Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Special Challenges of Being Both a Scientist and a Mom

Rebecca Calisi
Scientific American
March 30, 2018

From the article:

"Being a woman, a scientist and now a mother in a system created for and by white men with stay-at-home partners obviously has its problems. Many of us are either pushed out or decide to set sail for smoother waters. Sometimes when I hear exclamations of “we need to inspire more women to pursue the sciences!” I think: We’re here! We want to do science! But how can we when, to advance, we’re forced to run at double the speed of our male colleagues on a career track clouded by bias and covered in LEGOs?

"Sometimes people ask me why I bother to stay in a career so hostile to women. I remind them the culture is changing, more quickly in some places than others. I also remind them it is not just science or academia in general that harbors this sex-biased hostility. My friends in law, business and entertainment have horrified me with unjust tales from their workplaces. And yet many of us stay the course, determined to both overcome and overturn obstacles in our paths to pursue our goals and passions. We do so by standing on the shoulders of fierce women who came before us, our forward momentum toward a destination made visible by their efforts, a hand hopefully extended behind us to pull up those even less privileged.

"A few months ago I traveled across the country to attend a scientific conference. For me, if science were a town, conferences would be the town square. Thousands of people from all over the world convened at this particular conference to present their work, learn of the latest research findings and technologies, develop new ideas and collaborations, find inspiration, meet with granting agencies, recruit trainees, find jobs and in general be part of a greater community. I had always loved attending conferences for these reasons.

"Unfortunately, in the past few years that had become more difficult for me due to pregnancy, breast-feeding, and child care issues and responsibilities. But now, at this particular meeting, pregnancies and breast-feeding were behind me. I was a faculty member at an institution I loved, making a decent salary. My husband, also a new professor, was caring for our children back at home in collaboration with responsible day care providers we could finally afford. I leaned against a wall inside the conference center, warmed by sunlight streaming in from a nearby window. I took a deep breath, slowly sipped my hot tea and scrolled hungrily through the scientific program. I had survived. I was back.

"In between lectures and poster presentations, I wondered around the conference hall in search of their lactation room. Though I no longer needed it, I was still curious to see if it had improved from the previous year. Last time, to reach the lactation room required an epic journey away from the main conference hall. Most nursing moms forewent the pilgrimage, instead ducking into nearby corners to feed their babies or pump milk in bathrooms so as to make it to their presentations in time. Pumping milk in a bathroom is a nasty affair, one that I’ve written about. Would you want your meal made in a bathroom?

"As I continued my search, I was happy to see child care was available on location, which is undeniably an incredibly helpful resource for attendees with children in tow. Be that as it may, those arguably in the most sensitive period of their career stage—namely graduate students, postdocs and new faculty—are usually the ones in need of these services the most and yet cannot afford them. When I was a postdoc, I couldn’t even afford to buy an extra plane ticket for my child to fly to a conference with me, let alone pay for child care once I got there.

(read more)

Blog note:

Among a number of topics confronting women scientists, the article mentions the lack of support for breast feeding mothers at conferences.  In addition to many conferences and work places having no, or inadequate, lactation rooms, most science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) work places have no on-site day care.  Adding to this complexity is the fact that not only childcare, but spring break, fall break and summer programs for older children are beyond the means of most middle class family incomes.

Most STEM work places expect their employees to work at least until 6pm, but schools close before 4pm.  The burden of having to leave work early to pick children up from school usually falls on the parent with the lower salary (usually the mother.)  Employees who leave work earlier than 6pm are often viewed negatively.  In fact, this is one of the gendered inequalities mentioned in a class action lawsuit against Qualcomm in 2016:  women engineers were viewed negatively for leaving work before 6pm and were penalized in their pay and advancement opportunities for it.

In a society that purports to care about families, I marvel at the paucity of childcare and maternal care.  For most families today, it is not possible to get by on one income.  On the surface, we constantly promote STEM careers to both girls and boys.  Yet, beyond monitoring hiring statistics in STEM careers, our policies to address the causes of the attrition rate for women in STEM from high school onward are almost non-existent. 

The Scientific American article also mentions the lack of healthcare for mothers once they have given birth.  It is a little known fact that birth injuries are widely under diagnosed, and under treated, and have serious life long negative health impacts for mothers [1].

In addition to gender discrimination, gender based harassment, unconscious bias, lack of maternal support before and after giving birth in a myriad of ways, mothers are further penalized for taking time out to take care of their young children.  Once mothers do attempt to re-enter the workforce, there are almost no programs in universities or industry to facilitate this.  There is no evidence at all that corporations are interested in hiring this cohort of often highly trained and experienced women scientists and engineers.  Speaking from my own experience, in spite of my having had a Master's Degree in electrical engineering, and about ten years of work experience, my experience of trying to re-enter my engineering career after being a full time mom could be the basis for a lengthy tragicomedy.  This very negative experience of re-entering the workforce is more than five years behind me, but I still have people down grading my worth as an engineer because I took time out to be a mom. 

I often hear my colleagues (almost all male) bring up differences in career outcomes for women because of some underlying biological difference.  These arguments circle around biologically, genetically or hormonally based differences that lead to women's lack of confidence, lack of aggression, excessive sociability and agreeability, propensity to be more altruistic than men, greater "hysteria", and greater verbal ability versus mathematical or spatial ability.

You could break each of these characteristics down, spend the next century creating studies and collecting statistics, and find that some of these differences have a subtle basis in reality.  But these would be subtle effects, whereas being blocked from being hired, paid, developed, mentored, funded and promoted are not subtle in their impact on women in STEM, and on society.  Being asked to choose between a STEM career and a family has a not subtle large negative effect on the advancement of women engineers and scientists, on family incomes and on overall economic productivity. Poor maternal care has a not subtle large negative affect on all mothers, including women in STEM, and on their families.

Until these large effects are addressed, I am not interested in discussing the subtle differences between men and women.  Researchers who say they are interested in discussing gender disparities, yet focus on the possibility of biology and genetics as the primary cause of the disparity, as opposed to the large, not subtle, negative experiences of women and mothers in the STEM workplace, are highly insincere, not objective, and do cause great harm to women, families and society.

Marnie Dunsmore

[1] Maternal birth trauma: why should it matter to urogynaecologists?; Dietz, Hans P.; Wilson, Peter D.; Milsom, Ian; Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology: October 2016 - Volume 28 - Issue 5 - p 441–448

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