Science, motherhood, and the Nobel Prize: have things gotten harder?

In a follow-up to her review of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women scientists speak out by Emily Monosson, Alison George decided to investigate how many women who won Nobels also did the motherhood thing:

I started at the first Nobel prize awarded to a woman: Marie Curie, in 1903. To my surprise, she had 2 children (as well as 2 Nobel prizes). Her daughter, Irene, only managed one prize in 1935, but also produced two offspring. And so it went on. Gerty Cori (Nobel prize for in physiology or medicine 1947, 1 kid), Maria Geoppert-Mayer (Nobel prize for physics in 1963, 2 kids) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (Nobel prize for chemistry in 1964, 3 kids), Rosalyn Yolow (Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1977, 2 kids - Yolow writes in her Nobel autobiography that they had sleep-in help until their youngest child was nine - thanks for the tip!)

After this, something strange seems to happen. Five women were awarded Nobel prizes in the 1980s, 1990s and in 2004, but there is no mention of children in their Nobel biographies. Did these women have kids and just not mention it? Or didn't they have any? Further research revealed that three certainly didn't have children, but I still don't know the answer for the other two (and, frankly, it's none of my business).

Of course, we're dealing with small numbers here, but this does look like a trend. I don't know what underlying forces might be responsible, but here are some hypotheses that might be worth investigating:

  1. Women who won Nobel Prizes in earlier decades were more peripheral to institutionalized science than women in later decades, leaving them more time to have kids while their male colleagues were ignoring their scientific work.
  2. Women who won Nobel Prizes in earlier decades were under greater societal pressure to be wives and mothers -- opting out was not an option. (Especially to the extent that science used to be more clearly marked as a pursuit of the upper social classes, and a scientist-husband could ease a woman scientist's entry to a male domain, maintaining a life that was "normal" in other respects may have been really important. Also, women scientists of yore were paid disgracefully low wages relative to their male counterparts -- when they weren't actually unpaid "amateurs" -- and so would have had to rely in part on the salary of a husband who might have an interest in having kids. Plus, birth control options were less numerous and available.)
  3. Women who won Nobel Prizes in earlier decades, especially those in the upper socio-economic classes, had more access to childcare.
  4. The nature of academic science has changed, especially with respect to the hunt for funding and tenure, making childbearing and childrearing seem like a risky call to women scientists in recent decades.
  5. Women who won Nobel Prizes in later decades may have felt less pressure to conform to anyone else's ideal of womanhood by having children.
  6. In recent decades, the standards for being a "good mother" may have crept upward, making it harder successfully to combine motherhood with any profession, including science.

These are just hypotheses. I haven't done jack to collect data that might support or contradict any of them. If such data exist, I welcome pointers to them. If you have an additional hypothesis you think merits consideration here, lay it on me.

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My first thought was hypothesis 3, along with the idea that one was more likely to participate in innovative research and win the Nobel Prize if s/he belonged to the upper socio-economic classes.

By meerasedai (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

Good hypotheses, janet, but I have a few more to add.

7. I read a book about women in the NAS and a common theme amongst those with children was that they had a nanny (not a daycare with limited hours) *and* household help. I'm guessing that most women scientists don't have that level of support at home anymore, and so are shouldering more of the child-rearing, household-running duties than in ages past?

8. As the proportion of women scientists has crept up, the awards committees have actually gotten more sexist, not less. (I hope not!)

10. Oh, and another point I remembered from the NAS book. A lot of the early women scientists didn't seriously embark on their careers until after their children were school-age (or older). Today it is very hard to get a job conducting scientific research if you don't start early and continuing plugging (and publishing) all along.

7. I read a book about women in the NAS and a common theme amongst those with children was that they had a nanny (not a daycare with limited hours) *and* household help. I'm guessing that most women scientists don't have that level of support at home anymore, and so are shouldering more of the child-rearing, household-running duties than in ages past?

I have advocated an interesting strategy, pooped on by most (and I think largely because it requires fiscal responsibility and it bucks a few historic trends)

if a couple is a two career family, they should live off of one of the salaries and use the other to PAY for this kind of service is needed, or,

if only the woman is on the career track and hubby is on job track, hubby should take the break and be the stay at home parent.

or lastly, be superwoman (which is the worst choice to attempt)

All of the laureates mentioned were of the age to have children, or had children, prior to the introduction of the birth control pill. That's probably not the only reason. But it might be the case they had children because they were not so capable of avoiding pregnancy. I do know that most of my great-grandmothers certainly didn't plan to consistently marry well within a year of having a child. In fact, 9 months was generally considered something of an achievement for the first child.

Also: families have been getting steadily smaller - with occasional upward blips (eg, baby boomers) - for at least the last century or so. Now, two kids in c.1900 was considerably smaller than the average family size. It suggests deliberate limitation (although it could also be due to infant mortality, of course), at a time when contraception was very inadequate (ie, accidents were much more likely to happen). Put another way: for any woman in a sexual relationship, zero kids today might actually be not far off the equivalent of 2 kids a century ago.

In the passage you quoted: "Did these women have kids and just not mention it?"

I'm surprised that's not on your list of hypotheses. It suggests, if true, that women no longer define themselves professionally in terms of their ovaries. Which is all well and good.

Do biographies of male laureates routinely mention the children they've fathered? And, if not, why should women laureates define themselves any differently?