Saturday, November 7, 2009

Big Purple Elephant

I just finished reading Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory, edited by Emily Monosson. For those of you unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of short essays written by 34 women in science. They write about what it was/is/will be like to balance a scientific career with family. The book begins with those women who received their PhDs in the 1970s, and continues to include current PhD candidates.

Interestingly enough, there was a panel discussion centered on the topic of this book at the recent WiA conference. The panel included the editor (Emily Monosson) as well as two of the contributors (Anne Douglass and Heidi Newberg). So, it was timely that I was reading this book during the conference.

I'll fully admit, I found this book fairly depressing. Not one of the contributors had a life that I wanted to emulate. Perhaps, though, this is the point: these women have worked so hard to try to "have it all" - both a successful career and a fulfilling family life - and have found it incredibly difficult. Many had to sacrifice one thing or another to make it work, and many admitted they either spent too much time focused on work, or sacrificed their career too much for their spouse and/or children.

One of the things that hit me the hardest was that the stories weren't becoming better or more positive for the younger scientists. In fact one new mother, Gina Wesley-Hunt, was fired for being pregnant during her post-doc - in 2006! We claim we have come a long way in the past 30-40 years, but we clearly still have a long way to go.

I have learned a lot from the experiences of these women. There is no right way to achieve work/life balance. The solution is different for everyone, and we all have different priorities in life. So, when searching for a mentor (which seems to be incredibly important!), one does not need to find someone that has the exact life we seek. Instead, find someone who has made their choices work for them, who has stuck to their decisions in spite of judgments from superiors, colleagues, or family.

I highly recommend this book to any women in a professional career (not just science) - and men too (you can learn a lot about what your wife, sister, daughter, aunt, mother...might be going through). 4 out of 5 stars.