For the want of a family: the reason for the gender divide in scientific research

The big old Nobel-prize winning dinosaur who made stupid comments about women in science has justifiably suffered the repercussions of trial-by-social media. Okay, the comments were intended to be tongue-in-cheek but the brilliant #devastatinglysexy backlash on Twitter highlights that gender discrimination is still a very sore point for many women in science.

There’s inappropriate behaviour, patronizing attitudes and outright long-held opinions that women just can’t do science. In some people. A dwindling number of people, in fact, and more often than not male researchers don’t hold to these archaic ideals.

The lab is actually – at least in my experience – a great place to work as a female. There’s a great deal of comradery amongst men and women and groups of mixed gender friends are common.

Problems arise when we mention families. Most of my male colleagues have a young family. They’ve gone through all that rigmarole of announcing their impending child and then disappearing on paternity leave for a week or two before returning to much fanfare and congratulations. Then they get to continue their research with nothing more than a holiday-length blip in their career trajectory.

And yet the when women who work in research have a child… oh, that’s right. There are no female colleagues in research with young children. And that’s the difference.

Women still need to choose career or family while men seem to be able to have both. I acknowledge that some men may want to be much more involved in raising their kids and the two week paternity leave is woefully inadequate. I also acknowledge the challenges faced by women who want both a career and a family.

It can be done. I’ve heard of stories of women who have a successful career and a family. They usually do this with great personal sacrifice, amazing time-management skills and a very supportive partner. For those of us without those super-human powers, it really is an either/or choice. Even with the offer of maternity leave.

Friends have told me about the challenges of having a child and working in research. First there is the timing. When is the best time to plan for a child? One friend was pregnant during the thesis-writing stage of her PhD and consequently struggled to find her first post-doc. She’s found a great job now but the downtime after her first child was a large gap in her career.

Another friend was well-established in her career with a research job that she loved but she also really wanted a family. She had to time the pregnancy with the grant approvals to get maternity leave and while her company guaranteed to give her a job when she returned, there was no guarantee that it would be in the same position or even the same research group.

And then there is the career gap. The difficulty with keeping up to date with publications let alone going to conferences and keeping your networks strong and your lab skills up to speed. It can be a real challenge to be competitive in grant applications against those who have no gaps in their career.

These issues are so “first world problems” compared to the horrible conditions faced by our female fore bearers in science. Always struggling to convince others to take your ideas seriously despite your gender and then having your good ideas stolen by your male supervisor. As well as not getting your paper published if you used a female name and never being allowed to go to conferences let alone present at one.

I was really encouraged recently when I attended a Women in Science event recently and they showed the plans that are in place to limit the career impact of women having kids and men who want to take paternity leave.

We are so fortunate today that so much progress has been made in removing gender bias from scientific research. Research is a great career for women and today there is comparatively little active discrimination against female scientists. But we are still a very long way from thinking sexist tongue-in-cheek statements are actually funny.