The Problem of the Problem of Motherhood in Science

Over at Fairer Science, at the end of an excellent rant about the uselessness of one-shot workshops, Pat Campbell writes:

One other thing, if I see one more article about why there aren't more women in science that concludes "it's the children" I am going to run amuck. This one says "Women don't choose careers in math-intensive fields, such as computer science, physics, technology, engineering, chemistry, and higher mathematics, because they want the flexibility to raise children..."

Say what? Good to know that it's only the math intensive fields; so friends if you want a science career and a family go to the life sciences or the earth sciences or the agricultural sciences because it's just the math that makes science careers incompatible with family life, Who knew?

Meanwhile, one of my readers recently called my attention to the 12 March 2009 issue of Nature, which has a book review of Emily Monosson's Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory. The publisher calls "the unique difficulties of balancing a professional life in these highly competitive (and often male-dominated) fields with the demands of motherhood [an] obvious but unacknowledged crisis--the elephant in the laboratory".

Is it really? Combining motherhood - combining parenthood - with a career in science is certainly no easy task, but is there, perhaps, an excessive focus on this as the issue for women in science? Is motherhood + science, in some ways, a red herring?

Here's the key part of the Nature 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.

Furthermore, countries with enviable support systems for parental leave and childcare -- of the kind rightly advocated by Monosson -- have astonishingly low participation of women in science. For example, in Denmark, only around 10% of full professors of science, and 2% of physics professors, are women. The numbers are higher in the United States, even with its less generous childcare policies. Neither does physiology and family explain why the fraction of scientists who are women varies widely from one country to another, even when social support systems are similar; the percentage of female scientists is much higher in France and Italy than in the United Kingdom or Germany, for example. Women's participation in science also varies widely from field to field: more than 50% of graduating MDs in US medical schools are women, whereas in physics and engineering, less than 20% of PhDs go to women.

Outside our universities, many women with young children have full-time jobs -- 70% in the United States -- and few of those jobs are as flexible or as well paid as jobs in academic science. There is no question that it is harder to raise a family as a supermarket employee than as a professor of physics, so why do academics seize on family as the explanation for the absence of women? The dominant obstacles to women in science -- persistent, unexamined bias and lack of mentoring -- are described clearly in Beyond Bias and Barriers (National Academies Press, 2007) and in Academeology, by the pseudonymous blogger Female Science Professor (LuLu, 2008; see Nature 456, 445; 2008). Young women trying to figure out the road to success in science might be better served reading those books rather than Motherhood.

My anonymous reader wrote to me:

I agree with...the article. We are all bending over backwards trying to find solutions for dual career and breast pumping and childcare for faculty, while forgetting that those are also
problems for women in the workplace in general...where there are many more women by
proportion than on STEM faculties.

Lest my Sciblings Isis and Sciencewoman and Janet, and other readers/bloggers out there currently juggling family and science careers take offense, let me hasten to say that I firmly believe things like dual-career programs and childcare and breast pumping rooms are good things for faculty. But it's also true that the administrative and other support staff on campus could benefit from those services just as well. Lack of breast pumping rooms and on campus daycare has not kept women from dominating the ranks of the administrative staff in your department or college, has it? Come to think of it, it hasn't kept them from dominating or predominating in the ranks of the faculty over in the schools of nursing, education, and various programs in human ecology. It hasn't kept women from increasing their numbers dramatically over the past several decades in medicine and veterinary medicine and law and business.

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. In some respects, being constantly inundated with reports and articles and books, however well-meaning, about how it is teh babeez that are keeping women down and out in science is not helpful.

The swelling chorus makes it seem almost as if the problem of women in science is a problem women carry around with them in their bodies, and inflict on science, rather than something going on outside and around and enacted upon those bodies. Look out, science! She's got a uterus and isn't afraid to use it! It makes it sound like women are asking for special treatment in science when they ask for reasonable things like daycare and breast pumping rooms and dual career considerations - things that a normal society ought to be providing to all parents. It makes science sound like it is somehow some special amazing exceptional career, where women are just gonna have trouble if they want to have kids, unlike all other careers in the world where this issue has never come up, rather than just one more case in which the problem of how society should arrange for people to both work and have children must be addressed. Do you suppose that migrant field workers don't have to deal with the issue of child care and breast pumping? I know childcare was a never-ending struggle for my older sister when her kids were young, in her various jobs in clerical work over the years. And just because they weren't university professors, doesn't mean that she and her husband never struggled with any dual career issues at various junctures.

