Cold Facts and the Lonely Road

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?

Cover of the magazine where the special feature on Women on Cryogenics and Superconductivity appeared.
Lonely road. But there will always be comrades. These are some of those women.

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.

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53 Responses to Cold Facts and the Lonely Road

  1. A few years ago, an NYU female graduate student was hailed as the country’s preeminent math wiz.
    In NYC, especially in medicine, there are many women in various scientific research fields. But then again, in the more esoteric scientific arenas, males dominate the scene.

    Nonetheless, congratulations, Kathy, for making it as a successful scientist!

  2. Bernard says:

    Thanks for making the sacrifices that you make to help contribute to better understanding of our world. :-)

    Are you in cryogenics research?

  3. Bernard says:

    Oh.. i guess “cold facts” is in reference to cryogenics? Haha.. clever twist.

  4. Gypsy says:

    Wow. Am impressed. Thoroughly. It maybe a lonely time for you now but I hope it encourages you to know that because you dared to “trailblaze,” it wont be too lonely for other Asian women scientists who come after you! Cheers!

  5. Lyn says:

    Congrats on all your achievements, esp. in science!

    I think that you should also consider locales when regarding women as minorities in science fields. I’m a female from New Jersey and I’ve hardly ever considered myself a minority in the sciences. I did research in a nearby graduate school, where about 90% of the researchers were females, and a few with children. Also, working at a pharmaceutical lab, about half of the lab was females (all had children or were planning to have them).
    I’ve also noticed that when I have interviewed for American-based companies, many of the lab managers were females!

    So there is hope! There aren’t glass-ceilings everywhere =)

  6. lyn says:

    oops..i should clarify that the lab was 90% female, not the whole school =p

  7. pining says:

    wow! I’m impressed too :-)
    Must be hard to tackle all these, so kudos to you, you’re coping very well :-)
    more power!

  8. mitsuru says:

    mirror, mirror on the wall….

    kathy is the best of them all!

    hail to the queen, for making us filipinos proud of your achievements!


  9. smarie says:

    that juggling act of being a mother and a scientist is something to really be proud of, kathy =) keep up the good work

  10. sexy mom says:

    indeed, you and your kind are a rarity. but i am glad that you are reconciled to this idea. there are many questions that seek answers, and i am sorry to say that you will not really get the answers that you want. that is stark reality. but who knows, soon, albeit slowly, this could change.

  11. Gina says:

    Oh, you’re doing splendidly Kathy! It takes a truly special kind to be in that field and excel in it!
    And I’m sure you’re not doing a shabby job being a ‘tops’ MOm either.

    Hey, happy Mothers’ Day !

  12. lai says:

    not related but niiiiicee template! like it a lot. where did you get that picture? heheh. ayan. i’m back. belat. hindi ka na dapat lonely planet.

  13. annamanila says:

    Hats off, mother wife scientist blogger writer friend daughter et al.

    It’s true what you say about gender stereotypes. It is true when you think of scientist , you think male, also when you think of president, manager, engineer, entrepreneur, surgeon. It is true that women have to work doubly hard to prove themselves man’s equal and fortunately they can do it.

    My daughter is in medical school and at first wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. She will be a good one … being so good with her hands, being strong for a woman, and being gifted with spatial intelligence. But now she’s having second thoughts, having been discouraged with the stereotype of a “good surgeon” as male. So I am at a loss what to advise her.

  14. snglguy says:

    I’d say that you’re one bright and gutsy woman who’s on her way to the top in a male dominated field. And in a patriarchal society at that!

    Congrats, Kathy

  15. herb says:

    i know what that feels like… i mean 3 lang kami magka-batch, and is one japanese so she doesnt really hang around me and the other girl who is brazilian. kaya auto-bestfriends na kami. in a field of study nobody really understands.

    but hat’s off to you kathy! you followed your heart and you’re successful. i bet aya is very proud to be your daughter!

  16. bw says:

    Very interesting Kathy. For some reason, people conjure images of scientists no different than university professors. People think scientists are a breed of people who live to satisfy a curiosity and aren’t into making money :) They say when you are a PhD you become “hooked” referring to a particular field of study and many people consider this unexciting.

    I have great respect for scientists. For one thing, only a few human beings come become one so it is a very elite company :) Looks like you are one of the women interviewed in that magazine. Could you email me the link so I can get a good read at it if you don’t mind. :)

  17. verns says:

    oh Kathy…i feel like a proud mama being friends with a super woman! hehehe seriously!

  18. rhodora says:

    Kathy, you make us proud!

    Congratulations for being a success in the field you chose. But more than anything, congratulations for choosing the ‘road less traveled’ and seeking the bliss you so desired! :)

  19. kathy says:

    I agree, compared to previous decades more women nowadays are into medicine. Statistically, there is also a higher percentage of women in the life sciences compared to say, physics and engineering. However, the disproportionate number of women compared to men as one goes higher up the career ladder suggests that several measures still have to be implemented to ensure that women are not underrepresented.

    I’ve still a long way to go, Eric, but thanks! :)

  20. kathy says:

    Yes, it is indeed a noble cause, isn’t it? To make this world a better place is surely worth all the sacrifice.

