Sangeeta Bhatia is a scientist working in academia. She is married to another one. Bhatia is on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and her husband is a professor at Harvard University, both of which are in Cambridge. Their little girls have a Barbie but also a Marie Curie doll with a periodic table sticking out of the pocket of its lab coat.
When Bhatia travels for conferences, grandparents look after the two children. At other times, they're looked after by a nanny. One woman cooks for the family twice a week; another cleans their home. "It literally does take a village," Bhatia says, to run a household and two labs. I want to ask her who does the laundry, but I desist; it's a legitimate work-life balance question for a woman in science, but I feel like a meddlesome in-law.
Last year, when Carol Greider, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, learned that she had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, she was folding the laundry. It was a seemingly trivial detail, unrelated to her science, but it got plenty of play in the press. "Is it true that you were doing laundry when you got that early morning call from Stockholm?" The New York Times interviewer asked the Nobel laureate in a conversational Q&A. That opening question underscored the fact that women researchers -- even the nation's top women -- have domestic responsibilities.
Why it matters
Women scientists have to contend with domestic chores -- do them or delegate them -- just like everybody else. But unlike other professions where work is often restricted to business hours, "lab sciences can be 24/7," says Cathy Trower, research director of Harvard University's Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. "Those who are on the tenure track do many things: teach, mentor, serve on committees, bring in grant dollars, publish in journals, and keep up with the latest in their field." At the nation's top universities, scientists work nearly 60-hour weeks on average, regardless of gender. How many household tasks a woman scientist opts to do determines how much time she has left over for leisure activities, or to focus on family.
Findings from a study by Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research in Palo Alto, California, which surveyed 1222 partnered tenured and tenure-track faculty respondents (910 men and 312 women), indicates why the division of domestic labor matters -- especially for women. Here, housework refers to traditionally feminine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry. The survey, Housework Is an Academic Issue, estimates that housework consumes an average of 19.3 hours per week. Londa Schiebinger, the study's chief author, writes that women scientists do nearly twice the amount of housework as their male counterparts: 54% for women compared with 28% for men. These numbers, all self-reported, point to one thing: Housework is a major time sink for scientists, especially women.
Some scientists -- especially the most productive ones -- have fashioned a solution: They hire help. The study shows that highly productive faculty members, both male and female, employ others to help with core housework at a higher rate than others -- but women do it much more often than men. (Productivity is defined as the number of articles published by the scientist in his or her career.) "At every level in academia, successful women scientists outsource the housework twice as much as their male counterparts," Schiebinger says in an interview with Science Careers. Reliable help does not come cheap. Yet female assistant professors outsource much more than their male peers -- at the same rate as senior male faculty members -- because they see the value of doing this, Schiebinger says. They need the help.
Another thing faculty members can do in addition to hiring help is lower their neatness standards, says Elena Rybak-Akimova, professor of chemistry at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "Picking up items like dirty socks, fifth-grade textbooks, toys, you name it, ... and putting them in their proper place cannot be done by outside helpers who come in once a week," she explains. "Those things can be attended to, or not, depending on time constraints on a given day. As in the lab, spills cannot be ignored -- those have to be dealt with right away" -- but a greater tolerance for disorder at home can yield extra time for things that matter more.
It's about priorities -- and it helps to remind yourself of your priorities every day, says Jacquelyn Yanch, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT and a mother of three. "I will stay at my desk and continue working, ignoring the dust bunnies at home -- but I do leave at 5:00 every day so that I can get to the after-school program to pick up my kids on time," she says. "This is a task which can never be postponed, no matter what. The cleaning gets done eventually, in the worst case just before guests arrive." Recognizing that she is not a very creative cook, she buys ready-made meals from Whole Foods. Rybak-Akimova is equally pragmatic. "Frozen food is fine," she says, as long as it's nutritious.
Getting over gender stereotypes
Not every women scientist takes a matter-of-fact approach to outsourcing household duties. Female scholars young and old express feelings of guilt about failing to adhere to traditional gender roles. "It seems like there are not enough hours in the day for their work in the lab and home," Trower says, adding that a work model that gives scientists flexibility and more time for nonacademic aspects of their lives is overdue.
It's not just women who think this is a good idea. Jeffrey Frelinger, who was the chair of the Department of Immunology at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine in Chapel Hill for 16 years, is a strong advocate of hiring help. Frelinger, who has just moved to the University of Arizona, where he is directing the graduate program in immunobiology, reckons he may have picked up the idea from successful women he knew early in his career. During his tenure as chair of the immunology department, he proffered the same advice to the department's young faculty hires. "Get paid help to clean the house," Frelinger says he told them. "Spend family time with family. Get over people's expectations of what women should do around the house." On his watch, all eight women faculty members who were hired -- five primary and three with joint appointments -- got tenure, Frelinger says.
Barbara Vilen, Frelinger's colleague at UNC, advises partnered women scientists -- new entrants to academia -- to outsource, though she was unable to for personal reasons. "It doesn't seem necessary at first (day one of the tenure track position) -- but as time goes on, you become worn down and then the pattern of who does what is already established and harder to change," she says.
Time for recharging
Now a tenured professor and a mother of teenage twins, Vilen feels renewed by gardening. "It is stress release because it's physical, artistic, and outdoors," she says. With so little free time, even gardening can sometimes feels like a chore, she admits. Still, it helps in that it provides a complete change from the work of running an immunology lab.
That kind of release is important because science is a creative profession, Bhatia says. Researchers need to have experiences that spur innovative thinking. "Developing an ability to work intently on important problems over long periods of time is crucial, but one also needs to sustain one's 'spirit' along the way," she says. Practicing yoga, reading bestsellers assigned by her book club, and "occasionally sneaking away to the cinema" help her unwind.
Science is a marathon, so it helps to shed every little thing that might bog you down. Think hard about what aspects of science and life you enjoy most and prioritize and preserve them, Bhatia says. No doubt some women scientists put a high priority on housework, but they are almost certainly few. For the rest, it might make sense to employ a maid, or whatever you call the male equivalent, to help with the housework. This simple strategy could pay big dividends in the long run.
Photo (top): Kasia
Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist.