Over the past few decades, women have made incredible strides in the sciences. As a society, we have taken previously male-dominated fields and transformed them into ones in which women hold some of the most prestigious positions and research prizes.
Young women in science now benefit from the mentorship of many well-established women role models who are leaders in their respective fields.
This isn’t to say that the challenges facing women in science are relics of the past. For the most part, women are no longer blatantly oppressed and relegated to secondary roles, but their collective disadvantage is rooted in various internal and external pressures.
The pregnancy and miscarriage penalty
In academia, most women reach their childbearing years as they are wrapping up their post-doctoral studies or setting up their own labs as young professors. These can also be the most competitive years of their professional lives.
As a result, women feel a lot of pressure to maintain their productivity after a miscarriage or after giving birth. Among those who take time off, many are hesitant to mention parental leave on their CVs, even though it would explain why they weren’t as productive in a given year.
Women might also avoid telling employers that they have young children, fearing that the employer would question their split priorities between science and motherhood.
“[There’s a] subtle understanding that you’re taking a risk by being out of the lab for several months to [give birth],” said Cat Schrankel, a graduate student in Immunology at the University of Toronto. “There’s potentially still that stigma that by choosing to have a family you’re actively choosing against your career.”
“Just work harder”
At U of T, some women are discouraged from taking any sort of time away from work, because of the industry ethos that equates the amount of time a person spends working with their value to the field.
“[This] isn’t just a problem around reproductive timing issues or the burden of childbirth for women, it’s an issue at any juncture where someone just needs a break,” said Brechann McGoey, a U of T graduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). “There’s so many times when we just get the message that if you just put enough work into something you can solve the problem. Just work harder. Things aren’t working, just work harder.”
McGoey explained, “After my first pregnancy loss, I was in the field two days later… I tried to just work harder, but there are some cases where you just have to call it and you just have to say, ‘This isn’t worth it and yeah, maybe I’m going to be six months or a year behind, but better that than to lose myself or get sick or whatever it is.’”
The ‘publish or perish’ mentality is pervasive, and knowing when to step back takes a lot of courage and strength.
Young female professors face an additional source of pressure: “One pressure is just that [Principal Investigators] have students — they have people relying on them — so they might feel pressure not to let other people down or feel like, ‘Even though I’m on mat leave I better still be checking my email, I better still be available to these students, because [this affects] their careers,’” said McGoey.
In Sweden, parental leave is shared. Parents receive 480 days of leave per child, two months of which are allocated to the man and the remaining divided between the parents in whichever way they prefer. In 2012, men took on average 24 per cent of the leave or a little over three months.
Under this scheme, women who are visibly pregnant or who have young children are less likely to be at a disadvantage during the hiring process.
It is important to recognize, however, that parental leave can perpetuate the very biases that it purportedly eliminates. Both women and men professors taking parental leave benefit from teaching relief, but no one is going to tell them not to write or to publish.
For men, parental leave might represent a year entirely devoted to research. Women professors on the other hand, will — at least for the first three to six months after childbirth — be recovering physically and emotionally and, as a result, suffer from reduced productivity. In other words, family-friendly policies such as parental leave may result in career advancement for men, while women may not enjoy those benefits.
Family-friendly policies at U of T
Some departments at U of T are making a concerted effort to incorporate family-friendly policies into the academic environment. Eight years ago, the EEB began implementing practices, such as moving events to more family-friendly times — for example, departmental seminars end at 4:00 pm — and compensating faculty, students, and post-doctoral researchers for childcare when conflicts arise.
The department established the EEB community fund to provide assistance to those who need time off. In a statement to The Varsity, Donald Jackson, Professor and Chair of the EEB department, and Helen Rodd, Professor and Associate Chair, said, “At times issues in our personal lives can require us to take unplanned leaves from our work and this fund can help address some associated issues.”
They recommend some additional ways in which institutions can support graduate student parents, including organizing panel discussions devoted to family-work balance and more affordable childcare for graduate students university-wide.
Clearer expectations regarding parental leave and shared parental leave and greater sensitivity to the needs of women professors and graduate students can combat some of the internal and external stresses that young women in science face.
Funding agencies and universities need to appreciate that women are entering their childbearing years at a time when their careers are most insecure. Instead of measuring an individual’s output in terms of the number of publications or journal impacts, we should focus on nurturing research that is meaningful and reproducible. One way we can do that is to implement policies which promote healthy family-work balance for women.