Thursday, January 16, 2014

So how many papers does having a baby cost?

I think we've all read the correspondence piece in Nature yesterday on how we don't need to worry about gender bias, because it really all comes down to women having babies and therefore publishing less papers. Lukas Koube, the author, already wrote this as a comment last year, but apparently Nature still thought this piece was worthy of being put in the journal. I don't think I need to add anything to what Melissa WilsonSayres wrote about it yesterday. She already says that it really is possible to be a scientist AND a parent, and that babies are often made by more than one person, and that the other parent (often, but not always a man) can also pitch in. And as we established last week, science is about generating ideas (or not?) and I might as well generate a scientific idea while nursing, or while changing a diaper.

Okay maybe I do want to add something: Really, Nature? Did you think someone who has published zero scientific papers knows whether you can publish papers while pregnant or taking care of a baby? And Lukas Koube, do you really think that that is the only thing holding women in science back?!

But it is something that is on my mind often: how many papers would I have had during this post-doc if I wouldn't have had children? Would I have worked harder and/or longer? I can say that I've become a lot more efficient since having BlueEyes. Perhaps I'm not in the lab as long, but I am very productive while I'm there (and so is my husband I have to add). But let's be scientific and calculate this: When I leave here in two months I will have been a post-doc for four years, in which I have had 2 children. I have taken 3 and 4 months of leave*, so that adds up to 7 months of not doing experiments (although currently a tech is doing some of my experiments). Also, during my pregnancies I was less productive than during non-pregnant periods because of being nauseous and tired and foggy (although working also helped to keep my mind off of feeling crappy)**. And the 1+ year of sleep deprivation also didn't add to productivity (but that was divided mostly equal between my husband and me). So say that I missed somewhere between 6 months to a year in productivity out of four years. That's 12.5-25% of my post-doc. I think that's an overestimation, but that would mean that instead of 4 papers I would have 3. Or instead of one or more high impact factor papers I would have medium impact factor papers.

BUT there are so many more factors to this: could better mentoring have led to more productivity (YES!), are publications in high impact factor journals dependent on which field you work in (yes), whether your data are negative (yes), whether stuff works like it's supposed to (yes), etc etc.

So to conclude: assuming I make it through the "post-doc to faculty bottle neck", in the bigger scheme of my scientific career this is going to be peanuts. If I am a scientist for the next 35 years (until I'm 65), then that 6 months to a year is only 1-2% of the time. And not every woman has children. So any disproportion of female to male authors more than 1% is due to something else than having babies. There, Lukas Koube. I just used some science to calculate this WHILE AT HOME WITH A BABY!

The biggest problem right now: using my precious nap time to blog about this instead of work on a paper...

* I know that some people (are able to) take more leave, and I also realize that many female scientists (at least me) won't be able to sit at home for 3 months without thinking or doing any science.
** Here I should add that my pregnancies were pretty smooth sailing, and I know that for some it can be 9 months of total agony. And for some people the process of becoming pregnant takes a lot of mental, emotional and physical energy.


  1. This, all of this! Especially the part about having to waste precious nap time energy addressing it. :)

    Have you and your partner already found post-postdoc positions?

    1. Yes! We both have jobs in the homecountry. So I'm also spending my precious nap time energy on organizing a move across the Atlantic ;-)

    2. I find your article both unsavory and intellectually dishonest. Everyone knows that outrage and anecdotal evidence are not cornerstones of good arguments.

      I don’t know how much more you could have publish if you never had kids and stayed in the lab a few more hours a day, that isn’t a scientific question.

      However, pointing out the logical fallacy that “under-representation = discrimination” is useful, especially since so many people make that mistake.

      People still believe the gender “wage gap is real”, instead of a statistical trick, despite the fact that even the Dept. of Labor under Obama published a rigorous study demonstrating that the vast majority of the gender wage gap disappears after taking into account just a few variables (men work more hours a week on average so they get paid for those hours.)

      A similar trend could be true of scientists and publishing, the problem is that evidence is never given, or even asked for, the assumption is made on solely ideological grounds.

      This assumption is unwarranted and deeply corrosive; challenging unproven assumptions is not misogynist, its science.

    3. How long have you been in the job market, Lukas? Do you work in science?

    4. @lukas: Oh, do you mean this US Dept. of Labor study: Because the Department of Labor's own studies show that the wage gap is most definitely real no matter how you measure it. Even the most conservative estimate, after differences in average weekly work hours are accounted for, shows a gap of 18-19 cents on the dollar. In their own words, the Department of Labor found that a woman facing this wage gap will "have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over her working lifetime".

      So if, as you argue, discrimination is an "unproven assumption", what do you call this actual research published in another leading science journal: In a double-blind study where scientists rated identical applications from people with female- and male-sounding names, "faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant."

