Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Learning from the Wider Community

I don't blog much about my work. This is largely because I am not at liberty to discuss details of my work- I've signed non-disclosure agreements at every job I've had. I can say that one of my areas of interest is the design of databases to store biological data. I don't get to do this much anymore, but at one point, it was my primary job function.

One of the things that drove me batty when I was first learning about databases and how to use them for the data that interested me was the insularity of some of my fellow database designers. They were certain that biological data was so unique that there was nothing they could learn from databases designed in other fields, or from relational database theory. Consequently, they made a lot of entirely avoidable "rookie" mistakes, and designed some disastrous schema. There are some unusual aspects to biological data (the difficulty in uniquely identifying genes and proteins is a big one, but that is not what I want to talk about here). I have on occasion designed a database that flouts some tenet derived from relational database theory. However, I have always done so in full knowledge of the theory and of the trade offs I'm making in my design. I never understood why some of my colleagues didn't want to learn from the wider community. That community couldn't tell me exactly how to design my databases, but I did pick up some useful ideas that I could apply to the particular problems I was facing.

I've been thinking about this as I've read some of the blog threads about combining motherhood and a career in academic science. It seems to me that some people are making a similar mistake- they are certain that a career in academic science is so unique that there is nothing they can learn from working mothers in other fields, even in industrial science. I think there are some fields with unique, or at least highly unusual challenges (for instance, fields that require extensive field work, as Flea pointed out on some of my earlier posts). However, for the most part, an academic position has a lot in common with jobs in other fields. In fact, as one commenter on one of Female Science Professor's posts pointed out, academic positions have some advantages in terms of flexibility. So why not learn from the wider community? It won't tell you exactly how you should balance your work and home life, but you'll probably get some useful ideas. (In fact, as I said on FSP's post, I don't think anyone can provide someone else with an exact blueprint for how to balance their life. There are just too many variables. Does the baby sleep? What sort of job does the partner have? What is your work style? Etc., etc.)

I remain convinced that a lot of the supposedly unique problems with balancing motherhood and a career in science (academic or otherwise) stem from plain, old-fashioned sexism. We do not, after all, hear much about the problems of balancing fatherhood and a career in science. The horrifying thing is that we've internalized it, and young women are limiting themselves, rather than forcing "the patriarchy" or whatever you want to call it to explicitly limit them. I have said before that I wish I could go back and tell my grad school self (who fretted a lot about this sort of thing) that she shouldn't worry. She should act like a man: assume she can have a family and a career. Don't self-limit- if someone wants to limit you, make them do it themselves. I was thrilled to read similar sentiments from an academic scientist in the Fall 2009 edition of the AWIS magazine (sorry, it is not yet available online). In an interview, Dr. Erika Matunis, associate professor in cell biology at Johns Hopkins says:

"I don't think guys ever sit around and worry about whether they should have kids or if that is going to ruin their career, so why should women?"


"Just do the science you love, and follow it. If you have restrictions based on luck, or timing, or geography, accept them and adjust to them- but don't say ahead of time that you're going to limit yourself."

She also identifies two of the same factors for successful work/family balancing that I did in my post on being a happy working mother: quality child care and a fully participating partner.

In the same article, she does say that she thinks her career was affected more by the decision to have children than her husband's was. I hope she attributes that to its true cause: not the children, but the sexism of the system.


  1. Good point. How we frame the situations matters. Its not having kids that slows the career, but the lack of a support system.

  2. I think some careers with comparable demands might include Big Law - staying on the partner track requires 80-hour weeks and seems to be incompatible with almost any kind of personal life. And indeed, women seem to be under-represented as partners at Big Law firms. As with academia, it's almost impossible to step back and then re-enter at the same level.

    Medicine interests me, because I feel like women doctors don't fret about having kids as much as many other professionals, and medicine can be at least as consuming a career as academia! But I know a woman who had two kids, one born during her medical school and one during a residency (a SAHM father was key there), and a college friend's mother had THREE daughters while in medical school/residency in the 1970s (I have no idea how she pulled that off - her husband was in medical school too).

  3. I also think, on the internalizing thing, that it's been an incredibly short time that women, especially mothers, have been admitted as equals in most workplaces. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was only passed in 1978 (, and as far as I can see it's still legal to fire someone for being pregnant if your business employs less than 15 people. FMLA is 1993 - I was in college. The majority of women have no paid maternity leave - heck, the majority of US workers have no paid sick leave (! We have a long way to go on policy issues, and it takes time to change historically internalized cultural norms. (Which I know is one of your goals, so go team!)

  4. As an outsider to the field of science, this is how I view it. The standards seem very steeped in sexists paradigms. Hopefully, as more and more women realize they can have both career and family and as more and more men become involved as part of their families' support systems, I hope that it is able to change.


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