A Simple Act of Defiance Can Improve Science for Women

They don’t tell you beforehand that it will be a choice between having a career in science or starting a family. But that’s the message I heard loud and clear 17 years ago, in my first job after completing my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. During a routine departmental meeting, a senior academic announced that pregnant women were a financial drain on the department. I was sitting visibly pregnant in the front row. No one said anything.

I took a leave of absence when that child, my daughter, was born. Two years later, I had a son. That second pregnancy was a surprise, and I worried that taking another leave would sink my career. So I pressed on. When my son was barely 3 weeks old, I flew nine hours to a conference with him strapped to my chest. Before delivering my talk, I made a lame joke that the audience should forgive any “brain fog.” Afterward, an older woman pulled me aside and told me that being self-deprecating in public was a disservice to women scientists.

It felt like an impossible choice: to be a bad scientist or a bad mother.

The data suggests I wasn’t alone in feeling those pressures. A study published in 2019 found that more than 40 percent of female scientists in the United States leave full-time work in science after their first child. In 2016, men held about 70 percent of all research positions in science worldwide. Especially for field researchers like me, who collect data in remote and sometimes perilous locations, motherhood can feel at odds with a scientific career.

How have I addressed the problem? Through an act of academic defiance: I bring my kids with me on my scientific expeditions. It’s a form of rebellion that is available to mothers not just in the sciences but also in other disciplines that require site visits and field work, such as architecture and journalism. Bringing your kids to work with you doesn’t have to be something you do only once a year.

It started for me as a simple necessity. When my son was just under 2 and my daughter not yet 4, I took them on an expedition to the base of Mount Kenya in Africa, to study how fungi help trees defend themselves against the elephants and giraffes who feed on them. My son was still nursing, and I didn’t want to stop working. My husband, a poet, came along to stay with them at base camp.

Dr. Kiers and her husband, Cralan Kelder, with their two children in Nanyuki, Kenya, on one of their first expeditions as a family to study fungal networks.Credit…Todd Palmer
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