[Paleopsych] CHE: Reproductive Success for Working Scientists

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Reproductive Success for Working Scientists
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.29


   Reproductive Success for Working Scientists

    As a female ready to contribute your highly trained brain and your
    genetic material to society, what can you do to prosper?


    Long ago, I found myself pregnant while working as a postdoc at a
    federal institute. I was blessed with what seemed like the ideal
    situation for a mammal who wanted to increase her Darwinian fitness
    while enhancing her chances for tenure. I would be able to give birth
    and raise the baby past that difficult first year before I had to
    throw myself into the academic job market in search of a faculty
    position. Perfect, I thought.

    My supervisor supported my decision, but neither of us had counted on
    his division being threatened with elimination. We both concluded that
    I needed to go on the job market immediately if I didn't want to risk
    being an unemployed new mother.

    I began churning out CV's and cover letters that said nothing about my
    pregnancy. To my delight I soon received a phone call from the
    chairman of a search committee at a major university. He was someone I
    knew and respected, and shortly we were arranging for me to fly out
    for an interview.

    It turned out, however, that while my colleague was nominally the head
    of the search, the choice was really up to a newly hired director who
    got to handpick at least three new faculty members over the next three
    years. The director and his assistant gave me derisive looks the
    following week as I waddled down the rickety stairway from the tiny
    plane to the tarmac. They made it abundantly clear that they knew I
    had no brain.

    The well-planned fantasy of my first pregnancy began to unravel during
    delivery. Up to then my pregnancy had been uncomplicated. Suddenly I
    was on an operating table being prepped for an emergency C-section.
    The baby was fine, but once home with my newborn, I confronted the
    reality of recovering from abdominal surgery and dealing with the
    Thing That Would Not Sleep.

    By the time I returned to work, I was more drained (both emotionally
    and physically) than I had ever been in my life. My research project
    was woefully behind, and I had calls from two more search committees
    inviting me for interviews.

    In the next four months I went on three job interviews with my husband
    and our infant son in tow. Those experiences made it clear that
    biologists may find studying mammals worthwhile, but they vastly
    prefer not to be confronted with the mammalian nature of a job
    candidate. At one university the faculty members and students were
    simply dismissive. At another, the powerful chairwoman of the graduate
    program told me, with venom in her voice, that women in science needed
    to make choices between family life and science. Apparently I had made
    the wrong choice.

    I finished that interview season with no job in hand. From my
    perspective many years later, as a dean whose favorite part of her job
    is hiring new faculty members, I am not surprised. No one who read the
    Berkeley study on the effects of motherhood on academic careers should
    be surprised, either (The Chronicle, December 5, 2003). It is
    abundantly clear that, as a society, we have far to go in rethinking
    how careers for gravid and postpartum academic mammals should proceed.
    Up to now, all we have really done is modify the protocol followed for
    decades by the sperm donors.

    The Berkeley report calls for large institutional and societal
    changes. Not that it isn't worthwhile to push for radical reforms, but
    the real question is: What can you do -- as a female ready to
    contribute both your highly trained brain and your excellent genetic
    material to society -- to make it possible to succeed at both in the
    current academic environment?

    I have some suggestions. Let me start with those who are forced by
    circumstance to interview for a tenure-track job while obviously
    pregnant or breastfeeding. What should you do -- and not do?

    Present yourself as professionally as possible. Don't skimp on your
    wardrobe. You want to look your best even though you may feel your
    worst. Your object is to distract your interviewers from what you
    cannot hide outright. Don't wear anything that makes you look like the
    infant rather than the adult you really are.

    Keep your maternal role in the background. Try to deflect illegal
    questions by turning the subject back to the matter at hand, which is
    your suitability for a position. Don't be rude, however, if
    interviewers persist in asking questions. Just politely point out that
    you never would have gone out of your way to interview in this
    condition if you weren't dead serious about a job at their

    Look for cues of sympathetic interviewers. Even while keeping as low a
    profile as possible about your gravid or lactational state, keep a
    sharp eye and ear out for those who may harbor secret or even open
    sympathy and support for your situation.

    Are there other mothers or fathers among the department's faculty who
    are willing to discuss their situation? Do you see signs of infants or
    children in faculty offices (the random stuffed toy, diaper bag, or
    breast pump on the shelves next to last week's issue of Nature)? Those
    could be clues that your biological imperative will be respected if
    you are offered a chance to work there.