The prejudice and problems that women with children face in science are a particular variation on the general theme of gender discrimination. It is important to pay attention to those particulars, and courageous women bloggers who share their stories have done much to make Researching While Procreating seem much more normal, at least for the women (and men) who read their blogs. This is no small service, and I am glad we live in a time where the internet gives us ready access to these stories, so we need not labor (pun intended) in isolation.

But we would do well to remember that the problems women face in science start long before, and go far past, having and rearing children (just as the problems of parenting in our society are far, far broader than the confines of science careers). I think here about the four amazing women scientists I worked with in my last postdoc. None of them have children, and none of them ended up in tenure track positions (or any sort of position) in academia, even though each initially saw herself going down that path, and each was extremely capable of doing so.

On the one hand, we have women speaking frankly about struggles to combine parenting with a career in science, working out issues and linking to a broader community of support. On the other hand, we have official reports which purport to tell us why women just aren't going to be found in this or that area of science or engineering - because they insist on having babies, and you just can't do science and have babies. It's the former sort of discourse I find more helpful, and less obfuscating. It doesn't deny the possibility of other types of discourse about the situation of women in science by pretending motherhood really is an elephant in the room, and so there's no room left to speak of anything else.


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...but is there, perhaps, an excessive focus on this as the issue for women in science? Is motherhood + science, in some ways, a red herring?

Yes. It is a red herring. And I think that emphasizing motherhood as a reason why women leak out of the science pipeline can contribute to the problem. "Women can't do high-powered science and have kids" becomes one of those gender schemas that leads to different evaluations of female vs male job candidates, tenure candidates, PIs on proposals...

This was an argument put 30-40 years ago against hiring women in any role - what do we do when they get pregnant? But it was never the real reason, any more than it is the real reason for under-representation in science. BTW I loathe the way that discussions about childcare invariably make it a 'womens' issue. Having a baby often includes a male parent, and childcare should be an issue for him, too.

By Di Hobday (not verified) on 21 Mar 2009 #permalink

Another great post, Zuska!

Everyone wants a simple answer. Alas, in a chaotic world the most-often description of any simple answer is, at best, "incomplete."

An example is the question of underrepresentation of women in STEM. There are, no doubt, reasons why women leave "the pipeline" prior to tenure at higher rates than men -- but there's also the fact that they enter at much lower rates than men, too -- and there are problems with the hypothesis that 14-year-old girls are thinking ahead to the difficulties of juggling a postdoc with pregnancy.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 21 Mar 2009 #permalink

Great post! I think one reason is for sure that not economic reasoning, but boys clubs rule academia.

"Look out, science! She's got a uterus and isn't afraid to use it!"

I'd argue that it's also "Look out, science! She's got a brain, hands, feet, and mouth and isn't afraid to use them" and she'll smoke your ass with her hot science.

Excellent post.

Family issues may have great explanatory power for decisions made by 30 year-old graduates choosing between academia and industry, but I don't think they have much explanatory power for why an 18 year-old woman majors in biology rather than biomedical engineering, or picks psychology over biology, or why a young woman who did well in high school math might pick accounting or finance rather than math or computer science. For that, we need to look at the social and cultural forces that steer these decisions. Accountants and psychologists have babies too.

Another great post. I rarely comment , but I love, love, love all your posts, even when I don't agree.

I've often thought that one of the reasons why we make such a big deal about motherhood in academia is that we expect academia to be an enlightened, progressive place full of people working for the greater good of society. If we can't get it right in academia, what hope do we have? (I completely lost this illusion after my first kid, when I realized that many of my colleagues were still living in the 50s. The 1850s.)

Kim is right on the money that emphasizing the challenges of combining motherhood and science can contribute to the leaky pipeline. Maybe 18-year-olds don't worry about this issue, but female grad students and postdocs sure do. And in biology, that is where we lose a lot of female talent.

