Friday, August 15, 2008

Roll call for role models

Career & family, I'm sure that is an internal debate in the mind of every working woman. While aspiring to be a scientist, I always wondered if one could have both. I remember stressing out about this when I was in my senior year in college. I was worried that I hadn't met many female professors that had a family too. I was complaining to my father that there were no "good examples" out there and he said to me: "Ask me again in 20 years and I should be able to give you one." That was the best advice I ever received and has kept me going all these years. Even though I have met a few "examples" recently, I always remember that I need to be my own role model.

At the end of my pregnancy with first son, a newly-hired female professor at the department I was at came up to me and said she was really excited to see me at the bench. She always thought pregnancies were such a hindrance that to make it as a professor meant you couldn't have kids. She was glad I was showing all the female students in the department that they could have a family and do science. I had an easy pregnancy and ended up working up to my due date, so everyone got to see me really big. And I could see the smiles from the students in the hallways, as they saw me coming to work very day. It felt good to be a role model.

During both pregnancies, I started hearing a lot about other women's views on career and family conciliation. Several female professors started mentioning their pregnancy and family stories. It felt like I was admitted to this exclusive club that I didn't know existed. Where were these women when I was worried it could not be done? As Moira Sheehan pointed out in her Nature jobs postdoc journal:

In general, other researchers' family lives seemed so hidden to me before now. Are such discussions taboo or just mundane? I used to think it was the former, but now I'm inclined to believe it's the latter. For me, it's just life. I often feel as if I have to explain to others what having children entails — especially to single people and those without children. But now I see that plenty of other people don't think it's an extraordinary feat.

It might not be an extraordinary feat, but it is clearly not laid out in the open. Why doesn't "family" come out in conversations with female professors, while male professors always seem to mention that their wife stays home with the kids? I always thought the latter was the problem, the bad advice that one needs a "wife" to have kids. However, the lack of realistic discussions about career and family might be the biggest problem. Are women keeping women out of science?

In grad school I attended a "women in science" round table discussion. The three invited speakers were great examples of how you can be successful as a scientist, but their personal lives were not very inspiring. When asked about their family, one said right out that she never wanted kids while another got divorced because her husband couldn't cope with her successful career. I could feel the shivers that went through the auditorium. Throughout that entire discussion no one said you could have both.

I hope to inspire female students to pursue scientific careers and increase the representation of women in science. The number of women achieving graduate degrees in science has increased throughout the past decade, but many abandon their career goals due to discouragement from their mentors and peers. Only a small percentage of women seek academic careers and the number of role models for female science students is very limited. I look forward to being a role model and to showing students that it is possible to have a scientific career and a family. However, it isn't a happily ever after fairy tale. It requires hard work and compromises, but it can be done.

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