Being a Woman in Science

How being a mother hurts woman's science careers 

Women have struggled to get ahead in science.  A lot of science fields, particularly physics and engineering are dominated by men.  I remember taking physics in university and there were probably 20 female students and 80 male students in our class of 100.  Being in, what are perceived as “softer” sciences like animal behaviour and evolutionary anthropology, even though they are not any easier than the “hard” sciences of physics and chemistry, I have been lucky to be surrounded by a lot of other female students, both in undergrad and grad school.  But for the most part our professors and advisors were male.  

The lack of female role models makes it difficult for young woman in science to see how they can shape their career and balance the demands of their families, as women tend to carry the brunt of childcare time costs.  It can be very detrimental to a woman’s career in science, especially in academia, if she has children, as that takes time away from working towards tenure.  


One of the reasons I left grad school after my masters and did not get my PhD was the pressure to publish and produce research is so demanding.  I want to have a family some day and the pressures on woman in academia are so high that is makes it difficult to balance it all.  It is not impossible though, one of the woman professors at Rutgers, has two children, but also a very supportive husband and Rutgers was supportive in her taking a sabbatical early so she could stay home with her newborn.    Not all institutions are like this though, and I have heard from other female friends in academia that job panels at some universities prefer single woman with no attachments (husbands or kids) as then they won’t be “distracted” by these things and can focus on their science and teaching duties.   These issues would probably never be brought up during an interview with a male job candidate as men are not as easily “distracted” by the needs of their children (which is a gross overstatement as men should be just as invested with their children’s care but most of this does fall on the woman).    

From the White Paper on the Position of Women in Science in Spain   “When comparing men and women with the same personal and professional characteristics, the same academic productivity, and both with children, we see that having children affects women much more negatively: a man with children is 4 times more likely to be promoted to Full Professor than a woman with children.”

It is not that woman who have children are less productive at work because of their different work/life balance needs that come with a higher time cost of children care but:

“Mothers were judged as significantly less competent and committed than women without children… Mothers were also held to harsher performance and punctuality standards. Mothers were allowed significantly fewer times of being late to work, and they needed a significantly higher score on the management exam than non-mothers before being considered hirable.”

These findings are worse than just the perceived notion that woman work less because they have more responsibilities at home than men but that being a mother in and of itself causes woman to be perceived as less likely to be successful at their job and less likely to get hired

This discrimination can be not so subtle at times too.  From a great article on Slate by Mary Ann Mason:  “consider the postdoctoral particle physicist who brought a lawsuit that was settled. She was effectively blacklisted by her adviser when she had a baby. When she was pregnant, her adviser said he would refuse to write her a letter of recommendation unless she returned from her pregnancy leave soon after giving birth.”    

Job interviews are not much better: “One job candidate we interviewed said “ I also had the experience of being in an interview, mentioning my child, and seeing the SC’s [search committee head’s] face fall, and that was the end of the job. Although there could have been a million reasons, there is no doubt that having a child did not help my candidacy in that case.”

Other issues woman face in academia isthe“two-body problem”  of being married or in a serious relationship with their partner who is possibly in academia too and has to defer her career options for his.  With the academic job market being so competitive it can be hard for two PhD’s to find jobs at the same university or in the same city.  Moving to where the jobs are is very common for academics and even if a woman is not with another academic, her husband’s job may be location dependent and woman tend to be the one’s to sacrifice their career goals for their husbands.    

All of these reasons and more were why I stepped away from academia and decided to start my own business, Primate Tales.  Even though the demands of being an entrepreneur are high as well, I am in control and can take as much work as I can handle given my life.  I also wanted to be in Toronto, close to the important people in my life.    At the moment I am child free but that will probably change in the next five years and I wanted the flexibility to have children and family and not have it affect my career so negatively.  

More needs to be done to support woman in the sciences that choose to have a family.  A woman should not be punished by deciding to have children.  Especially being in biology professors should understand the biological need and drive that a lot of woman feel to have children and they should not have to give up that to have a successful career as well.  

I hope more universities follow the positive support I have seen for mother’s at Rutgers.  Many of my fellow grad students had children as well and I never saw their advisors put them down for their choices.

While it is so important that we encourage girls to pursue science when they are in elementary and high school, we also need to ensure that when these girls become woman they are still supported in having a family while obtaining the careers in science they aspire too and have trained for.  

women in science

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