Can Women in Science Also Have Kids?


I was in graduate school in 2005.  During the Spring semester, I was enrolled in two courses which I adored and looked forward to daily. One was “The History of Science” with Dr. Pamela Gossin and the other was “Women in Science and Science Fiction” with Dr. Edrie Sobstyl.

I also had an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son.  I was a teaching assistant at my university as well. I thought it would kill me.

I’ve always had an interest in science and love to learn about process and theory, but sadly, I’ve never had the math brain to pursue “real” science. But I knew plenty of brilliant women who did.  I knew what would be required of them, far more than would be asked of someone in humanities pursuing a doctoral degree.  Many of these young women also wanted to have children.  They wondered and worried about how they could pursue the intellectual life they loved and the emotional life they also desired.  There was no good answer.

But we all realized how the system was “stacked” for men. So in the winter of 2005, when Harvard President Lawrence Summers made  dismissive remarks about women’s intellectual abilities, many of us balked at how unfair such comparisons were,  The reasons women were not reaching the upper echelons of research and academia had almost nothing to do with ability. Instead, what mostly held (and holds) women back is a system designed around the lives and needs of men.   A recent article on this topic in the Atlantic by Nicholas H. Wolfinger clearly articulates those reasons.  Wolfinger writes:

“[L]ess than one half of tenured female faculty all disciplines are married with children. Consequently, aspiring female scholars don’t have a lot of role models, especially those who’ve managed to combine marriage and children with a successful career in academic science…Married female scientists are almost always in dual-career marriages, while only around half of male faculty have wives who work full-time. One spouse must defer, and that spouse is likely to be wife (unfortunately we have no data on same-sex unions, or non-marital live-in relationships). And unlike in most other professions, taking an academic job typically requires relocation to another state. The baby penalty is even easier to understand. Many women are loath to face the demanding “publish or perish” assistant professor years while caring for young children; cognizant of this challenge, some academic search committees are reluctant to hire women perceived to be on the mommy track rather than the tenure track. These problems persist because the rigid academic career structure really doesn’t offer women any good time to have children.

There are some ways to combat this problem and keep talented women who also want to have families in university research.  First, Wolfinger suggests two important amendments:  “tenure-clock stoppage and parental leave.”   The latter, parental leave, he argues, should be entitlements, not rights granted through “special accommodations that have to be requested and approved.”  Wolfinger acknowledges that many institutions do grant leave, but because the time off is only available to women, most women feel stigmatized by taking advantage of it.  However, if the leave was granted to both men and women and men were encouraged to take the time off as well, the stigma would lessen and families would be strengthened in the process.

Even more important than leave for both men and women “would be a reversible part-time option for tenure-track faculty.  The most recent data we located showed that over half of American corporations let parents go part-time, but less than ten percent of colleges and universities do so…This option preserves existing tenure standards but extends the probationary period. The key to the policy is the right to return to full-time employment down the road. ”

The third point Wolfinger makes is to give maternity leave to graduate students as “only 13 percent of female graduate students had access to at least six weeks of unrestricted leave (the corresponding figure for faculty is 58 percent).”  This needs to change, he argues.

Intellectually inept? Hardly.  Accommodations that really aren’t that difficult to adopt will create a more level playing field and will keep some of our top minds in research.