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October 20, 2008
Volume 86, Number 42
pp. 64-65

Being a Scientist and a Mother

A collection of insightful essays by several generations of women scientist-mothers

Reviewed by Geraldine L. Richmond

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE experienced the “enormous” joys of pregnancy, the elephant in “Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out,” edited by Emily Monosson, does not refer to you. Instead it refers to the absence of substantive dialogue in many of our academic and research institutions about combining motherhood and a career in science.

Motherhood, The Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, edited by Emily Monosson, Cornell University Press, 2008, 232 pages, $25 hardcover (ISBN: 978–0-8014–4664–1)

To help fill this void, Monosson has collected for her book a series of personal perspectives of 34 women scientists who speak candidly about their experiences, challenges, successes, and failures in their quests to be both mothers and scientists. The stories provide insights into the choices that these women have made as they seek to excel in both roles.

The essays chosen for the book arose from an e-mail that Monosson sent to current and former fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, later, to a broader community of women scientists. Contributors span several generations and encompass a wide spectrum of science and engineering disciplines including a few trained in chemistry. These personal stories reveal a range of career choices that these women have made, including full- and part-time employment, self-employment and entrepreneurial ventures, job sharing with their spouses, volunteer activities, and full-time parenthood.

In the introduction and in other segments of the book, Monosson provides persuasive motivation for the need to increase public dialogue on the difficult choices that women face in seeking to balance the often-competing demands of motherhood and a science career. As a mother herself, with a Ph.D. in toxicology, she shares her own insights into this issue along with her hope that increased dialogue will help institutions become more aware and accepting of family demands on the women scientists whom they employ. The goals for her book are twofold: To initiate a discussion on how we define and might redefine the concept of a career scientist and to provide examples of the different ways that women scientists have managed to be both mothers and scientists.

The introductory portion of the book also sets the stage for the essays that Monosson has selected to publish. She provides a summary of recent data on the demographics of different science and technical fields and discusses a range of surveys and opinions on the topic of women scientists and motherhood. To give a personal side to these statistics and the discussion, she intersperses the numbers with quotes from e-mails she has received from female scientists and from the essays that follow in the book. She also uses the introduction as a means of starting the dialogue on what a scientist is and how we define a successful scientific career.

Organized in a series of chapters, the essays are a wonderful collection of personal stories that are concise, compelling, and illuminating. I am most struck by the frank nature of these stories. One woman admits to the bitterness that she feels having given so much of herself to her career, at the sacrifice of time with her daughter, without receiving the recognition for her science that she believes she deserves. Another discusses the struggles she has had in progressing in her academic career while raising a disabled child as a single mother. A third says her “worst times are when guilt and regret that I am neither the mother I imagined I would be, nor the researcher that I envisioned as a graduate student, spill over into my family.”

Each essay, without exception, provides an intimate window into the struggles that these women have encountered as they have tried to find a satisfactory balance between their career and family aspirations. The role and career challenges of their spouses are also woven into many of these stories. A large fraction of these spouses are also scientists, consistent with the statistics that show that a high percentage of women scientists in the U.S. marry other scientists.

A particularly interesting aspect of the book is how Monosson has organized the content. The essays are organized chronologically according to the date that the respective authors received their last degree. By separating these essays into four decadal sections, from the 1970s through today, the reader can track how the challenges and opportunities for women scientists of different age groups have varied with the political and societal changes in the U.S. over this time frame. From women scientists just beginning their careers to those entering the retirement stage of their lives, one obtains a current snapshot of the balance that they all continue to seek between their personal and professional lives.

The stories as a whole provide a fascinating comparison of the lifestyles, career aspirations, and child-rearing philosophies of these mother-scientists over a nearly 40-year period. They also provide a picture of how attitudes of coworkers, supervisors, and colleagues in their fields change toward them, often in a negative way, when they decide to have children. These negative attitudes and the impact of these attitudes on the career progress, confidence, and aspirations of these women are apparent throughout the book, including in the essays from the younger generation of mother-scientists.

One woman who received her Ph.D. in 1979 was supported by a fellowship that specified that she would lose the fellowship if she married. As a result, she continued to live with her boyfriend in graduate school, marrying him when the fellowship expired. Demonstrating that such attitudes are slow to change, a story from a woman with a two-year postdoctoral research position in 2006?08 was told that her position would be terminated a year early because of her pregnancy. Her gutsy, financially costly, and professionally risky response was to obtain legal representation. As a result, the institution adopted a new policy that highlights pregnancy discrimination as sex discrimination.

