Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out

Juggling family life and a career in science is a struggle for women, Elizabeth Whitelegg observes

January 8, 2009

This book presents autobiographical accounts of American women who have endeavoured to combine science careers with motherhood. It reveals the struggles of "ordinary" women scientists, who strive to achieve a balance between their roles as mothers and their ambitions for a career as a scientist. The accounts are contextualised by section introductions that provide some references to the literature on women's position in science, but this is not the main thrust of the book. The book's strength lies in the women's personal accounts. These accounts are grouped by the decade in which each scientist was awarded her PhD, spanning the period from the 1970s to the 2000s. The chapters could have been ordered differently, but this approach is effective because it allows themes to emerge that can be compared across the decades, so providing impact when comparing the situations faced by the scientists in the earlier decades with the present time.

The earlier chapters are written by women who have largely reached an accommodation with their lives as scientists and as mothers. With the benefit of hindsight they put their experiences into perspective, seeing how sometimes painful career choices may have led towards new opportunities. This reflection leads to a somewhat more positive picture emerging than can have been present at the time. It suggests that despite the difficulties faced by these pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s, when viewed from their current eminent positions, the struggle to progress careers in the early years (when children were small and the women were fledgling scientists) was relatively short-lived and the hurdles easily overcome. In addition, we might think things are different 30 years on.

However, the final section of the book, set in the 2000s, offers a different and more worrying picture. Here we hear from US postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers facing institutional systems that appear to have improved little since those earlier decades. The stories they tell are sometimes shocking, certainly to those of us working in more enlightened institutions, for more flexible bosses, in countries where maternity leave is a statutory right and where childcare may be subsidised. The women in these chapters reveal, for instance, a lack of statutory maternity leave for postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows; one even talks of being sacked for getting pregnant. These hurdles may also be present in research and academia beyond science, but are multiplied by the demands of working as a research scientist, in the laboratory or in the field.

A recurring theme that spans all four decades is that of the tenure track system in US universities. Tenure is generally achieved five to six years after gaining a PhD on the award of substantial research grants and publication of papers in prestigious journals. Because PhDs are often gained later in the US than in Britain, the candidate may then be in her late twenties or early thirties, and all the while the biological clock is ticking, so it is not surprising that many women scientists start a family at one of the most difficult times in their careers - while trying to achieve tenure. Many of the authors write about the need for flexibility in their careers, or the need to work part-time, none of which aided their push for tenure. As a result, their ability to manage their careers and their children depended to a great extent on the sympathetic attitudes of some far-sighted superiors.

Above all, the stories spell out the need for a culture of flexibility, by the women themselves and by their superiors and institutions. Many highlight the need to adjust goals and aspirations in order to combine careers with motherhood. There are those who emphasise their love for science as the motivation to achieve success, despite the hurdles, while others emphasise the need for compromise and careful selection of location, bosses and colleagues.

Any scientist who is also a mother will recognise and empathise with many of the experiences in this book, while those who are yet to have children would benefit from the advice given here. Many of the stories are inspirational and one can only hope that the achievements they document will provide encouragement to women who follow. They reveal skills, achieved through the experience of motherhood, which these women were able to feed into their careers; benefits to the institutions that hired them and to science by relating different ways to pursue a career; alternative ways of measuring success; and new perspectives.

While the accounts here are of the US system, and so some career barriers may be different from those in other countries, there is much that will speak meaningfully to women scientists and to those contemplating this journey, as well as the institutions that employ and fund them.

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out

Edited by Emily Monosson

Cornell University Press, 232pp, £12.50

ISBN 9780801446641

Published 1 June 2008

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