I’ve already written about what it feels like to be a mom. I’ve also shared some of my thoughts and experiences as a scientist. But I have not written much about what it feels like to be all at the same time – woman, mom, scientist. And for good reason: it’s a lonely road. Not everyone can relate to my experience. In my circle of friends, I could always find someone who is a mom, or a scientist, but to find both at the same time – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.
I’ve taken to reading several books and literature on women and their participation in science. And the statistics are disheartening. Experts describe the situation as a leaky pipeline: women “leak” out of the pipeline at every stage, beginning from students up to higher positions. Women describe their situation as akin to hitting a glass ceiling – a proverbial ceiling that prevents their ascension to the top. Thus, even if there would be a high percentage of women entering the scientific field at the very early stages of their career, only very few persistent ones manage to wiggle their way to higher positions. Understandably this is a reason for concern: how long would it be until I hit my own glass ceiling?
I now ask you to close your eyes and picture in your mind a scientist working in the lab. What is the image that first comes to your mind?
As it turns out, when asked to describe how a “typical” scientist looks like, many people would give these answers: male, wearing a white lab coat, and eyeglasses thrown in for good measure. People would think “Albert Einstein” – bearded, aged, and yes, still male. Very few people would actually conjure up images of scientists as women. In very much the same way that we always think of a woman when we think of a “nurse” or “caregiver.”
And I’m curious: how many parents out there do encourage their little girls to take up science as a profession? How many parents out there are supportive of the decision of their daughters to become scientists? And more importantly, how many husbands out there are willing to be flexible so that their wives could rise in their scientific careers? How many of them would be willing to relocate and change jobs as necessary to follow their wives? How many of them would be willing to be stay-at-home dads? Because we do hear of women doing these things all the time for their husbands. Would husbands be easily persuaded to make the same sacrifices for their wives?
These and other related issues were tackled in a special feature on women on cryogenics and superconductivity, which came out a few months ago. Several women were interviewed about their experiences as women working in the field. For me, it was an eye-opener – there are indeed other women out there, struggling to survive in a decidedly male-dominated field. And some of them are also moms!
Currently, I happen to be the only woman in our research group, except for our secretary who of course only does administrative work. And in most conferences that I attend, I could only count a handful of women out of several hundred attendees. In the university where I attended, for about a year or two I was the only female graduate student in the lab, until two undergraduate students came along. Hurray. Unfortunately, I found out that whereas it helped to know that there were other females in the same lab, it didn’t necessarily made things easier. Being a foreigner then became an issue. And since I was a sempai – a senior – it was difficult to relate to them on a more casual way. They treated me like a senior. And who wants to be buddies with a senior?
When I became a mom, I found myself juggling time between motherhood and career. I do not claim that I am making an excellent job at both. Sacrifices are inevitable. I can’t devote all my time to my daughter, and neither can I do the same to my job. The best I can do is to make my time more efficient at whichever role I need to be in. I am all too glad that I do not work in the academe, which does not really offer the same flexibility as in a research institute.
This is the juggling act of my life. I do find fulfillment in both roles, and I’m quite happy at the way things are turning out. And sometimes, just sometimes, it does pay to be a woman in this field. Why? Because people do notice you more. Being in the minority and all – it draws people’s attention to you, your presence seeming to beg the question: why on earth are you here? It makes them curious about you. Did you move heaven and earth just to be here? And depending on who you talk to, you might even find admiration in their eyes. In one poster session that I attended, after learning that I have a daughter (one of my former professors enlightened his female student, that’s why), the person exclaimed, “You’re a cool mama!” I could only wish that I had inspired her.
And above all, I am not alone. Our presence is a stark reminder to everyone that being a woman and a scientist at the same time is not impossible.
It’s a lonely road, indeed, but damn if I would give up trekking down that road. I love science too much to do that.