From the older women’s stories in the first part of the book the reader gains a unique perspective on how the demands of motherhood change from the baby years through the teen years, as well as how their own marriages evolved during the process. It is interesting to see how they have adjusted their careers to manage their evolving motherly and spousal roles. The more senior essayist who describes herself as an “over-sixty baby boomer scientist” recalls her journey with her Ph.D. husband of 40 years. “We have somehow survived the strains of time and stages of growth—from the terrible twos to terrible teens, from college admissions to an empty nest and dual tuition payments.” She goes on to state that although the journey has been difficult, “there are great compensations and returns on investment like love, warmth and respect from our children, with even greater future dividends hoped for as we get older.”

From the younger women’s stories, reading what factors went into their choice of when to have children is particularly relevant to those women at childbearing age who are currently in graduate school or the early stages of their scientific careers. Finding adequate childcare and the heart-wrenching difficulty of returning to work soon after childbirth—due to limited maternity leave policies—is expressed numerous times. Unfortunately, this problem is a national one, not just limited to science and engineering careers.

One might argue that Monosson’s book is not representative of the full spectrum of women scientist-mothers—merely a collection of essays from those who chose to respond to the editor’s invitation. For example, there are only four essays from women in tenured/tenure-track faculty positions at major research universities. It would have been interesting to read a few more of these stories and hear about how they handled their challenges of running a research group and other demands, especially in light of the coincident ticking for many women of the tenure clock and the biological clock. One woman who contributed an essay in this category writes that she felt that she was faced with choosing between her daughter and her career during her years before tenure, a situation that she wishes had never been necessary.

A recurring theme in many of the essays is the soul searching that these women go through in evaluating whether their career choices have led them to a “successful” scientific career. For many, the academic professorship is the ultimate successful career choice—a career that they perceive requires a 24/7 devotion to science and other obligations that are incompatible with a healthy family life. What comes through in many of the essays is the guilt and self-questioning these women undergo when they choose an alternative career path that they perceive does not fit the mold that they once revered. Some of the essayists who have stepped away from scientific-research-oriented careers wonder whether they are truly scientists anymore. There is a sense that, by choosing an alternative career, they are disappointing their mentors or possibly not achieving the level of success that will aid in further progress for women in science.

The younger women scientists who contributed to the book struggle with this issue more than those women who have had more time to be comfortable with and value their own career choices. The irony of all of this is that I found the book to be a wonderful compilation of the breadth of career options that these women have found that have provided them personal and professional satisfaction. Monosson suggests that “a broader and more inclusive definition of success (beyond attainment of tenure) might lead to a more inclusive and more welcoming scientific community,” one that embraces a wider range of scientists in a variety of roles. Through the stories told by her essayists she makes a compelling case for why such a change is so important.

It is interesting and important to note that while many of the women scientists who contributed to this book have often questioned whether they made the right professional choices while juggling the demands of parenthood, there is one thing that none of them doubts: All believe that motherhood was the right choice for them. There is also an overwhelming sense that they believe they have been good mothers to their children. The essays glow with the pride and joy that these woman feel about raising their children—even with all the career challenges and struggles. In one case, a mother and her two daughters wrote essays for the book, each daughter reflecting on how the mother’s science career impacted her upbringing. The feelings of many essayists in the book are expressed by Teresa Wizemann of Merck & Co.: “Bringing up a child and bringing up a career are remarkably similar. ... They are often exhausting, sometimes heartbreaking, rarely predictable, but tremendously rewarding. Motherhood is the grandest experience. Don’t miss out. And remember that you are not alone in your eternal quest for balance.”

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the very personal side of the struggles and opportunities that accompany the decision of a collection of women scientists to have children. But the book also gets at a larger issue that goes beyond the topic of motherhood: the failure of our scientific culture, particularly in our academic institutions, to embrace and value the full range of career options beyond the professoriate that can lead to rewarding and satisfying professional and personal lives. For both reasons the book is a good read—even for those readers who will never be mothers.

Geraldine Richmond is Richard M. & Patricia H. Noyes Professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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