Pregnancy and Science Careers

Discriminatory attitudes may no longer be as overt or prevalent as they once were, writes Sue V. Rosser, but women in the laboratory still face challenges, and need mentors to make sure that no options for their work are ruled out.

April 4, 2012

In graduate school, I was directed toward a dissertation topic on fossil rodents based primarily at the Field Museum in Chicago. My major professor assumed that I would not want to go to Africa for dissertation field research as most of his other students did, since I was pregnant with my first child. I have no doubt that my major professor intended to help me and that he thought he acted in my best interests by finding a project that would not derail or delay the completion of my Ph.D. As a professor I have seen circumstances less life changing than the arrival of a baby cause students to fail to take that final step and write up the data, remaining in that A.B.D. phase. I now understand his perspective and admit that he may have been correct.

After all, when my daughter was 20 months old, I did receive my Ph.D., completing it in four years, only two and one half years after earning my master’s degree.

Of course, the facts that my daughter arrived as a full-term healthy baby and that I was a healthy 24-year-old who experienced no postpartum complications greatly facilitated my completing the Ph.D. As the stories of the various women scientists in Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory and in Mama, Ph.D. document, a baby born prematurely, and/or with disabilities, as well as problems during pregnancy, delivery and postpartum, can delay research and career substantially. The part I struggled with then, and wonder about to this day, is my professor making the decision for me; I have always felt deprived of having the opportunity to choose the topic for my own dissertation.

Does this happen today? Although some faculty might react to this situation in the same overtly controlling way my major professor did, I believe that gender distinctions continue to enter dissertation work in covert ways. Reports of women steered toward less challenging or interesting topics than their male colleagues and anecdotes about major professors reluctant to critique women's research because they want to avoid "dreaded tears" in their office may represent the "modern" version of this differential “kindness” to women students.

Sue Perimeter (the pseudonym of a geologist I spoke to for my recent book) faced a slightly different situation. Sue believes that the confidence that her professor demonstrated in her as an undergraduate allowed her to persist in science after a very negative experience at the big state research university where she attended graduate school. Because she was married and had a baby, people perceived her as a "joke" who wasn’t serious about science. Conversations with her undergraduate mentor provided her with the courage to seek a new adviser, when her initial advisor let her go. The new advisor enabled her to complete her M.S. Because of this, she always tries to convey positive impressions to her students about the possibilities of combining motherhood and science.

Despite this negative experience, I applied for the Ph.D. program at a major university in another state. Told by the faculty and students at my M.S.-granting institution that I would fail at my new institution, I did not. I believe that the absence of preconceived notions about the inability of women and mothers to become scientists at my Ph.D. institution allowed me to succeed and earn my Ph.D.

When I became pregnant with my second child, my postdoctoral adviser suggested that I get an abortion. He said the timing was not good for the research because we needed to collect more data to enhance our chances of getting the grant renewed.

The political controversy that has surrounded abortion in the United States and current discussions and focus on family-friendly policies in the workplace mean that women scientists don't hear suggestions as blatant as "get an abortion because it’s the wrong time in the research" any more. However, several indicators suggest that repercussions or fear of repercussions from childbearing remain rampant.

Women report being asked certain leading questions during interviews for graduate school, postdoctoral or faculty positions. They recognize that questions such as, "What are your future plans?" are code for, "Do you plan to have a family?" In the United States, scientists have very few federal or institutional supports that their colleagues in other countries have to support childbearing and rearing, such as paid leave for both mothers and fathers, on-site crèches, and mandatory holding of the position while on leave. Instead, children become an individual responsibility.

Although the National Institutes of Health offers eight weeks of paid leave to postdoctoral fellows who receive the National Research Service Award, recipients can only take the leave in the unlikely situation where every postdoc at the university is also eligible for eight weeks of paid leave. A study conducted by Mary Ann Mason of the University of California at Berkeley documented that of the 61 members of the Association of American Universities (the top elite research institutions), only 23 percent guaranteed a minimum of six weeks paid leave for postdocs and only 13 percent promised the same to graduate students.

A biologist I interviewed completed her Ph.D. at age 24 in Britain; unfortunately, this coincided with Thatcher's reforms of the British educational system. She became part of the brain drain and took a postdoc at a Canadian university. After three and a half years as a postdoc, she decided to stay in North America, obtaining a tenure-track position at a large, public university in the Southeast.

Although I did not marry until after I achieved tenure, one of my colleagues asked me if one child wasn't enough when I became pregnant again, this time with twins. Unlike the young male colleague whose record of achievement was less than mine, the department did not put me up for early promotion, although I still did make professor within 10 years of being hired. I felt that the chair and dean did not support women. I left the institution to become a dean at a public institution in the Midwest. Now I'm the provost at a research institution in the mid-Atlantic region.

Anecdotes also underline the trepidation women feel when trying to decide whether to take advantage of policies such as stop the tenure clock and active service modified duty, evolved to help maintain career momentum during childbearing. "Stop the tenure clock" policies typically permit faculty on the tenure track who must come up for tenure by their sixth year or face being out of the tenure-track position (commonly known as "up or out"), to have an extra year because of the birth of a child, adoption, or other major change in family circumstances, that does not "count" towards the time allotment. Women may actually face or fear a stigma if they use the policies. One study of University of California faculty "revealed that the majority of mothers who were eligible for a reduced load — effectively no teaching for a semester following childbirth — did not take advantage of the benefit. They said they chose not to do so for fear of their colleagues' disapproval."

Will colleagues and the department chair take this out on the women in covert ways because they resent the impact on the students and the department of having to find the adjunct to teach classes during a leave for active service/modified duty? The women also fear repercussions from their male colleagues. For example, if they stop the tenure clock for childbirth, will colleagues expect another year’s work of publications for tenure and promotion?

A recent international survey by the Association of Women in Science documents the growing body of research, including that by Mary Ann Mason (2004; 2007) and my own work on Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE) and Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) awardees (2004) that balancing career with family, particularly at the time of childbirth, is perceived to jeopardize the careers of women scientists and engineers more than any other single factor.

What can women scientists and their mentors do to facilitate their chances for success in academic careers?

Positive Choices and Interventions Women Scientists and Engineers Can Make

1. Know the long-term career goals you seek (for example, a tenure-track position) and evaluate how your current situation, whether it’s graduate school or postdoc, including how long you remain, contributes to that long-term goal.

2. Realize that having a spouse/partner supportive of your career and willing to share family responsibilities is equally or more important than having a supportive mentor.

3. Look for evidence of women-friendly and family-friendly policies, lactation stations, women's studies programs and other institutional policies and practices that may promote your career when interviewing and considering whether to accept a position in a particular laboratory or institution.

Some Behaviors and Messages for Mentors to Avoid

1. Do not ask only women students, post-docs, or potential employees if they would like information about parental leave and other family friendly policies. Instead, tell everyone, both men and women, about these policies during their interviews and post the policies in the laboratory and on your website.

2. Don't "help" your women graduate students or postdocs by steering them toward less challenging research topics and problems when they become pregnant or are contending with family issues. If someone – a man or woman – asks for flexibility, be generous with your support and consider all options, but that’s different from your making the assumption.

3. Don't tell students, postdocs or junior faculty that they should or should not have a child or more children at a particular time or stage of the research.

4. Don't expect an additional year's worth of publications and funding at tenure, if the colleague has had the tenure clock stopped.


Sue V. Rosser is provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University. Her most recent book is Breaking Into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science (New York University Press).


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