For top female scientists, starting a family is a major setback

November 13, 2014, 6:00 PM UTC
Sara Kerens, L'Oreal Fellow Tour
Courtesy of Sara Kerens

Women across industries struggle to navigate the competing demands of career and family. This balancing act is even trickier for research scientists. They have a small window in their late twenties and early thirties to stay competitive by publishing papers and landing research grants.

As the mother of a toddler, Lauren O’Connell has experienced the tension first-hand. “There is a perception that raising a family and being a female scientist are mutually exclusive,” she says. O’Connell is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, where she’s studying how chemicals found on the skin of poisonous dart frogs can be used to create painkillers, antibiotics and heart medications. “As scientists, our graduate school and postdoctoral years are expected to be our most productive, but for women, they also coincide with our child-bearing years, so managing the two can be very difficult.”

Universities have started offering benefits like paid maternity leave and lactation rooms. But despite these accommodations, women with children still find themselves falling behind their male colleagues. Many female scientists will abandon their research right when they are about to hit their stride: women receive 46% of science doctorates in the U.S., yet only a third of scientists employed in tenure-track positions are women and less than a quarter of full professors are women.

O’Connell says that the timing of professional support is behind this trend. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are trying to promote more women, she explains, but they tend to fund scientists who are further along in their careers—an issue, since many women have already left the field by that point.

Private companies are now stepping up to give women scientists help earlier on, when they are in the thick of raising young children. Since 2003, L’Oreal has awarded an annual Women in Science grant of $60,000 to help exceptional female scientists through this critical stage of their careers—and O’Connell is among this year’s pool of recipients.

It’s no coincidence that four out of five of this year’s winners are new mothers. Livia Eberlin, for instance, is a postdoctoral scientist at Stanford who is developing a new method of rapidly diagnosing cancer; she’s also the mother of a six-month old baby girl. She’s noticed that many of her male colleagues did not take advantage of paternity leave when their wives had babies. “For a woman, you just don’t have that option,” says Eberlin. “Not that I wouldn’t want to take that time off to bond with my newborn, but it just shows how easy it is for women to fall behind their male colleagues.”

Eberlin has had to take her baby to an inconveniently located daycare facility because the options near Stanford are too expensive. The L’Oreal grant, though, will allow her to afford a closer alternative. “It was a problem I was facing in my personal life that bled into my work because I had to drive so far every day,” she says. “It was slowing me down.” O’Connell, for her part, says the money will allow her to spend more time with her daughter because she will no longer need spend hours a day writing grant proposals, which is one of the less glamorous parts of an academic scientist’s life.

However, money can only help so much. There are many deep-rooted forms of gender discrimination in academic science that require cultural change. For instance, a study released earlier this year found that while doing fieldwork, 64% of women scientists have been sexually harassed and one in five has been a victim of sexual assault.

In more subtle ways, the male-dominated environment in research labs affects women’s everyday lives. Eberlin describes having to battle stereotypes from male colleagues who assume she is not as academically equipped as they are. These perceptions are only made worse when she has to visit the lactation room every two hours. “In the chemistry department—a workplace that is almost entirely male—trying to pump milk is so awkward,” she says. “It can be challenging; in the end, you have to show what you can do through your work.”

The recipients of the L’Oreal award believe that the only way to tackle these problems is to bring more women into the field. Eberlin plans to use part of her funding to hire female research assistants. O’Connell is inviting high school students from the Science Club for Girls organization to help with research projects.

Both Eberlin and O’Connell have faith that the tides can turn quickly if more female scientists demonstrate to young women that they can have a family while also pursuing cutting edge research. Eberlin says that the women who have been successful, despite the odds, have a responsibility to make the path easier for others. “I used to go into meetings where I was the only female chemist and feel intimidated,” she says. “But it dawned on me that I was there representing other women; I need to do my best to create opportunities for them.”

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