[Paleopsych] CHE: Reproductive Success for Working Scientists
checker at panix.com
Mon Apr 25 19:13:18 UTC 2005
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?
By GAIL M. SIMMONS
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
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
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
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
More information about the paleopsych