This is a very, very serious question for female scientists. At least in the physical sciences, I can’t speak for other disciplines. It’s a question that I bet plagues everyone of us. And I also bet most of our male colleagues don’t give it the same degree of thought. In my view, it is the only gender asymmetry. And something needs to be done to accomodate it.
The question confronting women scientists is: Should I have a baby at this stage of my career, or should I wait?
I hate that I feel compelled to schedule a baby such that it would have the least impact on my experiment.
In a nutshell, that’s the problem. And the real question is: is their ever a time when a baby would not impact one’s experiment or career? My experience says no, at least not until it’s too late.
Some women scientists do manage to have both children and a successful career (although I continually hear them discussing guilty feelings for not having enough time to accomodate everything). Some get punished for trying it, as highlighted in the recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article entitled The Laws of Physics: A postdoc’s pregnancy derails her career. In this story, a woman post-doc in experimental particle physics had a daughter and was effectively denied her rightful maternity leave (as was university policy) by her mentor who threatened her with a poor recommendation letter. She is now a graduate student in statistics at a different univerity.
The article also contains a Table of numerically weighted job-related pros and cons for `Should I have a baby now or should I wait?’ as calculated by a woman post-doc (also in experimental particle physics) at the University of Rochester. The result was 71-53 in favor of not waiting, but perhaps she didn’t know about the experience of her colleague mentioned above. When people feel compelled to calculate such a Table, it shows there’s something wrong with the system.
The dangers of waiting are obvious: the career path is a long process and by the end you’re too old. That’s my story. As a graduate student I wasn’t ready, as a post-doc I had to focus on getting a tenure-track job, as an assistant professor I knew I would never get tenure if I got pregnant. And now, I go to the clinic and the doctor’s first statement is `do you realize how old you are? Do you realize the infinitesimal chance of getting pregnant and the infinite risks?’ Nonetheless, they are happy to help me try, but at this stage it costs $10k a pop and insurance doesn’t cover it.
It is a fundamental right of a human being to have children. And our scientific career path needs to accomodate that fact. Otherwise, we will never have equal gender respresentation in the physical sciences, and science will lose out on talented people with some brilliant ideas.