Guest post: Now that men are facing the same kinds of hard choices

Originally a comment by Jennifer Phillips on That’s why you have a wife.

Although some encouraging changes (or at least awarenesses, which are necessary precursors to changes) seem to be afoot, this is sadly just ‘the way things are’ in STEM fields. I had both of my kids in graduate school, and I was a freakish anomaly for doing so. Part of it was my unusual financial stability–I was lucky enough to have a gainfully employed partner to supplement my meager grad student stipend–but part of it was that it’s just not done. My first pregnancy was seen by at least some members of my department (and I know this because they openly told me so) as a sign that I wasn’t ‘serious about my career’, that I was just taking up space in a lab and clearly wouldn’t be doing anything meaningful with my PhD (assuming I could find time around all that icky maternal bonding to finish it, that is). My second pregnancy pretty much solidified all that. It was an isolating and occasionally humiliating condition.

I got my PhD in 2003, so one might hope that things have changed a bit since then. My current position is as a ‘second tier’, non-tenure track postdoctoral research associate, informally called a ‘super postdoc’ or ‘permadoc’. I’ve been here long enough to see several cycles of graduate students as well as more ‘top tier’ postdocs come and go. It is still quite rare for women scientists in training to have children. Slightly more common (within that slice of rarity) for postdocs vs. grad students. It’s undeniably difficult to stay on the tenure track as a trainee with kids without rock solid domestic support, to say nothing of the difficulty in achieving the heights outlined in this article once a tenure-track position is obtained.

I guess now that men are facing the same kinds of hard choices that generations of professionally minded women have dealt with, there’s a hope that the definition of how to achieve excellence and stature in a STEM field will expand somewhat. There are some rigid logical boundaries in place, however. It does take a certain number of consecutive hours to do things, e.g. Scientific discovery already moves slowly. It slows down even more when you have to leave early to take a kid to soccer practice, etc. Only a privileged few are situated to navigate these limitations and stay on the top tier. The rest of us, when faced with the option, have to choose a different path.

I don’t mean to sound like I regret having a family. I adore my children and I’m pleased with the balance between work and family that I’ve been able to strike. But I think it’s still fair to be candid that such choices are still reality. “Having it all” is a myth for many definitions of “all”. That is the bare truth of it.



  1. anat says

    In Israel it was very common for graduate students of all genders to have children in the 1990s, but then Israeli society is very child-centric.

  2. jenniferphillips says

    [cross-posted from the “That’s why you have a wife” comments]
    sonofrojblake said:

    Ultimately, one definition of “better” would be that the privileged few are a representative cross-section of society, rather than almost entirely middle-class white men. That can be done. Another definition of “better” would be to set society up so that those options aren’t limited to a privileged few. That seems less realistic.

    Good points, and like a lot of things, this privilege is a continuum. The closer we can get to addressing the broadest possible swath of that continuum, the “better” things will get for everyone. When I had my kids, I was extremely lucky to be able to get childcare on campus, close enough and flexible enough in my schedule to pop over and breastfeed whenever they called. It might not sound like much, but I hadn’t been able to work things out that way, it’s possible I wouldn’t have finished the PhD. Moreover, I’m well aware that most new moms returning to work/school/ *don’t* have it that good.

    Graphs plotting the longevity/ascent of men vs. women in STEM careers are markedly scissor shaped. For the past ~30 years, roughly equal numbers of men & women have entered professional/medical school, completed the training, entered the workforce, but consistently fail to occupy the top spots (head of dept, chief of staff, full professor, etc.) in equal numbers.

    Inequality in Childrearing/domestic roles doesn’t explain it all, but it’s undeniably a big consideration, and as such an easy (and I believe realistic) target for improvement.

  3. jenniferphillips says

    Also relevant:

    “A United States Census Bureau report from 2013 showed that men were hired at twice the rate of women. Only about 6% of the STEM workforce was black, while 7% were Hispanic; about 41% of Asian-Americans with science or engineering degrees were employed in a STEM occupation, though the report did not specify gender.

    “If you ask people about gender in our society…what you get is information about white women,” Williams tells Mashable.

    Studies included in the report have shown that when math skills were identical, men were more likely to be hired for a job than women. Across the board, women with children were considered less competent and committed than their male peers.”

    [followed by small study in which WOC were surveyed about their range of different bad experiences in STEM 🙁

  4. Lee1 says

    I realize this is completely anecdotal, but in the lab where I was a post-doc in the mid-late 2000’s there were several women, both grad students and post-docs, who had children; and to my knowledge there was no push-back from anyone (it’s possible there was and I just didn’t know, but I’m doubtful of that – I was pretty close with a couple of them). They all completed their degrees or post-docs and all but one successfully went on to the next academic level, so to speak. I also have a friend who still works at that school as a lab technician (her husband also works on campus), and they had good on-campus day care when they had a baby.

    Also, at the school where I’m at now as an asst professor we have three grad students in our modestly sized graduate program who are pregnant, and as far as I know they haven’t gotten any grief over it either (although I have a lot less contact with them, so it’s more plausible that they have and I don’t know it).

    Of course none of this is to say that your experience didn’t happen or wasn’t/isn’t common – just that there are some places that seem to do it well, both formally (stuff like good on-site day care) and informally (general attitudes toward women having kids). And maybe that’s becoming more common…? Or maybe I’ve just been lucky with the places I’ve worked. FWIW I feel like especially at the school where I was a post-doc there was a fairly broad recognition that stuff like on-campus day care, maternity/paternity support, openness to spousal hires and support, etc. were good policy from a practical standpoint; maybe that’s why they were so open to them.

  5. invivoMark says

    Having a kid in grad school is generally considered a bad idea, for men or women. The time commitment required to work in a lab, including the flexibility demanded by time-course experiments, means that a kid can be a huge impediment to progress. If you want to stay on track for a tenured professor position, you have to work extremely hard and put in a lot of time to get the recognition and publications that will get you into a good post-doc position.

    There is increasingly limited space for new professors and post-docs in STEM fields. The number of graduate students is increasing, but the number of post-doc positions and full-time professor positions are not. So it’s a tall order to expect someone to both raise a family and compete with people who have more time to dedicate to doing research.

    The most important exacerbating factor is the ongoing funding squeeze. The more scarce funds become, the more competitive things get, and the harder it becomes to raise a family at any point during an academic career. But there are still things we can do to help close the gender gap. I think one important step is to provide more support for men who wish to raise a family during their careers.

  6. carlie says

    I also had two kids while in grad school, and graduated at about the same time as Jennifer. My advisors and other faculty and grad school mates were all amazingly supportive, but it was still very lonely and isolating. Nobody else had anything near the same experience, of course, and I couldn’t do any of the social activities they did or devote quite as much time to work as they did. It added an extra year or so onto my time to finishing. I was fairly productive and got a decent job offer, but at a lower-tier school than most of my contemporaries did. I leapt at it, proceeded to be buried under new assistant professorship merged with toddlerhood, and clawed my way to a tenure I’m eternally grateful for, but my research career basically tanked under the load of everything. Like Jennifer, I wouldn’t trade the time and relationship I have with my children, but yes, there were definite choices in priority that sacrificed career status and research output. Some were conscious, some not so much (lack of sleep from baby night schedule results in worse output even if you don’t “mean” to cut back). So yes, full agreement that you can’t have it all. And sadly, it’s getting worse. I’m sure that if I were finishing now, I wouldn’t even get job interviews/tenure in today’s environment.

  7. carlie says

    Also, the degree of success that I have had?
    … My husband has been a stay at home dad pretty much the whole time since grad school. So, proving the rule even more.

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