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Juggling Work and Family

Gone are the days when women thought they had to choose between a career and having a family. In science, as in other professions, women nowadays can do both. But how do they juggle the two?

Tomasina Marisa Oh Suan Sim

Thomasina Oh with Oliver and Hugo Oh Graham

The key is flexibility, according to Tomasina Marisa Oh Suan Sim, who does research in linguistics at the National University of Singapore. "As long as you do your work you can choose your hours and boundaries and move them around. Whenever possible I leave work at four o'clock each day to spend two hours with my children before they go to bed, and then my husband and I work again in the evenings."

“As long as you do your work you can choose your hours and boundaries and move them around.”

A supportive environment also helps. "I belong to an extremely family-friendly department. When they knew I had a baby, they tried to shift courses to the following term so that I came back just to do research."

Women scientists often worry about how they can take time out to have babies and nurture young children while at the same time prove themselves as scientists—especially when they wish to compete for permanent posts.

Ijeoma Uchegbu

Randy Quan

Ijeoma Uchegbu

One solution is to have children as early as possible. "It's better to establish your family first, and then establish your career. After all, you're born with your ovaries, so put them before papers," advocates Ijeoma Uchegbu, professor of pharmaceutical nanoscience at London University's School of Pharmacy.

Ijeoma already had three children when she began her Ph.D. at the age of 30, drawn by the intellectual freedom. "You could stumble on something unusual, get a publication in a good journal. I thought this was a great profession to be in—I had found my niche!"

She was also, at the time, a single parent. Determined to develop better career prospects, she kept her family a secret for the first six months into her appointment. "I didn't even tell my lab mates because I feared that they would not take me seriously."

When she finally plucked up the courage to tell her boss "he was fantastic." Ijeoma looks back on the episode now as a sign of how much attitudes have changed, even over the past 17 or so years. "Now, women would not hide from supervisors that they have children. They wouldn't feel that pressure."

Shirley Tilghman

Denise Applewhite; Office of Communications, Princeton University

Shirley Tilghman

An alternative option for women trying to establish a career and a family at the same time is to take more time to establish a research portfolio before competing with others for permanent jobs. Princeton University in the United States has blazed a trail with its "tenure clock" which gives staff with a new baby—both men and women—an extra year of "catch-up" time in which to boost their number of published papers before they apply for tenure. When it first took effect, however, a problem soon arose, according to Shirley Tilghman, named the first woman president of Princeton in 2001, and a 2002 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate.

"When we analyzed it we discovered to our horror that more men were asking for that extra year than women." The trouble was that staff had to request the extra year, and women who feared being discriminated against by appearing "weak" did not ask for it. The solution was to ensure that the tenure clock stopped automatically for new parents. The strategy has proved so successful that other universities are following suit. At Princeton, it's proved a major draw. "We're seeing a big difference in our recruitment—we're now recruiting men and women equally," says Shirley.

It was Shirley's own life experience that led her to champion a more family-friendly policy. "I was a parent who for years was juggling raising children and having a serious academic career. If you've lived through that experience, it's almost impossible not to feel an urgency to want to help the next generation through."

Liz Gavis

F. Hughson

Liz Gavis with her children

Liz Gavis, a princeton professor with two children aged 10 and 14, has witnessed the change to a more family-friendly environment at Princeton. She was pregnant with her second child before the tenure clock became automatic, and had to request her one-year extension. It was invaluable, as with each new child every task seemed to take longer. "It slows you down, no matter what. I did need it because I couldn't be as efficient as I had been." At the time, there was no official break from teaching duties, either, following the birth of a child. Now, new mothers and fathers can request to have their teaching and administrative committee work waived for a semester and there is no obligation to make it up later.

Keiko Torii

Brad Kevelin

Keiko Torii

Not all scientist-moms feel the need for the extra year before tenure.Keiko Torii at the University of Washington, Seattle, had a strong enough portfolio that when her first child was just two years old she won promotion to associate professor in the Department of Biology one year earlier than planned. She then gave birth to a second child in February 2007 on the same day as one of her papers was published in the journal Nature. To keep up the pace, even while she was on maternity leave, she took advantage of the university's ADVANCE program—part of a nationwide initiative at the National Science Foundation—which supported a postdoctoral researcher to supervise the lab in her absence. Luckily for Keiko, the postdoc was "an excellent scientist" who has stayed with the lab and has now had her own first child.

The idea of carrying on working soon after having a baby does not appeal to every woman scientist. Many stop altogether to stay at home with their families. After several years, even if they wish to resume their careers, they are likely to feel out of touch with the latest ideas and techniques, and they would find it hard to compete for research grants.

Elizabeth Grayson

Elizabeth Grayson then…

Elizabeth Grayson

Elizabeth Grayson, now

This was the case with chemist Elizabeth Grayson. She wanted to raise her children full-time rather than hire a nanny or place her children in day care. Nevertheless, she felt unfulfilled, even though she had kept up her interest in chemistry by doing editing and translations of scientific texts (she is fluent in German and French). After a gap of 19 years, at the age of 47, Elizabeth applied for and was awarded a Daphne Jackson fellowship in 2001. With the fellowship she took a half-time teaching position at Durham University, UK. Now she combines teaching with research—though not as an independent investigator, and her research is unpaid. "I'm really just happy to be able to use my skills. I really love teaching and I'm able to do that and carry on with the research that I'm interested in."

As a more mature—and maternal—person, Elizabeth finds herself a popular figure. "Being one of not many women in chemistry I get approached by a lot of students because they know I'll give them my time."

Traveling to meetings is another challenge that especially affects scientist-moms, according to Yoky Matsuoka in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle. With two-year-old twins plus a third child, she says it's only recently that there has been much acceptance about how difficult it is for women with children to go to conferences without extra assistance. Yoky has obtained special permission from her department to spend unrestricted grant funds to enable travel to meetings.

Yoky's original ambition was to be a world-class professional tennis player, but injuries meant that she had to choose an alternative career, which was science. She is now creating a robotic hand for people who have lost a hand through accident or amputation. It is intended to have the same kind of fine-muscle control of a normal hand. In 2007 she became one of a small group of investigators to win a MacArthur award for "exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future."