several thoughts on all of this. To start with the initial knee jerk reaction: The original author states,
"Because it is usually women who stay at home with their children, journals end up with more male authors on research articles. The effect is exacerbated in fast-moving fields, in which taking even a year out threatens to leave a researcher far behind."

Now I've seen this attitude of women cannot do babies and science firsthand. And not just from male colleagues, but lots of women scientists have a chip on their shoulder about being a woman in science and push other women harder and resent them if they have kids. I was strongly encouraged to be happy with just a masters when I got pregnant, to just give up and stay home. That having a baby would change me and make keeping up in science harder and almost impossible. Which is... gasp... totally true! Yep having a baby DID change me! It is harder to keep up now because I have more on my plate. But guess what.. it's not impossible!

I took 7 years off.. not a mere year as the author laments, but SEVEN of them. And I did this largely because of the fear that one could not be a good mommy and a good scientist that I had been force fed most of my career. I've heard it over and over, have a baby have to choose career or motherhood. This belief that is entrenched in the scientific community is easy to buy into. It is a crazy act of balancing to be a decent Mom and be a decent scientist, let alone be great at one or both! I chose now to go back to school because King Boo is in school and that gives me a work day with minimal after school care. Does it bother me to put him in child care at all? Yep. Is it expensive? Ohhh yes. Is it worth it? Boy I hope so.. but only time will answer that.

After the flap, there was a second comment on the article, the second commenter stated:
"This has been studied and the conclusion is that a lot – but not all – of the dropout of women comes from having children. This then just raises the question of whether this should be so. Should we be helping women to return to science after having children, or do we find it acceptable that a temporary hiatus in someone's career is enough to end their career?"
The article that he linked to this study which finds that a lot of women do leave science because of marriage and kids. I do not have access to the full text article so I have to operate off the abstract, which you can read if you click the link above. His question though is a very valid one. Obviously I think that YES we absolutely should be helping women return to science when they are ready to return.

I finally made the jump back into science because not only was King Boo in school but with my masters degree more than 5 years in the rear view window I was afraid that my skills and knowledge would evaporate. Competing against fresh out of the classroom and laboratory undergraduates terrified me, I was certain that my application would pale in comparison to their applications. My accomplishments were impressive, five years ago, but now.. how could I tell? I had applied to another uni the year before I applied to this one and was rejected. I took that as my skills were out of date and I almost did not apply here. But I had sent out feelers to this lab and had an invite to visit. The visit was amazing, I left feeling re-inspired.. took a lot of soul searching and thinking though to step out just the two of us and try this.

So after this trip down memory lane, lets return to the question poised: Should we help women return to science after having children? YES, but how? I can give you a few suggestions from a single mother's perspective.

Monetary help in various forms would be a good place to start. One of my big expenses every month that non-mommy scientists do not is childcare. And the university is the MOST expensive option!
Affordable, or free, childcare would be a big help in encouraging mothers. I pay 1/10 of my income a month in childcare and a friend of mine pays almost half her paycheck. Use the university's education majors for staff, get them experience and provide a service to returning women. Another point, healthcare! If I want to get my son healthcare through the university it will cost me $600 a month.. $600!! "Luckily" for me I make little enough that King Boo qualifies for state aid (which is MUCH better insurance than the uni provides). University's could provide these services, child care and healthcare or they could create scholarships (preferably tax free I can't afford my income increasing or I'll lose King Boo's insurance). Money is something that policies and politics can provide, what is harder to regulate is understanding and the culture change that needs to come along with it.

I am in a very blessed situation, my adviser is one of the most understanding, family oriented man I have ever worked with. He understands that I'm all King Boo has, I have to leave randomly for child related stuff and cannot stay late like a lot of the other students. He knows when the elementary schools are closed I probably will not be in (or if I am it will be minimal with a 7 year old in tow). A lot of advisers are not so caring. He also knows that I will get work done and I do a lot of computer based work from home (read journals, study for quals, etc.). I am not sure I would make it in a lab that was more cut throat and less compassionate of my situation. If we, as a society, want to encourage more women (especially single moms like myself) to go into or return to the sciences, we should take lessons from my adviser. Be considerate of the situation of the scientist, think about the issues they are balancing and judge them based on their ability to balance. Stop making it an all or nothing situation, no one should have to choose between being a parent and being career oriented. Because when the chips are down, any parent is going to choose their child no matter how much they love their job.

1 comment:

  1. Just received a check for $500.

    Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them about how much you can get by taking paid surveys online...

    So I took a video of myself actually getting paid over $500 for filling paid surveys.


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