In my department, two of my colleagues regularly tell students that women can't be successful scientists and have kids. And here I thought I was successful.... Silly me.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 21 Mar 2009 #permalink

In my department, two of my colleagues regularly tell students that women can't be successful scientists and have kids. And here I thought I was successful.... Silly me.

Hmmm. $DAUGHTER's department is Sociology. The majority of the faculty are female, the majority of the senior faculty are female, the department chair is female. The department is known as a leader in gender sociology. Not exactly a hotbed of patriarchy, please note.

However, the Received Wisdom is that children are a serious liability to an academic career. Many of the above-mentioned female faculty are childless and apparently planning to stay that way.

Make of this what you will.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 21 Mar 2009 #permalink

Excellent post. My fellow grad students and I are certainly about the idea of balancing family with work, but it's hardly an issue unique to this career path. I'm actually going to a panel on "Work/Life Balance" for women in science next week; I will have to print this out and highlight some parts to mention during the discussion!

I don't know why few women go into physics, or math.

But neither do the people wringing their hands and writing about it.

Clearly, as it is so elegantly put in this post, it isn't motherhood. Business careers don't cater to motherhood, either. Neither do any jobs with defined hours. It is MUCH easier for an academic scientist to stick her breast pump up on a bench and take an hour out to run to the daycare and shuffle a kid.

So what is it?

As I so often reply to the highly annoying religious folk who KNOW they have the answer: "I don't know. But you don't either."

I don't know why few women go into physics, or math.

But neither do the people wringing their hands and writing about it.

Words of wisdom.

Odd, isn't it, how physical scientists don't like having psychologists and sociologists mouthing off about physics, engineering, chemistry, physiology, etc. but have no problem declaring THE answer to topics that are hotly researched in psychology and sociology?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 21 Mar 2009 #permalink

Maybe women don't succeed in science because they spend all their time whining about it on the internet.

A lovely post, Zuska. I don't claim to have the corner on the gender discrimination market because I am in academia. There are things specifically related to my situation (an 80 hour work week, exposure to potential teratogens, the travel), but other women in other fields deal with them too, to some degree.

But I had better stop whining or I may not succeed in science.

D.C., you said:

"Odd, isn't it, how physical scientists don't like having psychologists and sociologists mouthing off about physics, engineering, chemistry, physiology, etc. but have no problem declaring THE answer to topics that are hotly researched in psychology and sociology?"

I can empathize with you here. I've heard a lot of self-described science types write off the social sciences as subjective or useless, and I don't find it coincidental that social science is the only set of disciplines which seek to explore and explain disparities between marginalized and hegemonic groups. Lucky for me, I get to live vicariously through my sister, who is majoring in psychology. :) Admittedly, some of her class-assigned readings are nonsensical crap, but a few of her texts are worth their weight in gold.

Zuska, as a fellow whiner with no plans for children, I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

I just realized I worded my last sentence weirdly. I have no idea if you have kids or whatever. But we do have the whiny feminist thing in common. ;) *much love*

"the are some problems with the hypothesis that 14-year-old girls are thinking ahead to the difficulties of juggling a postdoc with pregnancy."
Was I that weird?
Girls know ovaries come with an expiration date. 14 year old girls in this day and age (perhaps particularly from the socioeconomic groups that tend to end up as academics?) are told from many sources just exactly how disasterous pregnancy can be. Girls can also do enough math to add up the number of years it takes to get a PhD (or JD or MD, for that matter).


14 year old girls may know how many years a Ph.D. takes and how much time that leaves for a kid before the expiration date on the ovaries. However, how many 14 year-olds (male or female) with an interest in science know what a postdoc even is? How many of them are considering a professorship as their likely/desired path? How many of them know what an assistant professor's job is like?

