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Parenting in Science

Posted by , on 31 October 2011

After the interview with Ottoline Leyser was posted last week, a discussion on Twitter focussed on the last part of the interview, about parenting.

That interview question referred to a little booklet Leyser published a few years ago, after winning the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award in 2007. The book, called “Mothers in Science: 64 ways to have it all” features interviews with mothers who have managed to maintain a career in science while raising children. (Here is a link to the PDF on the Royal Society website.) In the booklet, all featured scientists have a page with a timeline showing the important events in their career and family life. They’re all unique stories, because every situation is different.

When I wanted to address the ensuing Twitter discussion (which you can read in the Storify embedded below) I thought I could add a poll to ask how other people have managed to combine their career with children, or perhaps to ask how others have failed to do so. But I quickly realised that there is no question I could possibly ask for which the answer can be reduced to a set of multiple choice answers. The possible answers would need to include all combinations of which family members are scientists, what the other partner’s job is, the age difference between parents (e.g. one is a postdoc, one a PI), working hours, who took the main child-rearing responsibilities or whether there is a balance, gender, which country you’re in, competition in the field of research, how close together the kids are, and much, much more.

Even a quick show of hands, just to ask who has children or not, would be meaningless if it didn’t account for gender, age, career stage, country, family situation, and desire to even have children in the first place.

So there is no poll. There is no poll because clearly there isn’t one clear-cut problem, and because there is not just one type of family unit.

What Ottoline Leyser’s book did is showcase a group of women who all managed to combine a family with a career in their own way. It’s an example to show that it can be done, but it’s not a collection of recipes for success. Each case really is different, and this Twitter discussion between @fishscientist and @David_S_Bristol tells a different story. (Text continues after the embedded file.)

So are there solutions? One promising step was made last week in the UK, when the Research Excellence Framework (REF) announced that “UK funding bodies have taken an early decision on the arrangements for taking account of maternity leave in the REF. … researchers may reduce the number of outputs in a submission by one, for each period of maternity leave taken during the REF period.”

That doesn’t help most of you, but it positively affects the career progress of a few mothers, and at least changes their stories.

If you have your own story to add, please leave a comment, as a poll was just too complicated….

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Categories: Careers, Discussion

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