Prizes for women. Progress for women?

2008 is the tenth year of the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards to remarkable female scientists from around the world. Indeed, our sister-site,, covered this year's award ceremony and is celebrating women in science more generally with a For Women in Science blog. (It, like the rest of, is in German. Just so you know.)

In addition to the global contest, three further scholarships are given to women scientists in Germany. But, the only women eligible for these awards are women with kids. (The rationale for this is that childcare options in Germany are not as good as they should be for working mothers, so women scientists with kids need special support.)

I was chatting about these awards with some woman friends of mine with science backgrounds, and there were some mixed views of these awards.

On the one hand, children are labor-intensive (as is science), so help caring for children is a good thing. But in theory at least, this would also be an issue for male scientists with kids.

It's possible to interpret scholarships like this as saying that no woman, remarkable scientist or not, could be completely fulfilled if she is not also a mother. Is this a social pressure that really needs to be reinforced with cash prizes?

On the other hand, it is still not uncommon for women in science to feel like having kids will be taken as definitive evidence that they weren't really serious about being great scientists -- because if they were, they would never sacrifice the time and energy children require, but would devote all of that to their research. (For some reason, kids aren't counted against the seriousness of male scientists in quite the same way. Maybe it is still assumed that they have wives who will carry the burden of the care-work so their husbands can attend to the mind-work.)

In the grand scheme of things, three prizes don't accomplish much more than helping three female scientists in Germany piece together some of the additional resources they need to take care of their kids and their scientific careers. Real change would be more structural, whether in terms of societal support of childrearing more generally, societal acceptance that not having kids is a perfectly reasonable choice, scientific workplaces that recognize that even scientists might have important things in their lives beyond their scientific work, etc., etc.

But until real change comes, what kind of message does an award like this send to you? Do you think it's a step in the right direction, or does it entrench assumptions that ought to be abandoned?

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My pr-reflective thought is that perhaps we should take it as a positive sign that there doesn't have to be a choice between having children and having a successful career in science - that you can do both. If women in general feel the pressure to choose more than men, I think that an award like this can be taken as speaking to, and attempting to lessen, the somewhat unique pressure to pick either/or.

And then there's the other issue: I can never hear about for-women-only awards like this without hearing in the back of my mind a subtext that says they're consolation prizes, because of course the men will be winning all the _real_ prizes. However useful the short-term effects of prizes like this may be, it's hard to see them as anything but harmful in terms of the message they send and the long-term effect it will have on people's thinking.

... And don't get me started on the "Black Music Awards".

I admit that these fellowships enforce the view that women are responsible for child care, but then it's Germany we're talking about. Especially in science, a stay-at-home wife is still pretty common there, at least while the kids are small. Admittedly more men start to stay home for a short time with a small child, but the situation still is just not symmetric. As an illustration: Regardless of actual income, German income-tax forms officially declare that the "main tax-payer" of a couple is always the man.

In such a climate, any small signal that it might be acceptable for women to have a career is in my opinion helpful enough to make up for the negative aspects.

Whilst I've no doubt that for the women involved it was a big help, I think it's true what you say, that there needs to be more support in terms of having children alongside a career, from the state, from employers and from society in general.

Whilst I don't know much about the way things run in Germany, I don't know of any country where men and women are considered completely equal in terms of career and child-rearing. I don't believe women don't want special prizes, they want equality, and I'm sure men wouldn't mind the kind of time women get to spend, paid, with their kids too. Paternity pay doesn't equal maternity... in the UK at least.

My husband stayed at home for several years until a few months ago whilst I worked; yet he wasn't treated as a woman would be upon returning to work, he was treated more like a slacker for staying home to take care of the kids, as if he were making some kind of excuse for being unemployed.

The inequalities run both ways, and whilst schemes to hurry equality forth are welcomed, it's only a matter of time before society wonders why it was any other way. It takes a while for the 'new' to come in after all.

By literarydeadkittens (not verified) on 10 Oct 2008 #permalink

Well as a woman in science who might want to have kids someday, whatever-the-heck message this sends makes me more interested in working in Germany.

Maybe the question shouldn't be "is this good for women in science?" but "is this good for science in Germany?"

I suppose it depends on whether or not the contributions of female scientists with children are lacking in the scientific arena. Sorta reminds me of the logic behind affirmative action (as I interpret it, anyway). If we assume that female scientists with children have something to contribute to science, and lack of monetary resources is what is keeping them away, then isn't this a positive incentive?

On the other hand, I can see how it might be seen as a sop - assuming that women with children couldn't otherwise be scientists...

By CanadianChick (not verified) on 11 Oct 2008 #permalink

there used to be plenty of programs for women (non-mothers) too - but thats because they had to do something. Becca, those prizes are nothing in view of the crap child care and the paternalistic structure you find in many german unis. it's common to only get tenure at 40+ b/c the system is set up that way.

Perceval- thank you! Your input is highly interesting to me. Can you perhaps compare/contrast the USian system vs. the German one?

Thanks. Great analysis.

Becca: look at it the other way round -- the need for such awards shows you how bad the situation for scientists mothers is in Germany (although, to be fair, it depends a lot on where you work). It is true that women (and men) face a number of issues in science, and that child care is only one of them, but it is also true that in Germany there is a lot of social pressure on women to stay at home with the kids until they are, say, 12, combined with scarcity of child care for infants.

I think the social pressure has changed completely ... women are expected to go back to work as soon as possible. Look at the media, conservative opinions that state the opposite are always met with harsh criticism. This trend corresponds with what I experience in my work place, mothers normally return after half a year to a year. Also, the number of employers who are creating a work atmosphere, that makes it easier to combine work and family life, is increasing. Check out if you're interested.

The german discussion is very much influenced by a very german "the grass is always greener on the other side" attitude. Oddly enough, it's our foreign employees who have to remind us of the strong legal protection for parents in their jobs (which makes it easy to return) and the financial support for day care and other arrangements.