I am admittedly male, but when I was 14 and interested in science I didn't know that the most likely avenue for pursuing basic research would be a professorship. I had various vague dreams, maybe be an astronaut or work in a hospital and cure a disease or maybe go to silicon valley and program computers to do something awesome or, um, something. I didn't know the difference between a professor and a research professor, I had no idea that people had to do postdocs to get good research positions, and I didn't know how many hours a tenure-track professor would work. Even as an undergrad working in a research lab, I had only the vaguest inkling how tough life was for assistant professors; my advisors had tenure and certainly worked hard but it seemed like what they were doing was something natural for them rather than a stressful trial (or maybe that was just my perception as an undergrad who didn't understand the system). I did meet postdocs but I didn't realize that it was essentially a mandatory thing for people on the academic track.

So I'm skeptical that the rigors of the tenure track are the main reason why teenage girls lose interest in science somewhere in high school and decide not to study for a B.S. in a STEM discipline. There are a lot of paths you can take with a B.S. in a STEM discipline, and I'm not sure that the travails of one particular path (the tenure track) are the main influence on the decision to get a B.S.

To be clear, having expressed doubt about work-life balance as a key factor for women early in the pipeline, I am not suggesting that the key factor is some sort of inherent lack of interest or some other Larry Summers thing. I think it has to do with attitudes and cultural cues that discourage women from considering science.

And despite my skepticism about work-life balance as a key factor for 18 year-olds, I think it's obvious from all accounts that it is a significant variable later in the career path, even if (as Zuska points out in this post) it probably isn't the sole factor.

"Even as an undergrad working in a research lab, I had only the vaguest inkling how tough life was for assistant professors"

All the classes I took as a masters and phd student were run by men. There were two women professors in my undergrad dept, never took classes from them. There was one adjunct lecturer who was working on her phd at a neighboring school and I took her class. So by my math with my undergrad and grad transcripts in front of me, I had one woman professor in my field total.

The "inkling" I got was women just don't do this academic stuff, like go on to be professors. My inkling was more than Where's Walda? I wrongly assumed that the lack of women was due to lack of interest or smarts. Work-life balance never entered my mind. I thought all the old fogeys would retire that were hired in the 60s when women first started hitting the grad programs, and that women would eventually fill the empty faculty slots based on the percentages of phd graduates. Not even close, decades later.

It's a huge bad flashing sign to women undergrads and grads when women phds are not on their faculty, teaching their courses, and mentoring them.

To Samia, and in the interests of full disclosure: I have no kids. And yeah, we have that whiny feminist thing in common! Cool!

I doubt very much that my mom, a coal miner's wife with a high school diploma, had any detailed knowledge of postdocs or the tenure track, but she worried like hell for me when I decided to get married at the end of undergrad, just before starting grad school. She thought babies just naturally came along with marriage and got in the way of paid labor, any sort of paid labor (being as there was so very much unpaid labor to be done with the kids). I think many (but not all) young women do think about the question of how they will combine children and work, but this worry is not confined to women who are considering careers in academic science. And what, if you decide not to go into physics research, child care isn't going to be an issue in whatever other line of work you go into??????

Besides, if undergraduates are thinking about childcare and related issues when picking majors, how many undergraduates have an accurate perception of what their professors' lives are like? I suspect that a significant fraction of first-year students (male and female, STEM majors and non-STEM majors) have only the vaguest idea what a professor does outside of class. Some of them are probably thinking that we have it pretty easy (off in the summer, teaching only a few hours a week, tenure means we can't be fired, and TAs and grad student researchers to help us). To many of them, industry and the "real world" outside of academia are probably the more intimidating settings, and their perceptions regarding jobs in those settings are probably more important when they decide what to study. Especially for engineering students.

Students from certain backgrounds are probably better-informed about what the life of an academic scientist is like, but it's not like female science majors are abundant at state schools with working-class kids. I don't know what the exact gender breakdown is among STEM majors at expensive private schools vs. cheaper state schools, but the numbers are pretty abysmal everywhere.

Finally, given the disparities between different STEM disciplines, even if the lives of professors are something that first-year students think about when choosing majors, as per a previous comment I have a hard time seeing why a female student seeking balance in life would conclude that biologists have it easier than biomedical engineers, or economists have it easier than mathematicians.

So I think that the cultural factors influencing these decisions go far deeper than just concerns about childcare.

