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As the wife of a physics grad student, I hear about the need for attracting more women into the field of physics. I have a specific observation to make regarding one major issue for women in graduate school, especially those in long programs (as physics often is). That factor is family-building, and it seems to be largely ignored.
It is a truth substantiated in studies (for example “The Shriver Report: A Report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress”) that whereas a male graduate student (or postdoc, or even beyond) can manage to start a family simultaneously with facilitating his career, females find it far more difficult, virtually having to choose one or the other.
The Shriver Report says: “Forty-six percent of female respondents began their graduate studies working toward a faculty position in a research university, but babies changed that, resulting in only 11 percent of new mothers saying they now want to continue on that path. And once again, fatherhood for men similarly situated in graduate studies appears to have less impact. Fifty-nine percent began their doctoral programs planning to pursue a research-intensive academic career and 45 percent still plan to do so.”
In our small, local Christian fellowship, most of the single women members pursuing graduate degrees express the struggle with loneliness, depression, and anxiety over missing out on serious romantic involvement, marriage and children. There is a fear that their chances of ever realizing this aspect of life are diminished by their pursuit of higher degrees and the time it takes from important and limited family-building years.
A 28-year-old single woman, having just defended her doctoral thesis in physics, has roughly seven years to unite with Mr. Right, obtain a stable job, start and nearly conclude building her family. That isn’t much time!! Now, add a two-year postdoc (though many are longer) to the wait time, while our female scientist of great potential seeks a stable research position in a competitive market. This narrows her window down to about five years.
The likelihood is, when she finds that position, the demand for high performance early in the game will lessen her ability to start a family even more. According to the Shriver Report:
“But, as with graduate students, childbirth often derails the scientific ambition of postdoctoral students. Forty-one percent of women graduate student scientists who have babies in the University of California system while working in a postdoctoral position decide not to pursue an academic research career…. Unfortunately, students and postdocs are also sometimes openly discouraged from having children by their mentors, who explain that, as mothers, they will not be considered ‘serious scientists.’ ”
Maybe this is indeed why, or partly why, a childless woman has approximately equal chances with a similarly educated man of snagging a tenure-track position, while a woman with children has 37% lower chances (Survival Analysis of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, op. cit. Shriver Report).
Media coverage has been fairly prolific on women in high-power positions of the business world requiring and finally receiving in some places of work the innovative accommodations necessary for their family-life, but academic institutions have regressed in this area. Twenty years ago my mother was able to take me on campus as a child, and even to class, and complete two degrees in statistics while being a wife and mother simultaneously, but today most universities abound with hostile policies toward children. Policies against children in the classroom for any reason are almost universal.
There are no family-friendly areas of campus; no changing tables in bathrooms; no space to nurse; no place where it feels “okay” for little ones to cry, play, or babble. No other mother of young children and wife to a grad student of my acquaintance feels particularly comfortable on campus either. I can’t answer to women who are grad students with small children, because I rarely if ever meet any. Within the ranks of the department that I have seen, one finds not one female physics student with a child.
I would personally love to go to graduate school (albeit not in physics). I always intended to. And I look forward to the day when a family woman can also realize her academic potential. But not at the expense of my children; greater elasticity of the institution is required, in order to accommodate the basic reality of my womanhood as motherhood. Claiming to desire “diversity” through the presence of women, and yet requiring women to fit the mold of a traditional male student and ignoring other tangible, practical aspects of life distinct to womanhood, eliminates the desired diversity. It might make the numbers look nicer–it doesn’t contribute to the actual flourishing of women in the field.
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