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.