Reproductive Success for Working Scientists

April 26, 2005

Long ago, I found myself pregnant while working as a postdoc at a federal institute. I was blessed with what seemed like the ideal situation for a mammal who wanted to increase her Darwinian fitness while enhancing her chances for tenure. I would be able to give birth and raise the baby past that difficult first year before I had to throw myself into the academic job market in search of a faculty position. Perfect, I thought.

My supervisor supported my decision, but neither of us had counted on his division being threatened with elimination. We both concluded that I needed to go on the job market immediately if I didn't want to risk being an unemployed new mother.

I began churning out CV's and cover letters that said nothing about my pregnancy. To my delight I soon received a phone call from the chairman of a search committee at a major university. He was someone I knew and respected, and shortly we were arranging for me to fly out for an interview.

It turned out, however, that while my friend was nominally the head of the search, the choice was really up to a newly hired director who got to handpick at least three new faculty members over the next three years. The director and his assistant gave me derisive looks the following week as I waddled down the rickety stairway from the tiny plane to the tarmac. They made it abundantly clear that they knew I had no brain.

The well-planned fantasy of my first pregnancy began to unravel during delivery. Up to then my pregnancy had been uncomplicated. Suddenly I was on an operating table being prepped for an emergency c-section. The baby was fine, but once home with my newborn, I confronted the reality of recovering from abdominal surgery and dealing with the Thing That Would Not Sleep. By the time I returned to work, I was more drained (both emotionally and physically) than I had ever been in my life. My research project was woefully behind, and I had calls from two more search committees inviting me for interviews.

In the next four months I went on three job interviews with my husband and our infant son in tow. Those experiences made it clear that biologists may find studying mammals worthwhile, but they vastly prefer not to be confronted with the mammalian nature of a job candidate. At one university the faculty members and students were simply dismissive. At another, the powerful chairwoman of the graduate program told me, with venom in her voice, that women in science needed to make choices between family life and science. Apparently I had made the wrong choice.

I finished that interview season with no job in hand. From my perspective many years later, as a dean whose favorite part of her job is hiring new faculty members, I am not surprised. No one who read the recent Berkeley study on the effects of motherhood on academic careers should be surprised, either. It is abundantly clear that, as a society, we have far to go in rethinking how careers for gravid and postpartum academic mammals should proceed. Up to now, all we have really done is modify the protocol followed for decades by the sperm donors.

The Berkeley report calls for large institutional and societal changes. Not that it isn't worthwhile to push for radical reforms, but the real question is: What can you do -- as a female ready to contribute both your highly trained brain and your excellent genetic material to society -- to make it possible to succeed at both in the current academic environment?

I have some suggestions. Let me start with those who are forced by circumstance to interview for a tenure-track job while obviously pregnant or breastfeeding. What should you do, and not do?

Present yourself as professionally as possible. Don't skimp on your wardrobe. You want to look your best even though you may feel your worst. Your object is to distract your interviewers from what you cannot hide outright. Don't wear anything that makes you look like the infant rather than the adult you really are.

Keep your maternal role in the background. Try to deflect illegal questions by turning the subject back to the matter at hand, which is your suitability for a position. Don't be rude, however, if interviewers persist in asking questions. Just politely point out that you never would have gone out of your way to interview in this condition if you weren't dead serious about a job at their institution.

Look for cues of sympathetic interviewers. Even while keeping as low a profile as possible about your gravid or lactational state, keep a sharp eye and ear out for those who may harbor secret or even open sympathy and support for your situation.

Are there other mothers or fathers among the department's faculty who are willing to discuss their situation? Do you see signs of infants or children in faculty offices (the random stuffed toy, diaper bag, or breast pump on the shelves next to last week's issue of Nature)? Those could be clues that your biological imperative will be respected if you are offered a chance to work there.

Once you have an offer in hand, don't relax.

Be assertive in asking about campus resources for families. Ask questions of faculty members who may have given clues earlier that they are family friendly. Inquire about day care, family leave, the tenure clock, etc.

If the department head (or any senior faculty member) blanches, sputters, or hesitates to offer information, you may want to think twice about the offer. Find out if any other women in the department, or elsewhere in the sciences, have been tenured while of childbearing age. Ask to speak to her if she exists.

Once you are hired, look for allies. One thing is certain: You will need help in your goal to get tenure while having or rearing small children. Find others with whom you can collaborate, commiserate, and network. Don't be afraid to cross department lines to do that.

Scope out the "enemy." And then look for strategies to neutralize her. I say "her" because in my experience the "hims" are usually easy to spot. Yet the "hers" can be more insidiously dangerous, not only by badmouthing your maternity to others, or voting against you on a tenure committee, but also by saying things that undermine your self-confidence. Comments like, "I was in the lab all weekend but didn't see you; how is that paper of yours coming?" are not designed to be friendly.

You probably will never convert the naysayers, but you want to make sure that the voice advocating for your work is louder than the ones denigrating it.

Be creative about sleep habits, work habits, household habits. Your baby does not care if your laundry is not folded or your bed is unmade. Your object is to meet your basic needs, your family's basic needs, and your work goals. Be prepared to sacrifice a great deal of less-important things until the child is of school age or beyond.

Be sure you are married to the right person. And do that before you begin the process of trying to be a scientist and a mother simultaneously. I'm not being flip here. A passive-aggressive spouse can do more to destroy your career than an army of old-boy faculty members.

I would recommend some counseling on this matter even if your relationship seems ideal. Partners who are not in academe may not realize exactly what goes into academic science, tenure, and promotion. Is your partner truly ready to take on half or more of the work while you're trying for tenure?

If your husband is in academe but not the sciences, does he truly understand that you can't work from home most of the time and that you can't have an infant in a laboratory? If he's also in science, does he "get it" that the two of you must both be willing to juggle -- not just you? Whose career will come first if one of you has problems on the job?

If you are a dean or a department head, you can do a lot to make prospective female faculty members feel welcome. And whether you make the effort will tell candidates a lot about the kind of workplace you run. Here are some of the things you should do both for potential hires and for current faculty members who either have or are about to have children:

Introduce job seekers to faculty members with children. Include those professors in a lunch or social hour with the candidate, and prep them to casually share information about their arrangements. That is presuming, of course, that your institution already makes an effort to be family friendly.

Offer information about family policies to all job candidates. Discuss child-care options, health insurance, leave policies, tenure-clock modifications, part-time possibilities, flexible teaching schedules. Don't wait to be asked, and don't ask whether the candidate intends to take advantage of those options. Just put the information out there.

Share your own experience. If you've "been there, done that," don't keep it a secret. I've seen the look of relief on a candidate's face when I mention my own child-rearing stories.

Look for informal solutions to problems. One of the simplest accommodations I ever received was from the scheduling officer in my department. She knew that two of us in the department had small children and lived near each another. So she arranged our teaching schedules so that we taught on different days of the week. That way I could baby-sit her kids if they were ill and could not go to day care, and she could babysit mine. It worked very well.

Provide parenting space in your building. Faculty offices are often rather too crowded for times when a faculty member must bring an infant or child along, and noises from crying babies may disturb others. Consider whether you can dedicate a small amount of space as a nursery.

The bottom line is that everyone from the silverback to the alpha female to the subadults benefits if conditions favor intellectual and reproductive success. So everyone from the president down to junior faculty members should find ways to make that success happen.

Gail M. Simmons is the dean of science at the College of New Jersey.