Actually, since I'm a scientist, instead of speculating I'm just going to pose a question about data: What do surveys say about the factors that influence female undergraduates when picking a major? Do they perceive STEM as being less family-friendly? If so, are they basing this on perceptions of academia or perceptions of industry?

About the pipeline issue (and possible confusion about my comment): whenever anyone mentions the "leaky pipeline," the solutions seem to focus on changing decisions that women make. But in the geosciences, at least, the biggest drop in percentages of women come between grad school and work as an assistant professor - and the proportion of women assistant professors is lower than the proportion of women PhD students from a decade ago, so we're not looking at a generational change that just needs time to work through the system. And the drop is most pronounced for the most prestigious positions. That suggests to me that something's going on in the hiring process, and that one should at least consider the hypothesis that the leaks are not something that the women have chosen to do.

Maybe this is a cultural thing, but I never grew up with any impression of women as a whole not being able to do science or math, either due to intelligence or childcare issues. All the working couples I was raised around just kinda handled their biz, and that was that. I think it was their relative silence about the difficulties of combining career and family that have given me less of the "IT'S IMPOSSIBLE!!!1" perspective. Every situation varies, of course. Each of my mentors has handled their family in a different way, ranging from let-the-housewife-take-care-of-it to equally sharing responsibilities and making it work no matter what.

Random: I was talking to someone in my department about the lack of female faculty here, and he assumed right away that I was accusing our hiring committee of discrimination. The actual problem is that our department has an established bad track record of running women out and everyone knows it. No one *wants* to apply here anymore, which is why this guy's babbling about proportionality between applicant pool and eventual hires meant nothing to me. I can't help but giggle inwardly when someone misses the point like that.

I have to add that these are the same guys who throw up their hands and do the whole WHERE DA LADEEZ BE?! thing, implying we're not interested in *science*. No, some of us just prefer a non-crappy environment where you don't have to be a freaking iron woman to succeed.

Why hasn't sexual harassment been mentioned yet? I was harassed as an undergraduate, graduate, and at my post-doc at the NIH. That's when I decided to leave academia. So I guess I agree with Samia, I want to work in a non-crappy environment, and I do. Also, I make a hell of a lot more money then I would have in academe...and shorter hours. (Even though I'm happily married, I still don't have kids by choice, so that wasn't the issue).

By Nola Caine (not verified) on 23 Mar 2009 #permalink

What if women who *wanted* to apply for a faculty position or PhD-level job but didn't (because of known sex harrassers in the department or in the workplace, because of the current lack of women, because of knowledge about women who left or were denied tenure, because of hostility) put in a cover letter to express their interest in the position as advertised. Hiring committees are clueless as to how many women don't apply for positions, not because of the job per se, but because of everything associated with doing the job at their location. Hiring committees may be writing women off as not being interested or the numbers of women applicants being too low, and therefore the conditions in their department (current low numbers of women) match what they are seeing in their applicant pools.

I do think if women sent letters rather than application packets to each department that sucks for various reasons, we might get through their thick male skulls that while hiring committees may not be THE problem (4 men, 1 woman in my experience), the department and college and administration are indeed problems that people outside their turf are well aware of.

Let me be really honest:
I avoided a scientific career for years, because when I was doing my undergrad I looked around at the 19 year old boys I was studying with and thought, "My god, I SO don't want to work with these jerks all my life". A generalisation, sure, but nevertheless, that was the overwhelming impression.

It took a few years before I realised I loved science so much I really wanted to do it. Unfortunately, I still feel pretty much the same about a reasonable proportion of my colleagues.

As becca has said before elsewhere, science for me is not only about discovery, its about the journey and process.

Yes, I do not think its motherhood alone - as with men, a bad boss is an issue. My wife has been struggling with a pathetic woman postdoc "mentor".

Then there are times with throws you a curve ball. I did not really plan for my first child to have seizures on his second day of life, nor did I plan to spend his first week in a specialized ward at a children's hospital, and then end up sitting on the floor surrounded by bills on the phone with the health insurance company. Then spending hours and hours at neurology appointments, and even more at therapy sessions (apparently the seizures did or did not do something to specific areas of the brain, like Broca's and Wernicke's)... oh, and then there are special Individual Education Plan meetings (I made the mistake of going to one of those lovely 90 minute meetings after going to his younger siblings shour 30 minute update meetings for regular ed. kids --- I was very loopy and had no clue that they added an extra hour of speech therapy).

