Author of "Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory" Responds to Nature Review

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.

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I've read Monosson's book very carefully, unlike the Nature reviewer who misattributed two of the essays to Monosson's daughters (Monosson has one son and one daughter, both of whom are far too young to be writing career essays. This is another point that the the Nature reviewer might have picked up on, had she read Monossonâs personal essays in the book at all carefully).

Urry's review also suggests that she skipped over the sections of Monosson's book which extensively cite the academic literature on the impact of motherhood on science careers. I agree that motherhood is not the ONLY factor in the âleaky pipeline.â But the evidence is strong that it is a MAJOR factor. Anyone with an interest in these issues should be aware of the groundbreaking work by Mary Ann Mason at the University of Berkeley. Mason and her colleagues have been working on the âDo Babies Matterâ project, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation. Working with data from the national Survey of Doctorate Recipients, Mason has found that yes, babies matter a great deal. When she examined a cohort of science Ph.D.s who received their doctorates between 1979-1999 (and who were still working in academia 12-14 years after their doctorates) she discovered that the women who had babies early in their careers were significantly less likely to achieve tenure than women who did not have babies. From the studied cohort:

55% of women with âearly babiesâ (defined as born before or within five years of their mothersâ doctorates) had achieved tenure.

Contrast with:

65% of women who had no babies or âlateâ babies had achieved tenure.


77% of men who had early babies had achieved tenure.

In fact, while women with children were less likely than women without children to achieve tenure, MEN with early children were actually slightly MORE likely than child-free men to achieve tenure.

(See Masonâs presentation slides at…

Also available as a draft document at )

Moreover, women with babies are much more likely than child-free women to âleakâ from the academic pipeline at far earlier stages, before ever entering a tenure-track position. Masonâs analysis of doctorates in all fields found that *women with babies are 29% less likely* than women without babies to ever enter a tenure-track position (âMarriage and Baby Blues: Redefining Gender Equityâ

Clearly, babies matter.

Other factors matter, too, however, as Masonâs own work bears out. Itâs a complicated issue. Interestingly, family structures and pressures regardless of children appear to negatively affect women's careers and not men's careers (though only if you consider anything other than the traditional tenure-track at an R1 university to be a "negative.) Still, I was quite surprised by the negative review of Monossonâs âMotherhoodâ book in Nature. I quite agree with Monosson that the review greatly misrepresented her bookâand not just in the misattribution of essay authorship.

I could go on. . . but Iâll save it for my own blog!

I have read the book and I have enjoyed it. Some of the essays were quite depressing though, when women who wrote them described the discrimination they faced, whether it was for being a mother, or just for being a woman.

The book is eye opening as to how it is to be a mother and work in science (in US). Some women have juggled their lives really well, while others have decided (or had no other option) to stay at home more and / or change to part-time opportunities.

What is scary it that nowadays is is sometimes as difficult as it was in the 60s... Or sometimes it feels that in 60s it was easier, as women were still hopeful that it is all going to change soon and discrimination was going to vanish.

There are some things in Urry's Nature review that I do not agree with.

"[The book] contains few stories about women who have successfully combined traditional careers as science professors with traditional families."

Maybe there are few such stories, because it is not the major option for women at the moment. I understood that this book was not focused on science professors only, but on all mothers who are scientists or work in science. Of this category, female science professors are a small fraction and this is represented by them contributing to small fraction of essays.

Maybe Meg Urry does know many such women, but this does not mean that being a professor-mother is the most popular or easy option. Maybe since she knows many such professor-mother she would be able to compile and edit her own book drawn from essays from them? This would be a very welcome development!

"More disturbing is the implication that in the absence of motherhood, women in academic science would have untroubled careers."

Having read the book, I do not recall it being implied anywhere in it. Maybe it is an implication when someone thinks about motherhood issues in general, but it was never mentioned in the book that it would have been easier not to have children at all. None of the mothers who wrote the essays suggested anything along those lines, they were all very happy to be mothers.

I got the feeling from some stories though that it would be sometimes be easier to be a man, but not a childless woman!

In summary, I see Urry's review of the book as quite unfair. It was not meant to be career advise for aspiring young female professors, for such purpose FSP's Academeology would be indeed better suited. But the book fulfils the purpose it meant to fulfil, raising awareness of what it is to be BOTH a scientist and a mother. As a future mother who would also like to be an academic (but is not sure whether she would make it), I enjoyed "Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory" thoroughly.

Wait, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation knows this and yet they only fund minorities in PhD programs, and not women with children?
Not that I'm not thrilled for my Ronnie-bear (and not that he isn't secretly trying to find ways to funnel it to me, should it be needed), but he is already funded by an NIH R01 supplement for minorities.
I know. I know. I sound like one of those horrible white males whining about minorities. But money has been terribly easy to come by for him; and I'm only quasi-guaranteed funded through this year...

I look forward to your review of the book. And from the comments it would be good to hear more stories of women that had successfully combined motherhood and science careers. In fact, I remember being at a women in science event a couple of years ago and hearing about a researcher who had two or three children and took 8 years out to be a full time mum. She returned and is now a distinguished professor - I'll have to find out who that was and keep you updated. Just to let you know I'm running a series of interviews with high profile female scientists and business women, covering topics just like this. If you'd like more info feel free to check out my blog:

I would love to know who the researcher was who took time out for 8 years and is now a distinguished professor. In fact, I'd like to hear more stories like that, about women who have come up with alternative solutions to work and children (or other work-life balance issues) and made it through.