    I’m into superconductivity research, btw. :)

  21. kathy says:

    Haha, you got that right! I’m not really into cryogenics per se, but since supeconductors are only useable at cryogenic temperatures…

  22. raquel says:

    whew! that was moving!i dont know if its supposed to be but it was.. that was quite an article cath! congratulations for your successful pursuit of science, i hope theres still a chance for some eager women that were culled from scientific growth at an early stage. *sigh*

  23. Belle says:

    according to mikki fudolig, the youngest BS Physics graduate (16 years old) in UP history, and a daughter of my friend, said in her valedictory speech last April 22, 2007, “make new roads, blaze new trails, find new routes to your dreams, trample a new path!” and you are doing just that, Cathy! nadagdagan na naman ang pedigree ninyo. congratulations!

  24. kathy says:

    Thank you for your kind works, Gypsy. That’s a very encouraging way of looking at things – instead of focusing on the negative (the lonely aspect), focusing on the positive (trailblazing) does put things in perspective. :)

  25. kathy says:

    Thanks, Lyn. :) Hey, I’m surprised to know that you’re also into the sciences. :)

    The distribution of women indeed varies from field to field, as well as country to country.

    When I was an undergrad in Physics, about half of our batch were females; however, only a few remained for graduate studies and even fewer decided to go for PhD studies. I’m sure there are many factors and personal circumstances involved, but I greatly suspect that many of those decisions to leave the field were influenced by the lack of guidance or mentors, unclear directions for career development, financial matters, etc. There were also very few women role models to pattern after, possibly because of the dearth of female PhDs in the institute. In fact, no female has ever been appointed as institute director. When I read about the statistics in other countries, I was surprised to find out that this phenomenon in Physics is mimicked in several countries. So there might be some general trend there – in Physics anyway.

  26. kathy says:

    Thanks a lot for the encouragement, pining. :) “Surviving” might be an appropriate term, hehe.

  27. kathy says:

    Worship me!!! Haha, just kidding.
    I know that there are also some Filipino women in the US who are into superconductivity research; hearing about their achievements make me proud as well. Mabuhay ang mga Pinoy! :)

  28. kathy says:

    Thanks Sheila! It takes time to learn the juggling act, but once you get the hang of it, it gets easier (somehow). :)

  29. kathy says:

    Indeed, some of the questions I asked myself didn’t get answered until I experienced some of those things myself. It’s a wonderful thing that the Internet has made networking easier and more convenient – interacting with other women who are experiencing the same things becomes possible. Sometimes the answers can be found from other women’s experiences.

  30. kathy says:

    Thanks Gina, you’re very kind! :) I wish I could say that I am excelling – I think there’s still a lot more room for improvement.

    Thanks for the greeting, too – hey, you’re the very first one to greet me for Mother’s Day!

  31. kathy says:

    Hey, I’m glad you liked it! :) Don’t worry, even if you don’t leave comments all the time, I know that you’re still reading my posts. 😉

    Inggit ka lang sa pic ko hehe.

  32. kathy says:

    I completely agree about women working doubly hard just to prove themselves. It also leaves not much room for making errors: failure is not an option. So the pressure to excel becomes even more burdensome for women.

    I’m impressed that your daughter would like to be a cardiac surgeon someday. If I were to advice here, I’d tell her to follow her heart – if it’s something that she really loves to do someday, then no amount of gender stereotyping should discourage her from doing that. Sayang ang talent!

  33. kathy says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, snglguy! That compliment is highly appreciated, especially coming from a man! :)

  34. kathy says:

    That sounds like a familiar story, herb. I’ve had my fair share of being in the minority. But take heart, be steadfast and don’t lose sight of your goal. :)

    Thanks for your words of encouragement. Aya, on the other hand, might be just happy that her Mom is her bestest friend. Kahit lagi kami nag-aaway hehe. :)

  35. kathy says:

    There are many types of scientists. Some of them are into basic research – some might call them “snobs” because they are so immersed in their study, and they just do science for science’s sake. Some are into applied research – they’re the ones who are doing science for a targetted application. Some are into technology, which is already probably more about making money. :) But even in basic or applied research, money dictates how far the study will go. This is a sad reality, but it is known that scientists who head projects spend a lot of time writing up proposals for grants. To get money, of course. No money, no research.

    Yup, I was lucky enough to be included there. I’m flattered that you want to get a more in-depth reading of the article. Will get in touch with you by email. :)

  36. kathy says:

    Bill (above) already called me a ‘queen’; now you’re calling me a ‘superwoman’. Blog friends are spoiling me rotten! lol

  37. kathy says:

    Thanks Rhodora! And to think that when I was still doing my PhD, I had entertained notions of just quitting altogether. I asked myself, why do I have to punish myself this way? 😛

    The road less traveled is always fraught with challenges and uncertainties. But as they say, for every cloud there’s a silver lining, and those who persevere will be rewarded. Thanks a lot for your encouragement!

