Today's female scientists face both challenge and support in their decisions to raise a family and develop their academic career

    by Caity Hui

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    Today's academic landscape has drastically evolved from that of the past. As universities pump out an increasing number of graduate students each year, the grant money and academic positions once available to incoming researchers are now spread thin. This phenomenon has resulted in more efforts and minds contributing to the pool of scientific discovery—a state that, while beneficial for research progress, has led to greater job competion within the sciences. As such, women in science today must not only consider whether they want to start a family, but also how their rising career will fit into this equation.

    One byproduct of this situation is that graduate students are now pursuing lengthier educations. Lauren Segall, the research facilitator for Natural and Health Sciences at Concordia University, explained that today's competition in science has led to both women and men undertaking more extensive degrees. As a result, they are achieving financial security and job stability—two factors often considered before having children—significantly later on in their lives.

    "Now, people are doing six years [for a] post-doctorate," Segall said. "You're graduating with your PhD when you're 30 […] and then hopefully, you'll find a tenure track position, meaning for six more years you're working towards tenure furiously. So it takes until you're 40 to have job security—is that when you're going to have a family?"

    This situation poses new challenges for both men and women; however, female scientists also face a biological clock that starts to tick quite rapidly years before reaching job security. As a result, they are, by virtue of nature, more pressured to make the decision earlier on in their careers as to whether they want to raise a family.

    "In retrospect, it seems really crazy [to have decided] to have a child towards the end of my husband's [and my own] PhD," said Alanna Watt, assistant professor at McGill's Department of Biology.

    She emphasized that this decision should be made personally, depending more on mental preparedness than an exact point in one's career. "It was kind of [an] unusual decision to have children so early in our careers. The challenges were mostly financial, but we kind of figured we could make it work, and we did manage."

    Karine Auclair, associate professor of chemistry at McGill, echoed Watt's sentiments that, while financial security is a factor, starting a family is not restricted to certain stages of one's work.

    "I wanted to make sure I had a secure revenue to provide an unchanging environment for my future children," Auclair said. "[But] I have heard of people doing it at any stage—undergraduate degree, graduate, post-doc, the very beginning of their job, or sort of like myself, semi-early in [their career.] I think it's possible at all [...] stages—it just depends on when the person is ready."

    Like any career, the demands of parenting and balancing one's work outside of the home is far from a simple task. A career in research adds one more layer to this challenge, as many scientists are expected to take a more 24-hour approach to their research.

    "In the hard sciences, there seems to be an expectation that you're giving up one aspect of your life for another," Segall said. "There's no question that you're in the lab. [If you're not,] there is the sentiment that 'you don't take it seriously.'"

    Auclair added that while pregnant, female researchers are expected to dedicate more time to their careers compared to women in other fields. Unlike many of her friends outside of science, she was unable to fully take a break during her maternity leave.

    "I had to work and keep in touch with my research group," Auclair said. "Despite the flexibility [science] offers, it was a difficult balance."

    Having a supportive partner, mirrored in one's friends, family, and university department, is often the key to success for most women managing the balancing act between a developing career in academia and raising a family.

    "My department is exceptional," Auclair said. "We are very family oriented and there are lots of females in our department."

    Despite this support, Auclair noted that she and some of her colleagues have received negative comments for taking maternity leave. As labs often become a dangerous environment for women following conception—due to chemicals and other experimental techniques—they are unable to directly continue working on their research after a certain point in pregnancy.

    "I can tell you that I have had [negative] comments made towards me and other colleagues regarding taking maternity leave, so I can't even imagine the way it might be in other, [less supportive] departments," Auclair said.

    Segall also emphasized that one of the main barriers women face in science is taking a maternity leave. While women are no longer at risk of losing their jobs during pregnancy due to workplace policies now in place, many receive the distinct impression that both male and female colleagues interpret this decision as a lack of dedication to one's research, consequently feeling pressure to return to the workforce as quickly as possible.

    "I was TA-ing for someone who [decided to have a child and] was finishing up her PhD […] and two of her female colleagues in biology came up to her and said: 'We're disappointed in you; we thought you were more dedicated to your career than that,'" Segall recalled.

    Watt added that the competitive nature of science might contribute to the pressure mothers feel when taking time away from their research. However, she noted that despite this competition, science's meritocracy also means that starting a family ultimately shouldn't impact a researcher's career.

    "I think there are very few people that would have a bias against you if you have children, if you are doing good science." Watt said. "Science is merit based, and you are primarily evaluated by the quality of your work."

    However, a definitive stigma has existed within the sciences regarding maternity leave, according to Yvonne Myal, professor of pathology at the University of Manitoba. She explained that during her experience as a graduate student, this attitude discouraged many women in science from starting a family.

    "When I was a young graduate student in the [1980s'] a number of my female colleagues chose not to have children." Myal said. "I think male colleagues did not take you seriously [….] I even heard one of my older respected colleagues comment—upon hearing that one of the post-doctoral fellows was pregnant—that she could not possibly be a serious researcher. Those female colleagues who 'dared' to have babies always returned to work in a very short period of time."

    She notes that while this attitude has existed for decades, female researchers today are starting to see a change in the extent to which they are supported in raising a family.

    "I certainly felt that women having babies was frowned upon [back then,] but that is definitely not the case these days," Myal said.

    One of the contributing factors to this shift in perspective is the more concerted effort made by funding agencies such as the National Sciences Engineering and Research Council (NSERC) towards offering solutions to female researchers to continue their research, unabated, following their pregnancy.

    "Now, the agencies have this program where if you go on maternity leave you can extend your grant. So they will suspend your grant and [restart] it up, and even give you an extra year to spend your funds," Segall explained. "Since the agencies themselves are making it easier for the researchers to start a family and support a family, the universities have also gotten on board."

    With progress, however, comes a reaction to the change. Segall acknowledged that some of her colleagues felt resentment within their departments for receiving an extension on their grants. There are also still many flaws within the system that continue to make the task of balancing academia and motherhood challenging. Auclair explains that even at McGill, where the system is normally supportive of women, loopholes exist that manage to fuel the stigma against women taking maternity leave.

    She described an experience where, as an assistant professor, one of her research associates went on maternity leave. Auclair was under the impression that the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CCST) would pay her associate's salary during the leave. While the CCST did pay McGill, McGill used this money to cover alternate fees instead of her associate's salary.

    "If you think about that, it cost me thousands of dollars out of my pocket as an assistant professor [to pay my research associate,] so it would discourage anyone from hiring a female after that because [she might decide to have another child,]" Auclair said. "McGill is normally really good; you see [that] one of the best institutions that is trying to favour equality is still having problems, so I can only imagine those that are not trying their best."

    In the face of these challenges, these scientists emphasized the importance of women remaining resilient within the field of science. They stressed that while science may be tough and competitive, it is possible for women to balance academia and motherhood, especially when supported by their university, department, and family.

    "Having a family while trying to establish oneself in an academic career is challenging but not unattainable or undoable," Myal said. "It is a game-changer and involves re-strategizing and multitasking. I now see many of my female colleagues having [...] families with much ease and grace."