Motherhood vs the Lab

Science has a news piece asking Is Motherhood the Biggest Reason for Academia’s Gender Imbalance?.

Well, I don’t know if it’s the biggest reason, but this issue is certainly huge – it has been an issue in every lab in which I have worked, and in ~90% of the labs that I observe around me. Which is why I don’t understand the pushback from some researchers quoted in the article, such as this:

“I think [the issue] does have merit, for a subset of women, during one part of their lives,” Nelson says. “However, it has not uncovered a problem which, when solved, will create an equal environment for women.” Nelson says it would be unfortunate if departments “were to invest millions of dollars in things like in-house daycare centers” only to find that such investments improved conditions for “a relatively small number of women.”

Seriously??? In-house child-care and other investments to help mothers in academic science would benefit only a relatively small number of women? Walk into just about any science department at any research university in this country, and you will quickly be disabused of the notion that this is an issue for a relatively small number of women.

Furthermore, academics outside of science need to realize that, while balancing motherhood and a career is difficult for anyone in academia, being tied to a very expensive lab which you are required to fund poses unique challenges for women in science fields. In the comments to the Science article:

Tenured Prof
Hang on, though. Tenure vs. motherhood is something *ALL* academics face, whether in STEM fields or in the humanities, social sciences, business, education, etc. Why would becoming a mother be *MORE* of an obstacle to women in STEM than, say, women seeking tenure in the humanities or social sciences? Why is it so much “easier” to be a female literature professor than a female physics professor?

Alison Bernstein

From what I have seen, the difference between STEM and liberal arts is that in STEM, you are tied to a lab. My sister-in-law has a PhD in English and except for the few days she teaches a class, she can be anywhere in the world with a laptop and an internet connection. At least in biological sciences (where I am), this flexibility does not exist. I can’t take my ultra-centrifuge and confocal microscope home with me. That said, I have found one advantage to having a family while in grad school and during my post-doc (my husband is also a post-doc). The flexibility for hours is much greater than with other jobs. However, that flexibility does not make up for the trouble we had getting health insurance for our daughter when she was born. We were both grad students and not eligible for benefits for family. I will not name which top university I was at, but their suggestion was to go on Medicaid for her.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

2 thoughts on “Motherhood vs the Lab”

  1. I am a woman in STEM making a go in academia outside the R1 track and I have to say that I partially agree with Nelson’s point, if not the way that it is phrased. You’re right: motherhood is a huge issue for women in many labs. In fact, parenthood is a huge issue for men and women in many labs. Investments like in-house child care would be tremendously helpful and would significantly improve the lives of many women in science.

    However, I don’t think that the decision to leave academia (which is usually assumed to be R1 in this type of argument) is ever based on a single factor. If I think of all of the women I know who have left academia/R1, very few have left specifically because of motherhood. The prospect of finding a career that was conducive to one’s hypothetical, future motherhood was a factor for many, but not all. I don’t think that many of the interventions that are proposed to solve the gender imbalance problem like in-house child care would have tipped the balance in most cases: if you are willing to leave academia over motherhood, the prospect of being able to leave your child in in-house daycare versus finding other arrangements while you do an 18 hour experiment probably won’t change your mind that much.

    Investments would dramatically help improve the working conditions of women and men in labs and I am all for them. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee them resulting in a major influx of women who have left or a sudden end to women leaving academic careers. I could imagine the types of things that might start making those changes, but I am not sure that anything that has been proposed would, in isolation, result in a massive numbers change.

    In short: If the question is “is motherhood an issue in labs”, then the answer is yes, absolutely. However, if the question is “why is there a gender imbalance in terms of who leaves science and who stays”, then motherhood is not the sole answer.

    1. I certainly agree with you that there are many other factors involved, and I’m not willing to say that motherhood is “the biggest” factor. But greater support for researchers who are parents will certainly help more than a small fraction of women in academia, and that’s where I mainly disagree with Nelson.

      As the child of a Cornell professor, and as the father of four, it’s clear to me that an academic career, despite the flexibility, is not nearly as family-friendly as it should be. Much of this is because of the extremely long, inadequately compensated, so-called training period. I’m at a decision point in my career right now, and the fact that my kids are getting older and are going to require more financial stability is a huge issue. Do I stick it out a little longer, or do I give up on academia and take a job that I’m less interested in, but which will start paying the bills?

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