      This is just one of *many* studies clearly documenting gender discrimination in the sciences that I could link you to. They're out there and easy to find, if only you want to look. We are all too busy publishing papers to do your work for you, after all. The fact of the matter is that you have entered a 400-level discussion with less than a 101-level of knowledge. Please go educate yourself before you embarrass yourself further.

  2. I'd like to say I'm surprised that Nature published such sexist garbage with zero scientific merit in this day and age... but given Nature's recent history on the subject, I'm really not.

    There actually has been a lot of research done on these questions. And on the questions of how to remove institutional barriers facing women in academia. If they're going to address this topic, they should at least put in citations. But that would involve them realizing they weren't the first people to ever have thought up this question. (I actually failed a student paper on this topic for exactly that reason-- no research done on the question and bad logical arguments.)

    Shame on Nature.

    1. can you explain how this amounts to "sexist garbage"? all i hear from this crowd is ad-homs, but the argumentation is rather thin.

      all the article stated was that women and men may make different choices in their lives, and that assuming the differences are necessarily the product of discrimination is nonsensical ideology at best.

    2. Shame on Nature.

      There actually has been a lot of research done on these questions. And on the questions of how to remove institutional barriers facing women in academia. If you're going to address this topic, you should at least put in citations. But that would involve you realizing you weren't the first person to ever have thought up this question.

      If Nature is going to publish letters to the editor with these "ground-breaking insights" then they need to only publish them from people who have ACTUALLY READ THE LITERATURE and are citing some of it. But if you had, then you wouldn't have sent such a stupid letter.

      Also you must not have been very old in 2005.

      (And no, it's not my job to educate you, but I'll be generous and suggest Why So Slow by Virginia Valian as a starting point. Lifting a Ton of Feathers is another good book with the research. These books are both ~10 years old and more research has come out since then. Particularly since the 2005 controversy. Your friendly research librarian can help you find more literature on this topic if you actually want to become educated rather than just bullying women and wasting their time.)

  3. assoc prof of biol with 2 kids. a career in science is a marathon not a sprint. months of baby care is nothing, truly nothing in your career.

  4. The other thing to consider, it that maybe all that imposed nurture time actually might improve your science. You may become more sympathetic, less concerned with what people think, better at delegating, and above all let your group, colleagues and collaborators know that it's ok to have children and be a scientist.

  5. This article misses the point entirely!

    The original article made the assumption that 100% of the difference between male and female publishing rates was due to discrimination. this is an obvious logical fallacy, and all the article did was point it out.

    there are many reasons (pregnancy and childcare being two) why women and men may have different rates of publishing. failing to take this into account is a serious flaw that needed to be fixed.

    ironically, i didnt see one person debunk the article, just a bunch of angry name-calling and personal attacks.

    1. Thanks for coming here to comment, if you're Lukas Koube. And if you're not, thanks for commenting too. I think it's true that there is a difference between how ambitious people are, but I don't think this separates by gender. And I think making young students believe that being female means you can't possibly publish as much as your male peers is a very damaging thing to do. There are loads of data out there showing what causes the 'leaky pipeline' for women in science and the Nature article doesn't cite a single one of them. This sexist handwaving is not helping anybody.

    2. Wow that's news to me - women are the sole gender responsible for procreation and thus must bear 100% of the commitment towards raising their children. Interesting.

    3. What article? What arguments? What evidence was cited to debunk? There are hundreds of scientific, peer-reviewed papers out there on why there is a gender gap in science and what improves that gap. If you (or the LETTER -- not article) writer aren't aware of those, that's your failure. Put your big boy pants on and do a little research. Then you can talk about debunking.

    4. In the literature, we see tremendous gaps in selection due to gender alone. Solve this, and you've solved much of the problem.

      You're clutching your pearls over a hangnail, while the rest of us are trying to stop arterial bleeding.

      Where did you get the 100% figure? If the article was 5% or 15% off, does it really matter? Can we just agree that the most significant problem is systematic bias, find ways to address that, and get on with our lives?

      This fiasco is making me wonder if wasting time arguing with men about discrimination might be more of a threat to women's publication quantity than childrearing.

    5. The reason no-one is debunking the original article is that it was so cluelessly unaware of the vast body of evidence for discrimination, and so blithely mansplaining in tone, that it was almost a satire. Seriously, it was like reading a letter from an art historian saying "epidemiologists should realize that correlation doesn't imply causation", and expecting to be admired for his insight.

  6. On the topic of the title of this post:
    The answer appears to be: None for married women in economics on average once selection is controlled for. Some subgroups (unmarried mothers, mothers of several children) are more negatively affected, however.

  7. Great blog post mama!! In the uk mamas tend to take nine months of leave for each baby (at least), due to maternity pay/leave legislation. I took seven months for my first and a year for my second and now I have opted to work part time. I'm losing much more footing in the publishing game and I will probably only opt to go full time in several years. But still, as you say, this is only a tiny part of thirty odd years of work x