  38. kathy says:

    Wow, didn’t realize that somebody might find what I wrote ‘moving.’ And I haven’t even written about how I ‘suffered’ during my studies, haha.

    I could sense your frustration at having to give up some of your plans, but don’t worry! I know women who got back to doing science way after their children are full grown. You just have to plan ahead and decide what’s really important for you right now. Just my two cents’ worth. :)

  39. kathy says:

    I remember my own graduation from UP about 13 years ago – I was also a hopeful Physics graduate then. I wasn’t too keen on making new paths; in fact, I didn’t even know which way to go. 😛 But eventually opportunities presented themselves…and here I am finally.

    Mikki Fudolig is indeed a prodigy – and I’m nowhere near her calibre! I guess I was just one of those diligent students who never gave up. :)

  40. Mon says:

    Hi Kathy – wala ako masabi ah! hmmm tanong na lang kita. If 13 years ago, when you we’re still a dreamer, what if I came up to you and say you will not make it in this field and you might aswell give it up, What will you say?

    Kitams :) yun iba supero dunong lang samantalang ikaw super dunong na, super mom pa.

  41. kathy says:

    I would have demanded proof from you, hehe. :)

    But seriously, it takes courage and determination to juggle between career and motherhood. If anything, I wish someone had oriented me on what to expect years ago.

  42. ann says:

    hi kathy! kudos to you! bilib ako sa chosen field mo. as in really,i’m in awe. :)

  43. kathy says:

    Thanks, ann. :) It takes a lot of patience and persistence, but I hope everything will pay off in the end.

  44. niceheart says:

    If I close my eyes and try to picture a scientist, I could definitely see a woman scientist. I guess to me, scientist has never been a male profession because I remember learning about Marie Curie in high school.

    And I guess, every working mom feel the same way as you do when it comes to juggling work and family.

    But I understand your sentiments. I do enjoy sharing my stories with other moms at work.

    When I was also about to graduate in high school and applying at different colleges, my science and math teachers encouraged me to take science or math courses, but my uncle, who was my guardian back then, discouraged me when I told him that I was thinking of taking up an engineering course instead of accounting. Because, he said, that I am an introvert kind of person and he didn’t think that I could make it in a male dominated profession. Ayaw pa nga akong payagang mag-enrol sa UP Diliman dahil matalahib daw duon sa lugar na iyon at baka ma-rape daw ako. :)

    But you, on the other hand, seems to be one tough cookie. :)

    Sometimes I forget how successful you are in your profession. You sound so down to earth kasi. :)

    Btw, I love the cool new look! :) And wow those dimples. :)

  45. Leah says:

    You’re a cool mom. Hurray for women.
    I encourage my daughter in all disciplines. It seems she likes to experiment in mixing (water , milk, sugar, chocolate powder, etc..etc..). Either she’s going to be a good baker or maybe a scientist.

  46. kathy says:

    Niceheart, I really appreciate your kind words. And thanks for sharing your thoughts about women and careers. Have you ever had regrets about not taking a science/math course in college? I think your case is a prime example of how parents or guardians can influence their children with regards to their future professions. More often than not, I think those who have had exposures to science at an early age are more likely to take up careers in science when they grow up.

    I’m not that successful yet, but thanks for the compliments. :)

    I’m glad you liked the new layout! Hehe, my dimples are really prominent in that pic eh? Trademark ko yan, pati rin yung mga sisters ko may dimples.

  47. kathy says:

    Thanks Leah! :)
    Good baker or scientist – haha, that’s a good one!

    My daughter also loves it when I bake goodies at the kitchen. Personally, I do wish she’d take up a science-related course someday, but I’m perfectly alright if she’d choose something completely unrelated. As long as it is her passion, I’ll be the supportive mom. :)

  48. niceheart says:

    At that time, I was kind of frustrated, not just at my uncle but at my whole situation, being apart from my parents and my future being decided by somebody who’s neither my father nor my mother. But looking back now, I guess my uncle was right. I have never really seen myself as a science or math person. I just happened to excel in those subjects when I was in high school.

    Even as a child, I have been more of a homebody and I guess that’s why I enjoy doing what I am doing right now, working at home. :)

  49. julie says:

    You are one amazing person, Kathy. I sincerely hope that girls would also be trained to excel in the different areas of science.

    I am happy that you find fulfillment with what you do. You make us proud of you. keep up the good work! :)

  50. kathy says:

    That’s a wonderful way of assessing it, niceheart. In the end, what matters most is whether you feel fulfilled and satisfied about the work you do. I’m pretty sure that your family has greatly benefited from your decision to work at home. :)

  51. kathy says:

    Wow, thanks Julie! ;D
    I try to influence my daughter and encourage her to ask about the whys of things, the wonders of the universe, and the delight of finding how things work. I would be the proudest mom if ever she does decide to take up a career in science. But as with all moms, I would be happy with any career she chooses as long as she’d be happy.

    I certainly hope that girls and women out there would not be daunted by gender issues when it comes to this kind of work!

  52. Dr Dalope says:

    Look at a distant relative!

  53. kathy says:

    Wow, that’s pretty impressive! Will get in touch with you later. 😉

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