We recently had a fence installed at our house. The company arrived at 7:30 a.m. and worked until 5:30 p.m. But they were unable to complete the job, so they had to come back late on a Friday night to finish up. It was the only other time they had available.
My husband and I are both busy scientists, one tenured and one not, with two small children. Yet, one of the fence installers commented on how lucky we are to have a schedule flexible enough to be at home at a certain time to meet up with workers, to take children to appointments, or to do whatever it is we need to do. He was right.
In my 10 or so years in a science career, I have heard and participated in many discussions about the difficulties scientists face in pursuing careers while raising families—difficulties that, regrettably, lead many talented women to leave the profession. I have heard talented young women state, as though it were an incontestable fact, that children and science do not mix, so women must choose one or the other or delay having families until their careers are established.
No wonder talented women are seeking futures elsewhere; We're scaring them away before they have a chance to try science for themselves.
Yes, serious problems remain. At many institutions, the science career track is stuck in the past, bogged down in old-fashioned dogma about sacrifice and suffering even as the scientific establishment fails to hold up its end of the old bargain: There are only a handful of those old-fashioned careers around anymore, far too few to employ everyone who earns a science Ph.D.
I know some of the horror stories are true, but they paint an incomplete picture. Too few stories mention the advantages that science careers offer families, including:
• Flexible working hours. The hours are long, but we can be at home, the doctor, or daycare when we need to.
• Travel. We get to choose how much or how little we travel, where to go, and when to take our families along. My daughter has accompanied me on field research and conference trips. In her 3 short years, she has seen beautiful places, enjoyed zoos, and terrorized museums. She bats her eyelids while explaining photosynthesis and is passionate about seagulls not eating baby turtles. That's not a bad start to life, and it's because of my career that I have been able to offer her such experiences, with more to come.
• Great people. This career is full of passionate, amazing, excited, talented, driven, and—importantly—happy people. They are easy to find and eager to be a part of our communities. My life and work are greatly enriched by working with them, and so are my children's lives.
We need to tell women who are considering science careers about the women who are already succeeding in them while raising families, carving out careers on their own terms. Here in Australia, that group includes Rebecca Tolentino of James Cook University, Townsville, an award-winning Ph.D. student and mother of five. It also includes Jenny Beck of the University of Wollongong, a chemistry professor who leads her field despite a 7-year career hiatus for rearing children. It includes Tanya Monro of the University of Adelaide, a multitalented research institute director and mother of twins. In terms of science, Australia isn't such a large place, yet I have been lucky to meet many inspiring, successful female scientists who are leading the way for other women. There are many more such women in Australia, and more still beyond this country's borders.
Furthermore, here in Australia—and elsewhere—things are changing for the better. Here are some local examples:
• Research fellowships provide maternity leave for 6 months at full pay (12 months at half pay) and a 6-month, full-pay extension to the fellowship end date.
• Postdoctoral positions/fellowships can be taken at half- or three-quarters-time and extended to cover the same amount of working time (and total compensation) as a standard 3-year full-time position. Importantly, these are evaluated as standard 3-year fellowships, even if they last longer.
• When accounting for a researcher's track record, funding agencies subtract 1 year from the number of post-Ph.D. years for each young child a researcher has, to account for the impact of parenthood on productivity.
• Reentry and research-support fellowships are available to women returning to science after career breaks.
• Professional development courses provide training in leadership and research management and raise awareness of issues related to career retention.
I was often told that there is no best time for a scientist to have kids. In raising two young children, I have found that the inverse is also true: There is no worst time, either. Women who are set to enter the field need to see us trying and succeeding so that they, too, will seriously consider choosing a career that can enrich their lives and allow them to make a difference in ways that few other careers allow. It isn't easy, but neither is working a 60-hour week building fences.
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Tracy Ainsworth is an Australian Research Council Super Science Fellow at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, Townsville. To learn more about Ainsworth, read this blog entry.