Then I got to learn about the quacks and crooks who like to take advantage of parents like us. There actually are people out there who sell idiotic "heavy metal tests", bizarre treatments like "cranial sacral" (it is a homeopathic head massage), and intensive physical therapy (oh, my word... the absolutely awful Doman-Delacato patterning crap, which was pushed through stupid books in my local library called "How to Treat Your Brain Damaged Baby"... which was a book long advertisement for his institute in Pennsylvania. That if it did not work it was because the parents did not try hard enough. Which is how I found Dr. Novella's article on the subject).

So, twenty years later I am still just a stay at home mom. I have caused a stir among some on "teh internets and Usenet"... I am the one who started the whole John "" Scudamore bit about him burning his bum on satanic ley lines! When time permits I do research stuff (like when one supplement pushing guy was claiming affiliation with a medical school, but did not even get the name right --- with the help of a parent of a kid with cerebral palsy that was stopped!).

But things are changing. I have gone back to school. I went to a community college to warm up my brain (statistics, physics, biology and computer science). Next week I will be taking the GRE (Oh my word... that company has crappy software! First it kicks me out of session because of an idiot time limit, then their stupid prep software insists on setting my screen resolution to 600 by 800... WHAT!!). Then I will apply to some kind of Masters program (mechanical engineering, applied math.. whatever). It depends... why does the GRE math test only include high school level math? This confuses me (along with their stupid word puzzles --- while on the English prep I get 75%, all I can think is "are these guys mental?").

Why did any of you stay in science? Was there anything that made you pause along the way and think about whether you were making a good career choice? I personally think there is quite a masculine culture about the way we do science, and that is perhaps more appealing to men. It is about facts and not really about feelings for instance.

I remember as a graduate student a couple of minor incidents stood out for me. One was being teased for wearing a dress to the lab. In retrospect I think the guys who teased me were trying in their clumsy way to compliment me, but at the time I was horrified that I was being singled out over my appearance. I didn't wear a dress again in the lab for a very long time. The other incident was when I complained to my advisor that I was seriously broke. At the time I was about 2 months into my PhD and my stipend had not started. I guess I hoped for some sympathy, what I got was a response about me being a money-grubber. These kind of incidents sent a clear message to me that the realities of life (eg money and feelings) could be left at the door to the lab.

Overall, that lab was a very positive experience for me - I never noticed a bias towards men for instance (unfortunately I have experienced more overt discrimination since), but it did teach me that to fit in I should suppress some aspects of myself. I didn't think much about those things at the time, but as I have gotten older I chafe more about them. I make an effort to check in with people who I work with to see how they are doing, and not just what the results of their experiments are, and I try to be accepting and encouraging of people to be themselves.

I'm not trying to say that the culture (or perceived culture) of science is the only thing that drives women away, but I certainly think that it can be a factor for some of them.

Just this past weekend, my 18-year-old niece informed me she'll be majoring in archaeology when she goes to college in the fall. Reading here and elsewhere about all the problems faced by women in the sciences makes me worry for her. I'm still encouraging her. I absolutely think that archaeology would be a great career for her. But I'll be sending her a link to your blog so she can prepare herself with pithy comebacks to all the anti-woman nonsense she may encounter.

@KC- +eleventy. Seriously. The culture of academic science is really weird. I think industry science has it's own quirks, but I've been really amazed at how much of my grad school energy gets sucked into trying to fit in or behave as expected. It's exhusting. Maybe I'm just too freakish to start with.
I know what I want out of my career. I want to keep doing science, be able to eat comfortably, and I want to do it with people who I enjoy (or at least, people who don't drive me nuts). Right now, things are ok. But some of the things I've seen in academic science, with the weird culture and machismo, make me really wonder- if permanent jobs are so rare, what are the odds I'll actually find one in a place with decent people?

Alex- I think the basic premise (that science careers are not uniquely challenging when it comes to raising a family; thus this cannot be a sufficient condition for the lack of women in STEM fields) is absolutely spot on.

