Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On parent-friendly science

So a lot of people, for example Erin McKiernan and TSZuska share my opinion that the recent piece in Nature kind of misses the point in trying to show that it is a piece of cake to combine a career in academia with being a mom. However, when I talk about this with friends or with my husband, their comment is often:”So who cares when women quit science because they want to stay home with their kids? What if these women don’t want academic careers, but they just want to be a stay-at-home mom?” I find it hard to formulate a good answer to this, because sure, if women want to stay home then that’s their choice. But I think that often it is not their choice to leave academia, but it is the academic culture that makes it incredibly difficult to pursue an academic career as a woman/parent/both. 

As Zuska says:
  But every time we devote words and energy to discussing How Women Can Be Mothers And Scientists Too! we are not discussing What The Hell Is Wrong With Science And How Can It Be Fixed.
So let’s move on to what I think can be done to fix this.

First off, it would be great if having babies and putting those babies in daycare would be easier, especially when you’re a post-doc and you don’t have all the money to arrange help in any way you would want. But this is not really changing science, it is just changing the environment around us a little bit.

What would also be great is if you could be a scientist also if you don’t love insecurity about your job. It would be awesome if there were more research associate/staff scientist type of positions for those of us who LOVE to do science but who HATE the fact that science can only be done on a short-term contract OR on a super-hard-to-get tenure track position that in itself means tons of insecurity in terms of getting grants. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a science job that doesn’t come with tons of disappointment…?

Next, it seems like right now it is impossible to take some time (i.e. few years) off to take care of children when they are very little. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that and then be able to come back as an academic scientist? I sure would consider it. Or work part-time for a bit when your children are little.

Finally, for women it would be beneficial if grants and papers would be judged either anonymously or with only your last name on it. In comparison with the two items above this seems like something that can be pretty easily implemented right?

All this is coming to you from a disgruntled post-doc who just heard that she didn’t make the cut to be interviewed for a TT position in the home country and who is in a lab where funding is running out, while desperately trying to find grant money to support myself. I'm going to go dream about this fairytale land where you never have to worry about grants and you can do science with the unicorns.


  1. So sorry to hear about your grant, we just got bad news as well this week and are scrambling to figure out our next move.

    These are all great suggestions. I think the one thing missing is to allow for parental leave (i.e. both genders) to not take away from young investigator status. In Canada any time taken off for parental leave can actually extend grant eligibility -- meaning that if you had a kid during your postdoc, you can apply for that 'young postdoc' grant a few extra months after the fact. The US has no such extension policy.

    Also, the need for flexibility is pervasive in science. It's not just for babies -- older kids have tons of extra-curriculars that need attending/organizing, and aging parents can add an additional load.

    1. Yes you're right on both things. Right now it just seems like there is one path to success and everyone has to fit into that mold and if you don't it's incredibly hard to stay in academic science.

      Also good luck to you on figuring out what your next move will be!

  2. Nature would be better off apologizing for Womanspace. It's obvious that they're out of touch.

  3. I personally think that the issue is exactly not about science per se, but about "having babies and putting them into daycare". Science is just so competitive as a field that it can be used as a good indicator of gender injustice in the society in general. But it is not the only field like that.

    Also what does not seem to help at all is that "a woman with kids" is perceived as a stereotype. And so women themselves - good, active, generous, clever women - fought this stereotype for so long, and keep fighting. It's like a stereotype of a stereotype, a second-degree discrimination, in a way. Women had to fight for not being obliged to make raising babies there only occupation; and they did it for so long that now those who still want to have some kids don't find sympathy in either camp. A scientist who puts her baby in a nursery is not a good enough mom for stout conservatives, but she is also not enough of a liberation soldier for passionate scientists. She is attacked from two sides at the same time. At least that's how I perceive it, and I really hate it, to be honest.

    But my feeling is that it is still just a reflection of a global problem in the society; a projection of a global problem onto this one particular scientific subculture. And science can not try to solve problems in the society by making itself less efficient: at least not in this way. Science can take the lead (theoretically), say, by guaranteeing certain daycare-related things, I don't know, by introducing better rules for the maternity leave... But it can not solve the problems that are external to it. Oppose maybe, alleviate, but not solve.

    Still the current situation is really really frustrating. The personal choices, the unnecessary sacrifices people take... Oh my God. It is so sad.