Did we have it all and lose it?

Karen Lona Allendoerfer ravena at cco.caltech.edu
Mon Aug 24 13:22:34 EST 1998

Susan Forsburg wrote:

>I was recently speaking with another woman junior-PI about
>the current state of science and what it takes to get
>started.  She opined that the current funding crisis has made it
>much more difficult for a woman to contemplate combining family and

(some snippage)

>As she pointed out, the generation preceding us (women who
>now have tenure and are around 50) had a much better shot
>at getting that first grant and getting on their feet scientifically.
>I get the feeling, observing my male colleagues,
>that 15-20  years ago, a bright new assistant professor with a solid
>pedigree pretty much stepped right into a grant;  getting the job might
>still have been hard but once you were in, you were given the chance to
>get going.

>Academic life is notoriously flexible, making a
>family/career mix more feasible than elsewhere, and a lot of that
>generation of women managed to combine family and excellent science.

I agree with Susan completely on the current state of affairs (i.e. how
difficult it is today).  But I actually don't see very much cause for
nostalgia.  The n is small, so the whole thing suffers from sample size
problems, but the 50-ish successful women in science I know aren't any more
likely to have kids than the 30-ish or 40-ish successful women in science
that I know.  And the 50-ish women are the pioneers, really, who put up
with lots and lots of bullshit that we are, for the most part, spared.  My
PhD advisor, who turned 50 this year and although married, never had kids,
was the first woman to get a PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard (in 1977). 
Such programs today, 20 years later, graduate around 50% women.  While I
would be ecstatic and humbled to have the career success my thesis advisor
has earned, I also don't know whether I have the wherewithal to fight the
sexism she faced.  

>So, the question is this:  have we really gone backwards in this regard?

>I know science isn't exactly moving FORWARD but it is pretty depressing
>if we are actually losing ground, so that what once was a compromise now
>is a stark choice.

        That being said, I also see the "stark choice" rearing its ugly
head, just not in ways that are unique to science.  Unfortunately, women
themselves seem to be the worst enemies of other women in this regard, at
times.  I noticed it when those guidelines came out earlier in the year
about breast-feeding.  Now suddenly you're supposed to breast-feed a baby
exclusively, without any outside supplement, for a year after it's born! 
When I read that, I admit I was horrified.  I don't have kids, or immediate
plans to have kids, but the thought of exclusive breast-feeding for a year
just does not appeal, at all.  Almost completely for career reasons.  
Breast-feeding in the lab?  Um . . . 
        I admit I hadn't given a great deal of thought to the issue, but
when I had, I had thought I would do it for some amount of time, like 3
months, and use a pump during the day and accumulate bottles in the fridge
so that my hubby could be involved in the feeding process too.  But
apparently, according the "latest medical advice," that's not acceptable. 
And it's not really the doctors, so much, who are pushing it, but some
mothers and groups like La Leche league.  I had an overall positive
impression of La Leche league before, but after I read some of their
letters to the editor in women's magazines and newspapers after the
articles describing the recommendations came out, the term "nipple nazis"
actually didn't seem so inaccurate.  
        And some of the mothers were even worse:  "if you can't make time
for breast-feeding, maybe you can't really make time for having children,
either," one of them said.  I get the feeling that in some people's minds,
the bar is being raised for child-rearing all out of proportion to what it
actually requires, making it again, a very stark choice.  Either you have
to be supermom, or you just shouldn't do it at all.  And this is coming
>From other women!  I have to admit, it pisses me off.  I think that even if
I don't breast-feed for a year, I still would have something positive to
contribute as a parent.  
        I think the only solution is to find supportive people on your side
to help you, don't put anyone else down and thereby contribute to this
stupid, destructive sniping among women, and ignore the nay-sayers.

        To close, I'd also like to point out that maybe there is a way in
which things are better today than they used to be.   Your post focusses on
academia.  But since academia is no longer a viable choice for everyone,
alternate careers are going to be pursued by many women scientists.  At
least some companies are subject to things like the family and medical
leave act, and have parental leave, on-site daycare (Genentech and Amgen
have centers, for example), and other family-friendly policies.  And I
think that both women and men benefit from these things.  



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