However, even though I wasn't thinking about balancing career and kids per se, I distinctly remember that one of the reasons I didn't choose law or medicine was that I knew they offered 90-hour weeks under extreme stress (trying to make partner in a firm that does criminal trials or being a resident doing trauma surgery still strike me as something you have to be a little nuts to want to do).
I think research science is actually a smidge better on that count... but I had no idea how many things you could do with MDs and JDs that aren't so 'high-powered'; nor how fiercely competitive academic scientists are.
I also got the meme about social sciences and especially humanities being unemployable (remember, I do prioritize "being able to eat"- I was a very good artist too).
I think we 'sell' science to 14 year olds as being more relaxed and stable a career then it is (and perhaps we 'sell' other things as more difficult then they really are). I also know I personally was told you pretty much had to get a PhD to be a scientist (or at least, an 'independent' scientist- when you're 14, at least if you're like me, being in any way dependent doesn't sound at all attractive).
It's not that girls or boys know what it's like to be a professor. It's that girls (and boys, I presume) as early as 14 (maybe earlier in some cases) are thinking about how much stress they want from their careers. I suspect people find out at different stages how stressful science can be, and leak out accordingly. There are a number of reasons this might affect girls more than boys. Adding kids into the mix makes things that seemed manageable before seem overwhelming. The "not wanting to work with jerks" or "not wanting the struggle of fitting in" also make things that would otherwise be a bit stressful nearly impossible.

Hear hear Becca.

When I was at school and considering medicine, all my older relatives pointed out that it would be incredibly difficult to have a husband and children as well. It had a major influence on my career decision. Now I look back and I am sorry that those considerations affected my choice of career. Luckily things seem to have moved on a bit, on those assumptions.

And never say you are too "freakish" to fit in. Back to the diversity argument- we need it, and the more diverse we are as scientists, the easier it is for other people who may not fit the dominant culture to join in too.

Despite having a Master in Sciences, men in general treat me as unable to reason. At work, it is particularly frustrating when our opinions are not valued. We are till not recognised for our potential controbution to sciences and technology and engineering..... and I speak from experience: interviews where I was told that the position was too difficult or too dirty for a woman; or when realising that I was actually a woman applying for the position, the offer was suddenly withdrawn. Sorry if I sound bitter, but there nothing less frustrating for my that to have an education that I cannot use, knowing I could so much more but denied by an old-fashioned attitude....Women are only good as nursing, teaching or clerical careers!! I have children still at primary school and recently my son's homework consited of dividing a list of careers into two groups: the jobs for women and the jobs for men!! Please...

By Nadine Juignet (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

Not-really-gender-specific rant:

Damn, I'm tired of walking on eggshells around the cow-orkers. That includes the (excellent) junior I'm supervising; I just wish she and the others would knock off the meek and agreeable schtick and yell at me. Wave their arms and get so full of their work that they can't force the words out fast enough. Jump up and down, use every color the whiteboard has, and still not be able to pump it out fast enough because it is so freaking hot.

The Mediterranean Mamzer I used to work certainly had flaws, but hot damn he could argue! I don't care if a colleague has feathered antennae, but let's see some freaking passion, peeps -- this game is too much fun to go all whisper-and-bow.

Thanks for listening.

By Yagotta B. Kidding (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

I personally think there is quite a masculine culture about the way we do science, and that is perhaps more appealing to men. It is about facts and not really about feelings for instance.

If I had to guess, I'd say the unspoken and unsubstantiated assumptions underlying the sentences above are closer to being the real "elephant in the laboratory" than anything else.

If I had to guess, I'd say the complete lack of understanding that there is indeed a masculine culture in science indicated in the preceding comment is a significant portion of the elephant in the laboratory.

If I had to guess, I'd say the complete lack of understanding that there is indeed a masculine culture in science indicated in the preceding comment is a significant portion of the elephant in the laboratory.

It might help to distinguish (assuming that you do) between "masculine culture in science" and "masculine culture among groups of scientists." It's easy enough for just about anyone to find examples of the latter; the former is less obvious.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 24 Mar 2009 #permalink

I personally think there is quite a masculine culture about the way we do science, and that is perhaps more appealing to men. It is about facts and not really about feelings for instance.

