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John Harvard's Journal

A Woman in Science

September-October 2006

In my first year of doctoral studies in England, a group of colleagues and I gathered at the pub after work one evening, along with some senior professors, chatting generally about work and life. The conversation turned toward an upcoming visit by the significant other of the other woman present, one of our young female postdocs from overseas; she was very excited because she had not seen him in more than a year. One of the professors suddenly became very serious and said to both of us “You know, you ladies should really be focusing on your careers, and not on your relationships.” I was taken slightly aback, partly because I am not accustomed to receiving unsolicited advice on my personal life, but also because I could not possibly imagine the same professor giving the same advice in the same tone to a group of young male scientists.

One of the biggest barriers facing young women in science today, long before they ever marry or have children, is a lack of support and encouragement for the very prospect of those life events. Being unmarried and childless, I cannot yet speak from a personal perspective on how those challenges are compounded by a demanding career in research. This was, however, the first incident in my life where I encountered the oft-discussed “discrimination” against women in science, in attitude if not in action. In high school and as an undergraduate, I perceived no obvious barriers (despite being sometimes the only woman in my high school classroom) and I relished the chance to compete against and work with my male peers, who always treated me as an equal. I have had excellent mentors—nearly all male—whom I credit with guiding me into research and an outstanding graduate program, and I have never sensed a glimmer of condescension or anything but the utmost respect for me as a scientist-in-training. I am ashamed to admit that I despised my mother’s proud assertions that being a woman in science made me somehow special.

Upon beginning graduate school overseas, however, I quickly became aware of some of the negative experiences of female graduate students and postdocs and of the dearth of women at high levels in my department. At the same time, I began an unplanned but wonderful transatlantic relationship with a man who has been incredibly supportive of my work and career decisions. Yet for months I kept the very existence of this relationship under the office and lab radar, and then assured my colleagues (particularly my male superiors) that the long-distance relationship actually was positive because it allowed me to work more. (In truth, I would have been happier to come home each evening and share quotidian joys, chores, and challenges with someone who could help keep everything in perspective.) But as one of my office-mates observed recently, there is a subtle difference in the way male and female scientists’ personal relationships are valued by their colleagues. For the men in our group, being married or having an otherwise committed partnership seems to be viewed as a stabilizing, positive influence. Children are celebrated and displays of fatherhood are gushed over. For the women, relationships are regarded as a potential detriment to productivity—not something that should be encouraged.

Faced with this evidence, yet believing that my superiors here truly have (or intend to have) my best interests at heart, I puzzled over why a senior professor might warn two of the most promising, productive young women he has worked with that they should focus on their careers—even though they have left their respective relationships on the opposite side of an ocean apparently to do just that. I think that such “guidance” is at its core well intended, and has its roots in the fear of losing potentially excellent scientists to the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon once they begin family life. Senior scientists and professors spend a great deal of time and money seeking out the best potential researchers in whom to invest training and resources; losing this investment in their students’ long-term professional development is something they would like to avoid. Yet statistics and conventional wisdom tell us that women on the track to elite or high-demand careers often decide to leave, to focus on raising their families. This phenomenon certainly explains in part the dearth of women at the highest levels in academic science and medicine, despite constantly growing numbers in the training ranks.

As well-intentioned as the professor’s advice was, however, it was and is entirely counterproductive. One of the most significant barriers to women in science is the perception that they will become less valuable if they choose to start a family. This creates a strained working environment: women facing such subtle but pervasive attitudes may feel constantly insecure, believing that they have to prove their dedication to a degree beyond what would otherwise be reasonable—and their perception has some grounding in reality. Thus, even as concrete advances are made in work flexibility, tenure-clock adjustments, maternity/paternity leave, and other policies designed to achieve a healthy work-life balance for both sexes, the attitudes of those at the top have to change alongside, and possibly before, tangible policy modifications are put into place.

Ideally, this attitude adjustment would be rapid—but changing the minds of older generations of academics deeply entrenched in their work and ways of doing things poses a significant challenge. (It seems likely that those perpetuating such attitudes are not aware of the resulting negative effects because they are focused primarily on how to train and retain the best scientists.) One solution might be to raise awareness through frank discussion of this problem on all sides, from university administrators and faculty to funding bodies to students themselves. The entire research community will feel the benefits of such an important change. If young women receive active encouragement from the top down that balancing a research career and family life is possible and that they will be supported in their attempts to do so, they are much more likely to be enthusiastic about their prospects and remain in research as happy, productive scientists.

I do not know how I will balance a family and a career as a researcher, and I cannot plan for every situation or contingency. I wonder if I will be a good mother who can give her children the time and attention they deserve and will need to become productive members of society, all while writing grants, managing a lab, and publishing papers. These uncertainties can make me very nervous: I wonder how I will face making difficult sacrifices—and how I will decide what those are. Either way, if I have a mentor reminding me, “You can and will be able to do it, because you are a valuable scientist and will continue to be throughout your career,” I will feel less anxious about my life choices and more empowered to find the resources I need to make it work.

A recent graduate of the College, who concentrated in psychology, writes here anonymously. She suggested doing so after this magazine accepted her essay for publication, because, as she put it, her principal aim in writing was the dissemination of ideas. She is completing doctoral research at a university in England.