Wednesday, 6 June 2012

What do you get if you mix a scientist and a mother?

Posted by Bronia Arnott

I came across a headline on the way to work a few weeks ago “The data confirms: If you want to stay in science and see your children grow up, don’t have children before you have tenure”. As a post-doctoral science researcher, who doesn’t yet have tenure, and is already a mother of one did I dare read on?

The headline was the title of a post on the LSE Impact Blog. It referred to the findings of a study which found that childless women are “paid, promoted and rewarded equivalently to their male peers” but mothers are “far more likely to move out of the research-professor pipeline…”.

So for those just starting out who want a career and kids, they just have to wait until they have tenure to have kids. Right? But what if you get tenure and then find out that you’ve missed your biological window of opportunity? I can’t imagine many people regretting not getting tenure on their deathbed, but I can imagine the years of heartache that come with not being able to have the children you wanted.

And I’m not convinced that once you have tenure you can sit back and relax. All the professors I know are always talking about how busy they are! REF papers and successful grant applications don’t write themselves.

So what about me? Should I just give up and go home?

I wasn’t convinced so I thought I would do what I do best and do some further research… I found a piece in the Guardian suggesting that the proportion of women in science is much lower in the UK low compared with the United States. The article suggested that the problem wasn’t getting women into science, but getting them to stay. Apparently they often drop out to start families. This was beginning to sound familiar.

I got my coat.

But wait…on my way out of the door I remembered I had attended my first full institute meeting of the Institute of Health and Society, at Newcastle University. There was the usual IT updates and grant successes, but then they started talking about the Institute being awarded the Athena SWAN Silver Award, and suddenly the meeting got a whole lot more interesting. Some of the staff even put down their knitting needles.

This award scheme recognises good employment practices for women working in science and related fields in higher education and research. The Silver award recognises efforts, above and beyond university-wide policies, to identify challenges faced by women and implement effective solutions.

Professor Judith Rankin, who led the application, said that the Institute “has always strived to introduce good working practices to ensure that those women who wish to combine a family with a career can”. Professor Eileen Kaner, Institute Director, said: "Success in achieving this award acknowledges the considerable work to make working in science an attractive career option for women."

Did you notice that? Two quotes from two women, both Professors, one the director of the Institute! In fact the Institute is full of examples of successful women, including those who have children, some who even had their children before they got tenure!

On my way to pick up my daughter later that day the whole issue was still playing on my mind. While I was boosted by the news that there was such great work going on in the UK to support women in science, I realised that is was a sad reflection of the existing inequalities. Surely we should be better at supporting men AND women in their careers AND in their family life?


  1. I absolutely agree with your post - and thanks for links to relevant articles. I too believe that more needs to be done to support both men and women in academia, before and after they get tenure. Not doing so limits the number of women in academia, and also encourages men not to be able to participate in family life as much. Surely that shouldn't be encouraged either!

  2. Thanks for your reply, I am glad that you enjoyed the blog post. I couldn't agree more with your comments about men participating more in family life. This is an issue that affects men and women, and their children too. I think there have been some changes in the right direction recently, but there is still a long way to go!