When is the right time to start a family? How do I manage my work and family? How do I find a job near my spouse’s workplace?
Many working women at one point or the other will have to ask themselves these questions. Women in science, technology, engineering, & mathematics (STEM) have a particularly hard time answering these questions, because the life of a woman doing scientific research can be quite demanding. Scientists are expected to work long hours and to multitask – they have to meet deadlines, write reports, write grants, set-up and maintain the lab, manage and guide students, attend meetings, take part in the activities of departmental committees, and if in an academic setting, engage in active teaching. Often, these expectations keep researchers so busy that they barely have time to breathe. Amidst this hectic life schedule, if a woman decides to take a career break to focus on family, getting back on par with her male colleagues can be challenging. The consequence is that there are fewer women scientists than men in positions at the top of the hierarchy. A recent article published in “The New York Times” talks about how marriage and children cause women to ‘leak’ out of the science pipeline. After PhDs, women who are married with young children are 35% less likely than men to enter tenure track positions at a college/university.
What can be done to improve the situation of women scientists? Here are some tips for how to overcome these challenges and help women move to higher levels in their scientific career.
1. Have a life plan: Planning beforehand is the best and foremost way to prevent losing a career track. Since many women do not receive proper guidance at an early stage, accepting radical life changes becomes difficult during career growth and prevents them from reaching higher positions in their career. Planning one’s life in advance will prepare the person mentally and physically to accept the challenges and adjust to new life settings. As the old saying goes, “Well planned is half done.” This demonstrates why it is important to target young girls if the status of women in science is to improve.
2. Seek Mentorship: Girls who express a passion to pursue a scientific career should be identified and given appropriate guidance. Young women should be exposed to lessons from successful female scientists who managed challenges wisely and also from women who could not climb higher in the career ladder. Girls at an earlier stage can learn lessons that better prepare them and equip them appropriately.
As a researcher in science, I needed to cross the bridge as well. After my postdoctoral term was over, I moved with my spouse to his workplace since we wanted to start a family. While pregnant, I often had difficulties convincing principal investigators (in the new workplace) that I would be able to lead a research project, due to restrictions I had on certain tasks, such as handling chemicals in the laboratory. At times I had people around me advising me to leave research and pick up a teaching career or perhaps to learn a new skill such as data entry/computer programming so that I can care for my family more and still earn my living. Leaving research completely in order to teach is not my passion, however. I love to teach what I research. Computer programming would be perfect in terms of caring for my newborn and doing so certainly would bring food onto my plate. But is that what I want to do all my life? Not really. Had I been advised appropriately earlier, could I have managed without career gaps? Maybe.
Encouraging high school girls to pursue scientific careers alone is not sufficient. It is equally important to mentor girls at an early stage to help them foresee the challenges in scientific careers.
3. Institutional support: Many US institutions have started encouraging school girls to pursue science careers by developing short programs and workshops. Argonne National Lab, for example, has an annual conference titled, “Science careers in search of women,” that reaches out to high school women to inspire them for science careers. “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” is another program that was conceived by Argonne to urge women in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade for engineering careers. Some of the scientific fields have not been well explored by women. Nuclear science is one example. An article published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calls for school women to adopt the road less travelled by females and is worth a read. More and more institutions should involve in engaging school women in science and should offer mentoring.
With a life plan and the guidance of a mentor, combined with the support of institutions, women can set and achieve greater career goals. Once one of my female colleagues said, “There is no right time to start a family.” Even though life does not work the way we wish sometimes, we can certainly prepare ourselves better.
Do you miss out on opportunities because you wait to be asked?
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