I don't think a serious person can dispute the first sentence there.

The second sentence might have been intended to offer a valid point, but it requires some more explanation before I can concede a valid point. As it stands, it seems reminiscent of a lot of negative stereotypes about women and their aptitudes for intellectual endeavors.

If I had to guess, I'd say the complete lack of understanding that there is indeed a masculine culture in science indicated in the preceding comment is a significant portion of the elephant in the laboratory.

I wasn't aware that you agreed with the implicit assumption that dealing with facts was specifically "masculine" and that women were categorically better suited to dealing with feelings. Did I misunderstand?

I guess the point I was trying to make (and maybe I didn't succeed) is that for me, the culture of where I work has an impact on whether I want to stay there. Do I "fit" among the science group, and if not, how accepting is that group of my differences, or how much am I willing to change or suppress myself? Overall, I found the science culture quite a good fit for me - it was objective and (mostly) fair, and that is why I am still here. The fact that my current organisation has quite a different culture that I am finding very difficult to fit in to, has made me more aware about how much that is a factor in whether I stay in my current job or not.

I don't have any evidence of whether or not women in general have a tougher time fitting into the science culture. And as DC pointed out, is it the culture of science, or of those who are doing the science, that has the most impact?

Women certainly seem to have trouble fitting into any culture which has a systematic bias against them - as I am fully aware academia and science, overall, do - but this has nothing to do with the focus on facts. Unfortunately, the attitude that women are "generally" (read: "supposed to be... *penetrating stare*") focused on feelings and unsuited to dealign with facts is a significant component of that biased culture, which was the point I was making.

I don't have any evidence of whether or not women in general have a tougher time fitting into the science culture. And as DC pointed out, is it the culture of science, or of those who are doing the science, that has the most impact?

Rather an essential question ad limine, though. If the objectionable cultural issues are local, there is a lot more prospect for either altering or escaping them. If they're instead "the culture of Science" then the options are quite different.

In the end, the principal power we all have is over our own choices. That's why I keep asking about priorities and alternatives -- it's all well and good to wish for world peace, harmony, and ponies for everyone. If, on the other hand, you're making out your to-do list for the day there are a few intermediate steps to cover, and generally speaking there's not a lot of point in assigning action items to anyone but yourself.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

I had one baby while in academia (post-doc) and another while employed in industry. Both were/are equally challenging to 'juggle', for both my husband and myself. The work/life balance issue is there regardless of WHAT career you are in -- generally a bigger issue for women, but still an issue regardless. However, I completely agree, that it is so not THE issue as to why there aren't more women scientists. My children are not the reason I (depending on your perspective) a) leaked from the pipeline; b) found a kick-ass position as a lead scientist in industry -- they were a challenge but not as challenging as the inherent hiring bias that led to no tenure track job for me.

I think the 'inherent capacity' or 'ability' to 'deal with facts' as opposed to 'deal with feelings' being mutually exclusive and gender related, is absolutely ridiculous. For me (who is not yet a 'leaking statistic' but has spent alot of time recently contemplating if really do want to continue in academia or not) the reason to leave would not be that I don't enjoy science. I love it and I get to spend most of my time thinking about some of the coolest stuff in the universe. However I dislike the lack of any real long term stability unless you have tenure and I have felt quite alot during my phd / postdoc that I just 'don't fit in' to the departments. Part of this stems from a lack of successfull female mentors and part from feeling like a fly on the wall and that I have to prove so much more to recieve the same respect given to my male collegues. I don't see this changing anytime soon. None of these were factors that I even contemplated when I was starting undergrad physics (I had no real idea how the academic system worked just that I wanted to be a 'researcher'). Even without the lack of long term job-stability I think it would be as viable a job selection as any other, but its all the other rubbish that is brought along with it.

By pumpkinesque (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm bumping this thread because I think it has a lot of relevance to the work life balance discussions. In short, domestic duties are a problem for working women but they don't even begin to explain why STEM fields are so much worse.

By anonymous (not verified) on 22 Jun 2010 #permalink