Should women in science have to choose between starting a career and starting a family?


Last week Nature published a short correspondence – and people got really angry.  In case you missed it, here is a short summary of events. It started when Nature published an update on their efforts to reduce the gender bias in their publication.  This was inexplicably followed by Nature also publishing an ill-conceived short correspondence criticizing their efforts and blaming the inequality on women’s decisions to have children.  A number of people responded to the piece (including here, here, and here) and in response, Nature issued a strongly worded mea culpa.

I find that the most frustrating part of this whole fiasco is not that top tier journals sometimes publish things they shouldn’t (I think we already knew that), but that it sidetracks the discussion away from the types of conversations that we should really be having.  The underrepresentation of women in top tier journals (as well as math and science fields in general) is a real problem.  When half of our brightest minds aren’t being fully represented, we all lose out, regardless of the cause.  However, understanding the cause allows us to implement the appropriate solutions.

There also happen to be people studying this issue and producing (data-based) publications.  For example, there was an interesting article published in PNAS in 2011 by two researchers at Cornell that investigated the current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science.

In the article, the authors make the argument that efforts to correct biases against women in publishing, grants, and hiring over the last 30 years have been a success story.  So much so, that most of the discrimination that we saw in the past has disappeared.  (However, please note that there is also data, published in the same journal, that suggests we still have a ways to go.)

The conclusion that they draw from their analysis of the data is that women are, in fact, still under-represented in top-tier journals.  They also conclude that, for a large part, this occurs because women’s career decisions do tend to conflict with family decisions.  As a result, many female scientists do not end up in positions in which they have equal available resources.  Thus, despite our efforts to reduce discrimination in publishing, funding, and hiring, there are deeper issues that are still maintaining the disparity.

However, IMPORTANTLY, they do not stop there.  As the authors so eloquently put it:

“To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem. However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.”

Even more importantly, there are strategies for reducing the degree to which women’s choices are constrained.  Suggestions include:

“The GAO report lists strategies, such as stopping tenure clocks for family formation and tenure-track positions segueing from part-time to full-time. Gender Equity Committees have suggested adjusting the length of time to work on grants to accommodate child-rearing, no-cost grant extensions, supplements to hire postdocs to maintain momentum during family leave, reduction in teaching responsibilities for women with newborns, grants for retooling after leaves of absence, couples-hiring, and childcare to attend professional meetings.”

And there are good examples of universities that are implementing this type of policy:

“The UC-Berkeley’s “Family Edge” provides high-quality childcare and emergency backup care, summer camps and school break care, and reentry postdocs and instructs committees to ignore family-related gaps in CVs.”

I think that we should start by asking ourselves why women need to make a choice at all.  To the extent that our system is incompatible with the familial constraints, we should ask why.  Is it because it is necessarily that way or is it because it is traditionally that way?  For example, there is evidence that, in Biology, female scientists that have lower productivity early in their career (when they have a young family), have a greater impact later in their career.  Should we reduce the opportunity for women to contribute to science in their 40’s and 50’s because of constraints they faced earlier in their life?  Is it necessary that taking a year or two off completely derails one’s career?

What do you think?

(For more on these issues, you can also check out Sarah Hird’s post: Self-confidence of women in science and a camel.)

Works Cited:

Shen, Helen. (2013) Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature 495: 22–24.

Ceci, Stephen J. and Wendy M. Williams. (2011) Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS 108: 3157–3162.

Moss-Racusin, Corinne A. et al. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS 109: 16474–16479.

Long, J. Scott. (1992) Measuring sex differences in scientific productivity. Social Forces 71: 159-178.

7 comments on “Should women in science have to choose between starting a career and starting a family?

  1. Ryan Terrill says:

    I totally agree with the last few sentences — I think a large part (but not all) of the problem these days is that the narrow and intense expected career path for scientists leaves little room for alternate paths or adjusting balance in life. Not only that, but it seems that even having children is an “alternate path” for a scientist, which leaves female scientists in a bind, and most likely affects the time that fathers have for their families too. I don’t think just working around families will fully solve the issue either (though it would help), because the expected career path is the problem. I know plenty of people who would have been much better off if they had gone backpacking for a year after getting their PhD instead of rushing into a Postdoc and job; and I think Google has taught us well that someone that has a happy, balanced life is generally much more productive and creative than the alternative.

  2. Amy Dapper says:

    Well said – I agree!

  3. Macrobe says:

    ‘Should’ we? So many factors enter that question and determine the answer. I dropped out of my PhD program because of family issues which demanded more of my time than I could otherwise give. I remember the torment of questioning myself which was more important: completing my PhD, or providing the attention and time my daughter required? Ironically and in retrospect, I don’t regret my decision. Although the lack of the degree was a hindrance in equity pay for twenty years, my career was PhD-equivalent and self-rewarding without much of the stress associated with a PhD. And my daughter is grateful to this day, even as an adult, that I was able to be the Mom she needed.

  4. Kate Jeffery says:

    Wow, so many good things in this, it’s hard to know where to start!

    I’ve got one major comment to your post which is that you left out discussion of one really important point, which is why it is that this is a problem faced by women and not men. Both sexes reproduce. Only women give birth, true, but that’s a minor disruption in the whole scheme of things. It’s what comes *after* that’s what holds women back – the fact that women are expected to do most of the childcare and housework for all the years afterwards. So many women-in-science discussions never question that expectation.

    My second point is that while I think it’s great that we have all these schemes now to help women – childcare and summer camps and the like – that’s all finger-in-the-dyke stuff really. It isn’t going to fix the problem – which is, as I see it, that our profession has (for no good reason) a winner-take-all structure, in which resources are sequestered by a few, at the expense of the many, leaving no room for part-time work or for people who want to do other things than just science. There’s no good reason why Professor A earning 100k and running a lab with 10 people that produces a Science paper every year should be more valued than Professor B earning 50k who runs a lab with 5 people and a produces a Science paper only every other year. You could hire two of the latter for the same cost and same total output. But for whatever reason, we evaluate only total output and not output per unit input, so Professor A survives and B doesn’t. Eventually, as the winners take all, the profession ends up with only Type-A’s – usually men. Until we can arrange things so that scientists are evaluated on value-for-money rather than total output, then those who can gain control of the most resources will win it all, and that is less likely to be women (for very many reasons).

    • I agree completely.

      The problem is made even worse because academic women often marry academic men. And until they get tenure, academics are expected to move every 1-3 years. What’s optimal for one partner is rarely optimal for the other, career-wise, so one partner’s career gets sacrificed. Whose? Given that the environment is so competitive, it makes sense for the family to sacrifice the career that’s already compromised — Mom’s. Which means Mom repeatedly loses any support network she had, and may find herself in a place where she doesn’t speak the language and/or can’t legally work. And that disadvantage snowballs over time. Since her career is already devalued, it’s better for the family if she’s the one waking up nights, caring for the sick baby, picking up from day care, co-opping at pre-school, etc. Nobody needs to be sexist for Mom to completely lose her career while Dad attains tenure — it’s just families acting out of rational self-interest.

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  6. […] Should women in science have to choose between starting a career and starting a family? (via @NothingInBio, HT @BabyAttachMode): “To the extent that our system is incompatible with the familial constraints, we should ask why.” […]

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