Is Motherhood Keeping Good Scientists Down? How to Fix Research's "Mommy Gap"

Since Lawrence Summers’s ill-considered remarks at a 2005 economicsconference (he blamed the lack of tenured female scientists on theirbiologically inferior intelligence and aptitude; he was president ofHarvard University at the time), there has been a steady stream of books, reports, and panel discussions chronicling the woes of women who wear lab coats.

Last week, the Center for American Progress (CAP) reported that family obligations (read: child rearing) are still pushing young female researchers out of science. The findings build on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report from earlier this year that also dissected the biases against women in science, but concluded that much progress was being made. Taken together, the two studies suggest that the stumbling block for women researchers is not being a woman but being a mother.

The NAS study found that although women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool for faculty positions in math, science, and engineering, women who do apply are hired at rates equal to or higher than men. In mathematics, for example, women made up only 20 percent of the applicant pool but received 32 percent of the job offers. But according to the CAP study, which compared not only women to men, but parents to those without children, married women with children were 35 percent less likely to secure a tenure-track position than married men with children, and 33 percent less likely to do so than single women without children.

There's no dearth of suggestions on how to fix the problem. The National Association for Women in Science suggests that universities make a more concerted effort to recruit women for open faculty positions—by targeting their advertising toward women and being sure to include female faculty members on any search committee.

The CAP recommends providing financial support to labs to offset the productivity loss when a scientist takes family leave, and providing women who are pregnant or have newborns with special funds to hire a technician to help them out in the lab.

And the NAS and others have endorsed "stopping the tenure clock" for faculty members who want to start families. Tenure-track scientists have a certain number of years to establish themselves—which means publishing as many influential papers in as many prestigious journals as possible, usually over the first decade of their employment. Stopping the clock means adding an extra year or two to that time frame to allow for a less productive year after the birth of a child.

Those all sound like good ideas, and depending on which report you read, some of them are being implemented effectively and are indeed making a difference. But none of those solutions addresses the real problem. It’s not innate gender differences that hold women back (just look at this year’s Nobel Prize winners in science). It’s not even gender bias (OK, maybe a little, but that’s not the biggest problem). It’s that science is demanding and very, very competitive. No matter how family-friendly a given university is, a scientist who chooses to have a baby risks having her next big breakthrough scooped up by a competitor who chooses to spend 24/7 in the lab. Changing that will take more than a handful of policies; it will require changing the nature of the game itself. I don't think that's possible, and I'm not entirely convinced it's desirable. It’s competition, after all, that spurs innovation and advancement.

What should be possible is distributing those trade-offs more evenly between women and men. Instead of obsessing over mother-scientists, universities should strive to create an atmosphere that encourages their male scientists to be active fathers. Only then will both genders be equally compelled to confront the family-work balance issue that right now rests too squarely on the shoulders of women.

Some suggestions: Pay female scientists as much as their male counterparts, so that when scientist couples plan for a family, the woman isn’t automatically compelled to ditch her career simply because she earns less and he earns more. Have paternity leave on par with maternity leave; if you’re going to stop the tenure clock for child rearing, extend that offer to new fathers as well as new mothers.

The rest will be up to the mother-scientists themselves. After factoring out the nine months of pregnancy, women who want to be scientists and have families are faced with the same problem as men who want to do the same: time. Science and parenthood are two more-than-full-time jobs, and there are not enough hours in the day to do both. Men seem to have gotten around this problem easily enough by having their wives stay at home and take care of the whole parenting thing while they run their labs, publish their papers, and rise through the ranks of their respective disciplines. Women, I think, have four choices: choose a mate who will either stay at home with the kids or split the parenting responsibilities down the middle (I mean really split them, not just pretend to split them); accept a less ambitious career path (a smaller university, more teaching, less research or a less competitive area of research); or hire some help (and accept that you will not get to see your kids as much).

No matter what institutions or individuals do, having both a career—any career—and children requires making choices, and then making sacrifices. The more demanding the career and the more ambitious the individual, the more difficult those choices will be. But women shouldn’t be the only ones who have to choose.

Interlandi is a writer for NEWSWEEK.

Join the Discussion