“Shame on you!” she yelled at me, glaring. “It’s hard enough for women in academia without people like you giving men cause to think we’re not smart enough or capable enough for the job!”
My jaw dropped. What did she just say? Oh no she didn’t…
Oy. I hadn’t slept in weeks. I was a new post-doc with a new baby, and this was my first time bringing my baby to a professional conference. My mother-in-law had come with me to help, but juggling baby time, feedings, sleep-deprivation, presentation preparation, leading a panel, and networking for jobs was threatening to break me. And then this fellow woman-in-science had the temerity to chastise me for talking honestly about my experience.
How did it start? Well, I had stepped away from my mother-in-law and baby for a brief moment to grab some breakfast in the hotel lobby. I found a group of female colleagues and sat with them. I knew some of them and introduced myself to others, including a post-doc who kindly pointed out that we knew each other – that we had spent time together the previous year at the conference. Of course, I was a little embarrassed. I hate when that happens. I had no recollection of meeting her. So I asked for her forgiveness, blaming sleep deprivation. I claimed I could barely remember my own name let alone hers – that motherhood was turning my brain to mush.
That’s when this older woman in her mid-60s shamed me in front of the whole table. Heck, her shrill voice was so loud, most of the restaurant was staring at me now. Me, one of the biggest proponents of women in science. Me, who was leading a panel that very day about how to support women in science.
At that moment, I couldn’t muster all the words, all the feelings I wanted to tell her – to tell everyone.
So I write them now:
1. We should be allowed, without prejudice, to talk about the difficulties of being working mothers, especially with our other female colleagues. We should not have to pretend that we are Wonder Women who can pop out babies that take care of themselves while somehow making us even more productive in the lab.
2. Young mothers-in-science should know that they are not alone. As work piles up, and baby gets colicky, and collaborators back off because they think you’re a flight risk, there is solace in knowing others have had the same experiences. I gained so much strength and strategy from talking to other working mothers. I learned great tips for how to survive, thrive, and even enjoy the madness of motherhood in a highly competitive work environment. If these women (and many men) hadn’t opened up to me about their troubles and how they overcame them, I know I would have a much more difficult time rising above the challenges of balancing motherhood with an academic career.
3. We should be allowed to be human. Science for some is just a place of work, and that’s ok. But for others, it is a community – a very special village in which there are limitless boundaries and relationships which can spur creative thought and discovery. Talking to fellow colleagues about juggling work and babies has yielded fruitful conversations not only about work-life balance (if such a thing exists), but about everything from researching medical treatments for sick infants, to scientific and governing policy, to parental care in plants. Being a parent brings new scientific questions to the discourse. As a result, I think being a parent can make us in some ways better scientists.
The woman who berated me was from the old guard. Her generation experienced more overt prejudices than mine, and I greatly respect their struggles and am thankful to stand on their shoulders. However, this is a new age where more subtle biases and obstacles exist. No longer should we be forced to hide our troubles under the rug, presenting a façade of what a scientist should be. By talking about our issues as working mothers, we learn from each other, we support each other, and we create a stronger, more productive scientific community with a culture of inclusion and diversity.
Rebecca Calisi-Rodríguez is currently a post-doc at UC Berkeley studying hormones in the brain that mediate stress and reproduction. She is very excited to be joining the Department of Biology at Barnard College at Columbia University in 2014. Her husband recently accepted a position at NYU, and their daughter, who just turned two, is really into dump trucks, bubbles, and the song La Bamba. You can follow Rebecca Calisi-Rodríguez on twitter at BeccaCalisiRodriguez @VertNeuroEndo, where she tweets about science as well as women- , mom-, and underrepresented minority-in-science issues and their solutions.