Why it might be true that you can’t become a mother and be a professor in STEM

Guest Blog by Dr. Anne Steino

Since moving to Vancouver in 2009 I have heard numerous people (women) explaining their choice to not have kids, as based on their career aspirations in science: “I just can’t become a professor if I have kids right now”. The problem is; the body is ready to have kids just around the same time that the race for getting tenure-track happens. In the beginning, I thought this explanation was just an easy answer to the (probably very annoying) question of why you don’t have any kids at age 35 or 40. However, there is now a study showing that North American scientists actually don’t have time to have kids. Their work-life balance is completely out of whack, and they work way too late at night to ever be able to pick up their child from a regular daycare.

The study was published in Journal of Informetrics and examines the time of day when scientists in three parts of the world (America, China, Germany) download scientific papers (i.e. work). The North American scientists work very late at night (and all day, obviously), but tend to work a little less hard on the weekend than Chinese scientists. The Chinese scientists take breaks to eat lunch and dinner every day, but work equally hard all 7 days of the week. Germany is somewhere in between, but the overall conclusion from the study is this:

‘In recent years, we have seen controversy about whether scientists are sacrificing too much health and family life to achieve more at work. Scientific achievements are accompanied by intense competition and pressure, which requires a large supply of time and efforts. On the other hand, the demanding assessment from the institution makes the working atmosphere even tenser. Scientists today are spending much more time working than initially intended. They are deprioritizing their hobbies, leisure activities, and regular exercises, which negatively influenced their mental and physical health. Meanwhile, engagement in scientific research after work directly leads to the ambiguity of the boundary between home and office. This investigation on scientists’ timetables may in some ways call attention to the unwritten rule of working overtime in academia. As is generally agreed, research is not a sprint but a marathon. Balance in scientists’ life is needed.’

If researchers don’t even have time to exercise or have hobbies, they definitely don’t time to have kids. This leaves few options for ambitious young women in STEM:

• Get a husband who doesn’t work very much and is ready to take on most of the family-related workload
• Get a nanny to take care of your kids
• Slow down your career (which in science is pretty much equal to “find a different career”)
• Don’t have kids

I know several female scientists in all of the above categories, and while some of them are happy with their choice, most of them wish they had the opportunity to mix and match the latter two options. They wish they could have kids and still aspire to become tenure-tracked professors in the STEM. They wish they could work with what they love, and still be able to have a family-life.

Most other professions allow this temporary career slowdown around times of reproduction. Many high paying industries with fierce competition for jobs have realized the potential of brilliant men and women wanting a better work-life balance. Academia seems to be losing out on all these competent scientists also wanting a family. The much talked about leaking pipeline (women leaving academia after getting their degrees) might actually get a lot tighter if we manage to change that unwritten rule of working.

About the Author: Dr. Anne Steino has a BSc and MSc from University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and did an industrial PhD in collaboration with the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. After graduating, she had a son and worked as a high school teacher (biology and chemistry). She moved to Vancouver in October 2009 with her family and has since worked as a tutor for the Problem-based Learning program in the UBC medical program, a Postdoctoral fellow in Dept. of Biochemistry at UBC, and as a research coordinator for a small Vancouver-based biotech company, developing drugs against rare brain cancers.