Cultures, Social Behavior

Between the Bench and the Bottle: Women in Leadership Experiment with Motherhood and Careers in Science

women in leadership

Chien Shiung-Wu, also called First Lady of Physics, said once,

“I sincerely doubt that any open-minded person really believes in the faulty notion that women have no intellectual capacity for science and technology. Nor do I believe that social and economic factors are the actual obstacles that prevent women’s participation in the scientific and technical field. The main stumbling blocking the way of any progress is and always has been unimpeachable tradition.”

For those of us who want to become women in leadership and have careers that are long and impacting on the fields we inhabit, we certainly have a lot to overcome. Even if we conquer the possible harassment, unequal pay, and discrimination that have been well documented in the working world, when we decide to become mothers, we then have to conquer our own biology to remain active in our careers.

This is especially true in the fields of science and mathematics where vigorous schooling and workloads make it incredibly hard to become an attentive parent (or vice versa). Though we carry the responsibility of being beautiful vessels of life, many people, policies, and careers fail to give that responsibility the respect it deserves.

This often leaves women with a huge choice: spend life progressing their scientific careers or choose to experiment in being a parent. But why can’t we do both?

It is well documented that women are a minority in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Many programs and campaigns have been implemented in the past decade to recruit more women into these fields, but to little effect. According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise only 25% of the STEM workforce. Even if the campaigns work to recruit women into STEM degrees in university, many will not complete the STEM degree or will, later in their career, drop out of the field. But why? The reasons behind this differ, and there is research pointing to the fact that many women are simply not that interested in STEM careers, but recent investigation suggests that many women are making the choice to leave the laboratory so they can be mothers.

The Prevalence of Mothers in STEM Studies and Scientific Careers

A thorough study published in American Scientist suggests that women in leadership positions have careers equivalent to men in the same position until they plan to have children. Just the idea of becoming a parent exerts a stronger force on a woman’s career than on a man’s and for valid reasons. The path to a successful career in science requires many years of schooling, starting with a bachelors degree and ending with a PhD. This is followed by a few post-doc positions to gain research experience after the PhD, then finally, a full-fledged career in industry or academia.

Women’s fertility cycles clash with this timeline. A woman is most fertile at the start of and during her stressful, high-risk PhD years, with fertility exponentially declining in the years when her career becomes more stable. The question for women in leadership positions then becomes, risk a career to become a mother or risk infertility?

Making the Choice: The Gender Gap and Motherhood

In the end, women should not feel they have to make a choice. If a woman wants to have a career in science and be a mother, then she should be able to do so. By virtue of biology, however, a woman will be distanced from her career when she has a child. Therefore, the factors contributing to women dropping out of their careers not only include discrimination or lack of interest, but also gender inequality related to outdated policies that work for men and not for women. In other words, tradition contributes to the “motherhood or career” dilemma women face. Implementing policy changes that account for a woman’s biology when she decides to become a parent (and not only a man’s) would help STEM fields retain women in leadership.

Women in Leadership Speak Out About Mixing Motherhood with the Laboratory

Though it will undoubtedly take many years to create the policy changes needed to increase the number of women in STEM fields with long-standing careers, many women in leadership every day still make the decision to be both mothers and scientists, and do it successfully.

A book documenting the unique difficulties mothers face in the competitive field of science was recently published, giving hope and inspiration to women who wish to successfully combine their family goals with their career goals. The book is called Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientist speak out. The book has also been turned into a project that hopes to bring awareness to the need for change in the STEM fields. You can find the website linked to the project here.

In the end, women are tough, smart, and mothers. Though we face traditions that work to thwart our goals in life, we work against them to create the lives we want. A career in science and in motherhood, though not easy, helps to create the change many of us wish to see in the world by concurrently allowing us to have a family, raise insightful children with strong role models, and partake in life-changing research. We can be women in leadership in both career and family, and if we continue to ask for change, it will get easier.

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” – William James

Here are some great resources for further reading:

women in leadership

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