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Mixing Motherhood and Science


This article is reposted with permission from Physics World, March 2002. The original article is available online at

When five women were made fellows of the Royal Society in 1999 - an unusually large number for a single year - only one, the physiologist Francis Ashcroft, made headlines. The media were interested in Ashcroft because she had said that it was impossible for women to combine motherhood with the highest levels of scientific achievement. The press, however, ignored the fact that three of the other new fellows had children, including Athene Donald - the first female professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge - and Janet Thornton, new director of the European Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge.

The following year, extensive coverage was also given to comments made by Susan Greenfield, professor of neuroscience at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution. In an interview with the Guardian on 31 May 2000, she argued that she would not be where she is today if she had chosen to have children. "It's my personal belief", she said, "that the bottleneck comes when women have babies." I believe, however, that this proposition that motherhood and serious science are incompatible in the modern world is both false and dangerous.

Of course, there have been some distinguished women who have remained childless - either through choice or circumstance. Their scientific contributions have been immensely valuable and they have often been tireless in supporting other female scientists. The late Daphne Jackson - who for many years was the only female professor of physics in the UK - is a good example. She became head of physics at Surrey University, led a distinguished career in nuclear, medical and radiation physics, and started what is now known as the Daphne Jackson Trust - the "returners scheme" to help women back into academic employment after a career break.

However, most female scientists have chosen to have a family. They include the double Nobel-prize-winning physicist Marie Curie and the crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin. As for today, nine of the 15 female professors of physics in the UK do have children, including many of the younger ones. Combining science with motherhood is not only possible - but is actually rather common.

Combating the myths

I see two main reasons why the existence of scientific mothers is not more widely known. First, women are reticent to discuss details of their private lives or to boast that they are some sort of "super women". Second, the media find it more newsworthy to report on childless scientists. For example, two of the three women quoted in a recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (12 October 2001) had children and successful careers - yet the headline was "Science and the family don't mix", while the banner across the front of the paper read "Can a mother be a top scientist?"

There are two dangers in perpetuating the myth that science and motherhood cannot be combined. First, it may encourage people to believe that it is a waste of money setting up family-friendly policies that help mothers to stay in work or to return to the lab after having children.

Second, the suggestion that science is not a family-friendly occupation is likely to deter thoughtful young women (and men) from becoming scientists. Science already suffers from the stereotyped image of mad scientists working all day long alone in a laboratory - and we do not need to make things worse. Women who choose a subject like law, in contrast, can point to Cherie Booth as a high-profile example of a female QC who has a brilliant career and is raising four children.

Finding solutions

So why does the fraction of female scientists fall so dramatically with age or seniority as one moves from school, university and PhD level to post-doctoral, lecturer and professorial or senior industrial posts? Delegates from more than 65 different countries at this month's Paris conference on women in physics - which has been organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics - will attempt to answer this question by comparing the status of female physicists around the world. The women in physics group of the Institute of Physics, which has analysed the situation in the UK, have pinpointed two features of British society that make it especially difficult for female scientists here.

First, British scientists are used to moving around for the sake of their careers, which means that many women and men work without the support of close family around them. Indeed, many of the women who apply for a fellowship from the Daphne Jackson Trust have moved to another part of the country after having children. This change of location severs a woman's links with her previous employers - the very people who might have been most likely to re-employ her.

The second problem is the late age at which appointments to permanent academic jobs in Britain are made. This contrasts starkly with the situation in France, where the post-doctoral system does not operate and - in theory at least - newly qualified PhDs move straight into permanent posts. A high proportion of academic female scientists in Britain have children only after having obtained a permanent job. This is often the easiest route - and the one that I followed. Unfortunately, some women find that by then it is simply too late.

A small number of women who currently hold lectureships or other academic posts had their children a few years after completing their PhDs, while holding down short-term research fellowships or post-doctoral posts. Those who followed this route were most likely to succeed if they obtained a post that indicates considerable distinction - such as the advanced fellowships and university research fellowships offered by the Royal Society.

However, it requires a truly world-class woman to compete with men on equal terms while raising a young family. In my view, all women who have obtained permanent academic posts after starting a family are absolutely outstanding individuals. I also believe that the women who are at greatest risk of being lost to the scientific community are those who have their children soon after a PhD or while in a post-doc position. It should be recognized that while research fellowships now offer maternity leave, the arrangements for post-docs are much more problematic, with few ever benefiting from them.

Another option is for a woman to start her family during a career break - and then seek a permanent position. But with appointments to academic posts made on the basis of a proven research record - driven by the need for universities to obtain good grades in the Research Assessment Exercise - this option has rarely succeeded in recent years. The small number of women who have followed this path have often been helped by the Daphne Jackson Trust. Interestingly, the pioneering British crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale is one of the earliest examples of a "returner". She took five years out from paid employment in the early 1930s to raise three children, continuing her research at home. She was then re-employed as a research assistant at the Royal Institution in London, which acted as a bridge to a permanent post.

,pAlthough the proportion of top-class female scientists who have families is not zero, it is certainly not equal to the average of the female population as a whole. Wastage occurs whenever a woman finds that she cannot support her children and put the long hours in at the lab that are required to succeed academically. These conflicting demands put too much of a strain on her lifestyle and she simply leaves science altogether. Another difficulty crops up when the only suitable job a woman can find is a long way from home - and her partner is too fixed in his job to move (see Love and the two-body problem Physics World October 2001 pp37-39).

The will to succeed

The question of combining science and motherhood is rightly receiving much attention from schemes such as the Athena Project, which is backed by the UK government and funding councils. But it is equally important that young women are not deterred from entering science because of inaccurate reporting of the lifestyle imposed on a successful female scientist.

Kathleen Lonsdale analysed the situation clearly back in 1970. She maintained that marriage and motherhood were at least as socially important to a country as military service and argued that British government regulations at the time were framed to ensure that a man returning to work after military service was not penalized by his absence. "Is it Utopian", she asked, "to suggest that any country that really wants married women to return to a scientific career when her children no longer need her physical presence should make special arrangements to encourage her to do so?"

The current situation is far better than it was in the 1970s. Nevertheless, as the recent Maximising Returns survey from the UK's Department of Trade and Industry revealed, women who have science or engineering degrees and have school-age children are less likely to be working than women with other degrees. "While we have a number of excellent small initiatives, I am concerned by the lack of significant progress, the low number of female professors and the lack of recognition given to women in science," said Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, when the survey was published in January. "I believe that we must pursue a more aggressive, joined-up strategy to increase the participation of women in science and engineering."

I hope the minister takes seriously Kathleen Lonsdale's point that female scientists who have taken time out to raise children and then wish to return to science deserve special measures - rather than having to face age and discrimination barriers. If women with children are able to continue in scientific work, there is good evidence that, over their whole career, they make very important contributions.

Reprinted with permission from Physics World March 2002.

Gillian Gehring is a professor of condensed-matter physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield, UK. She thanks Athene Donald for helpful comments.