Want to promote women in STEM? Leave home life out of the discussion

written by Jeanne Garbarino

121012female_CORRECTAt a recent NYWiSTEM meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences on promoting women in scientific careers, I was quite surprised to hear several of the panelists focus, in part, on having a supportive husband, and how that has been critical for their career success. On one hand, this is true for them and sharing this information is being honest. On the other hand, this type of thing can come across as a necessary requirement, which is both inaccurate and unfair.

This was not the first time that I have seen the probing of a woman’s home life. Questions like: “How do you manage your household and your lab,” “Can you make enough time for your children without impacting the quality of your work,” or “Do you have a supportive husband?” populate many of these discussions, and I feel that this is adrift from the primary focus: increasing the number and retention of women in STEM, particularly in high-ranking positions.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the value of a household where all inhabitants pitch in equally. I absolutely believe that individuals in a 2+ body home are required to discuss any major career changes with whomever it is they are traveling with through life. Having a partner that supports you in your career and at home is a wonderful situation. But, how does discussing this change the fact that less than 25% of STEM jobs are held by women? Or that women in STEM get paid, on average, 14% less than men in STEM? Or that there exists a gender bias among faculty (male and female) when it comes to hiring academic laboratory workers?

While some argue that these personal points are important components of the conversation surrounding women in STEM, I’d prefer to steer clear of them. Here is why:

It is rare that home life situations for men in STEM are discussed.

In the 50s and 60s, Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist from Princeton, made significant contributions toward the development of satellite and jet propulsion technologies. Yet, in her original obituary published in the March 30th issue of the NY Times, Brill was recognized primarily for her “mean beef stroganoff.” While the obituary was later changed to reflect Brill’s scientific achievements, it took wide-scale outrage for this to happen. Why are women automatically reduced to how they performed in the home, regardless of career achievements? I highly doubt that if Brill was a man, kitchen skills would be mentioned. All you have to do to confirm these doubts is look at the obituaries from scientists like Christian de Duve, William Pollack, or David Hubel – all pioneering scientists who passed away this year. Their obituaries do nothing but sing the praises of their scientific accomplishments.

The obituary of Yvonne Brill is just one obvious, but very clear, example of how we are automatically programmed, as a society, to break things down differently between men and women. It would be beyond ideal if we could all – men and women alike – discuss how home life and work life intersects without there being any gender-based insinuations, but that just isn’t the case. Until we can find gender equity regarding our expectations for home life (i.e. men are expected, just as much as women, to take care of traditionally gendered chores or family care), it is my opinion that we need to leave this out of the conversation.

Not everyone shares the same home life experiences or goals.  

Women in STEM come in all varieties, as do their career and home life goals, and a discussion about home life could end up ostracizing audience members. Again I will draw from my most recent experience at the NYWiSTEM meeting. During that discussion, two of the panelists explicitly stated that having a supportive husband at home was critical for their success. While this might have been true for these panelists, there were many women in the audience who were not partnered and found these sentiments to be discouraging. I know this because after I brought up this issue during the Q&A session, I was later approached independently by quite a number of women who thanked me for raising this point. Reasons varied, but here were a few of the sentiments that were shared:

  • “I’m single. I hate when these career panels talk about the importance of a husband. It somehow makes me feel inadequate.”

  • “I don’t see how my having a partner or kids is relevant to the conversation. I don’t have kids, and I don’t want it to be framed as the pinnacle of success.”

  • “I am not interested in a family right now (or maybe ever). This is not relevant to me.”

  • “I’m a lesbian. I am frustrated how things are always framed in a man:woman context. I am not interested in a husband, and am tired of heterosexual generalizations.”

On the other side of the coin, hearing the personal choices of a woman who placed career above finding a partner and/or having kids can make success seem less attainable for women who have families. As a parent, a woman in STEM, and a human being, it sometimes isn’t easy hearing the long lists of achievements by women who have been able to walk this path. The truth is that you don’t have to choose one over the other when thinking about a career path, and I don’t want to be involved in discussions that give that impression. Again, I believe it is best to leave home life choices out of the conversation.

It doesn’t move the conversation forward.

As someone who frequently moderates panel discussions on careers in STEM, I have come to realize and value the types of information that truly move the conversation forward. Let’s face it – finding a job in STEM is not easy, and having a PhD no longer equates to job security (at least, job security in one’s area of research). I’d be happy to discuss my tactics for finding quality time with my children as part of a parenting forum. But ask me to talk about this when the focus is on securing a job, and I will no longer do it – it just doesn’t seem relevant.

Instead of discussing home life, I think it is better to talk about individual strategies for networking, recognizing opportunity, being your own advocate, and negotiating skills. These are the types of anecdotes that are the most valuable.

The Finkbeiner Test: A Strategy for Keeping it Gender Neutral

Earlier this year at Double X Science, Christine Aschwandan described how she was fed up with how women scientists were covered in the media, stating that “treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science.” Taking a cue from the Bechdel Test, which measures gender bias in film, Aschwandan suggested that journalists implement the “Finkbeiner Test” when reporting on women in science, which would exclude mention of the the following personal information:

  • The fact that she’s a woman

  • Her husband’s job

  • Her child care arrangements

  • How she nurtures her underlings

  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field

  • How she’s such a role model for other women

  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

Homelife anecdotes, while often interesting/funny/heart wrenching/etc, have nothing to do with a person’s ability in the workplace. As a parent who is also a scientist, I definitely appreciate being able to commiserate and bond with other scientist-parents through our shared experiences – without being looked-down upon. But when it comes to discussing ways to promote and support women in STEM in real life conversations, I would like to see adoption of this Finkbeiner Test. Obviously, gender identification would be hard to avoid, however, the rest would be perfectly applicable.

The women before us worked very hard to lay the groundwork for equality in the workplace, and while many major obstacles have been overcome, the problems that still exist contribute to that not-quite-equal opportunities for women. Gender equality requires a level playing field, and we either need to apply the rules to everyone or to no one – reaching for the latter seems like the low-hanging fruit. While it might seem nitpicky to suggest that panel moderators (and panelists) refrain from discussing home life situations, I believe that it is an essential strategy for a fair and balanced conversation.

3 thoughts on “Want to promote women in STEM? Leave home life out of the discussion”

  • Perhaps the questions and attention towards home life is not one women should be ignoring in these discussions. Rather, it is one that men should be addressing as well.

    Home life is now a venture shared equally among the genders and ignoring that fact will not lead a more balanced life. Men are taking on new roles as well and should be considering the impact on their lives.

    As a young female who is just beginning her scientific career and falling in love for the first time, I am plagued by questions of how to maintain a healthy career and family simultaneously. I appreciate the advice and observations of the women who have gone before me.

    When speakers state that a supportive partner is instrumental their for success, I think this holds true for men as well. Of course, a supportive partner will ALWAYS assist regardless of gender. Personally, I appreciate some of these conversations. Should it be the sole focus? No.

    However, there should be a footnote included for those of us who are genuinely interested in the advice of our successors.

  • I also wonder whether reasoning for pursuing a research career is attributed to males and females differently. For example, I research brain development in infants and young children. When I describe my career path to others, I always get the comment, “Oh, you must really like kids.” In contrast, my (male) graduate mentor never gets this comment, even though he studies the same phenomena. It is disheartening to think that others believe that I research young children because I “must like kids” and not because I enjoy science.

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