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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: New Ideas?
September 29, 2011 - 8:47pm

I remember being part of a meeting many years ago where the term “STEM” (to describe the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and/or Medicine) was used lightly, under the assumption that everyone knew what it meant. Although I am technically not from a “STEM” discipline, since I am an economist, I teach in a math department, so was familiar with the term. However, there was one person in the meeting from the humanities who was not familiar with the term, and thought it somehow related to the controversial debate on attempting to us embryonic “stem cells” to treat various diseases. Several minutes into the meeting, this person realized they were wrong and asked me what they meant by the word “stem.” We both had a good laugh about how such a term can make its way into the language without everyone being aware of its entrance. (Which reminds me of the word “blog.”)

I thought of this recently when I read an article in Inside Higher Ed this past week about how the National Science Foundation is adjusting some rules to make it easier for recipients of their grants to find ways to better balance work with parenting. There is a list of changes that are designed to help scientists find a balance between their jobs as parents and academic careers. For example, the article points out, the need to keep a lab running while taking a leave to parent might well discourage some from applying for grants, thereby limiting the career paths of everyone who might be interested in pursuing a career in the STEM fields while undertaking parental responsibilities. Of particular interest was the need to make the STEM fields more accessible to women, who currently might be discouraged in their efforts to find such a balance. I was surprised at the comments on this article, as they seemed to think that assisting those who want to parent, which they admit might be a group consisting predominately of women, would push men out of the fields. Since I suspect that many of the readers of this column did not already post comments on that particular article, I wanted to open up the question to my fellow “Mama” (and some “Papa”) Ph.D.s.

I began by asking colleagues in the sciences what they thought of the ideas. One (tenured) mother of two, mentioned that stepping out of a research opportunity, even if only temporarily, would give an advantage to competing scientists who were working on similar questions. Further, others noted that being able to extend the time for a grant did not matter much if there was no allowance for extra time for the tenure clock. Indeed, one colleague mentioned that some of the ideas were not new at all.

And so I ask; for those in the sciences, what would have made it easier for you to pursue your career while parenting? And for those outside of the sciences, what would have made entering (or staying in) the sciences possible for you and your life?


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