    Once you have an offer in hand, don't relax.

    Be assertive in asking about campus resources for families. Ask
    questions of faculty members who may have given clues earlier that
    they are family friendly. Inquire about day care, family leave, the
    tenure clock, etc.

    If the department head (or any senior faculty member) blanches,
    sputters, or hesitates to offer information, you may want to think
    twice about the offer. Find out if any other women in the department,
    or elsewhere in the sciences, have been tenured while of childbearing
    age. Ask to speak to her if she exists.

    Once you are hired, look for allies. One thing is certain: You will
    need help in your goal to get tenure while having or rearing small
    children. Find others with whom you can collaborate, commiserate, and
    network. Don't be afraid to cross department lines to do that.

    Scope out the "enemy." And then look for strategies to neutralize her.
    I say "her" because in my experience the "hims" are usually easy to
    spot. Yet the "hers" can be more insidiously dangerous, not only by
    badmouthing your maternity to others, or voting against you on a
    tenure committee, but also by saying things that undermine your
    self-confidence. Comments like, "I was in the lab all weekend but
    didn't see you; how is that paper of yours coming?" are not designed
    to be friendly.

    You probably will never convert the naysayers, but you want to make
    sure that the voice advocating for your work is louder than the ones
    denigrating it.

    Be creative about sleep habits, work habits, household habits. Your
    baby does not care if your laundry is not folded or your bed is
    unmade. Your object is to meet your basic needs, your family's basic
    needs, and your work goals. Be prepared to sacrifice a great deal of
    less-important things until the child is of school age or beyond.

    Be sure you are married to the right person. And do that before you
    begin the process of trying to be a scientist and a mother
    simultaneously. I'm not being flip here. A passive-aggressive spouse
    can do more to destroy your career than an army of old-boy faculty

    I would recommend some counseling on this matter even if your
    relationship seems ideal. Partners who are not in academe may not
    realize exactly what goes into academic science, tenure, and
    promotion. Is your partner truly ready to take on half or more of the
    work while you're trying for tenure?

    If your husband is in academe but not the sciences, does he truly
    understand that you can't work from home most of the time and that you
    can't have an infant in a laboratory? If he's also in science, does he
    "get it" that the two of you must both be willing to juggle -- not
    just you? Whose career will come first if one of you has problems on
    the job?

    If you are a dean or a department head, you can do a lot to make
    prospective female faculty members feel welcome. And whether you make
    the effort will tell candidates a lot about the kind of workplace you
    run. Here are some of the things you should do both for potential
    hires and for current faculty members who either have or are about to
    have children:

    Introduce job seekers to faculty members with children. Include those
    professors in a lunch or social hour with the candidate, and prep them
    to casually share information about their arrangements. That is
    presuming, of course, that your institution already makes an effort to
    be family friendly.

    Offer information about family policies to all job candidates. Discuss
    child-care options, health insurance, leave policies, tenure-clock
    modifications, part-time possibilities, flexible teaching schedules.
    Don't wait to be asked, and don't ask whether the candidate intends to
    take advantage of those options. Just put the information out there.

    Share your own experience. If you've "been there, done that," don't
    keep it a secret. I've seen the look of relief on a candidate's face
    when I mention my own child-rearing stories.

    Look for informal solutions to problems. One of the simplest
    accommodations I ever received was from the scheduling officer in my
    department. She knew that two of us in the department had small
    children and lived near each another. So she arranged our teaching
    schedules so that we taught on different days of the week. That way I
    could baby-sit her kids if they were ill and could not go to day care,
    and she could baby-sit mine. It worked very well.

    Provide parenting space in your building. Faculty offices are often
    rather too crowded for times when a faculty member must bring an
    infant or child along, and noises from crying babies may disturb
    others. Consider whether you can dedicate a small amount of space as a

    The bottom line is that everyone from the silverback to the alpha
    female to the subadults benefits if conditions favor intellectual and
    reproductive success. So everyone from the president down to junior
    faculty members should find ways to make that success happen.

    Gail M. Simmons is the dean of science at the College of New Jersey.
    For an archive of previous Catalyst columns see

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