Logo IMG

When Scientists Choose Motherhood


"To complicate the situation further, in some cases children have a positive impact on men’s productivity. Research by David Leslie has shown that the more children a woman has, the fewer hours per week she spends on her professional work, while the exact opposite is true for men."

Don't conflate presenteeism with productivity. They are not the same thing.
posted by Naomi Most
February 14, 2012 @ 3:39 PM

What do the statistics in Figure 2 tell us? In general, people who are now full professors entered academic employment between about 1970 and 2000. Thus, the percentages of women in these positions reflect the hiring practices of past decades as well as the percentages of women who earned PhDs in STEM between 1970 and 2000. Similarly, the percentages of associate professors who are women tend to reflect the hiring practices and percentages of those who earned PhDs before about 2003.

However, Williams and Ceci say, "Why are women who are talented and dedicated enough to graduate from college with degrees in mathematics not progressing through graduate school and ultimately earning full professorships?" The implication seems to be that Figure 2 shows that the people who are currently assistant professors will not continue to become full professors.

But, that is not what Figure 2 shows.

Back when some of the full professors in Figure 2 were hired, the situation was quite different. For example, some were hired in the 1970s and and 1980s. In the 1970s, women earned about 10% of the PhDs in mathematics. Very few of them were hired at top research universities during that decade. Despite that, their share of PhDs in mathematics increased to about 20% in the 1980s, and to about 30% in the late 1990s and 2000s. But, it was only in 2005 that surveys began to show women's share of assistant professor or tenure-track positions at top mathematics departments was close to 30%. This can be seen by comparing Nelson's 2002 survey of the top 50 STEM departments with her findings for 2007 which are shown in Figure 2. It can also be seen by examining the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences surveys for 1995, 2000, 2005, and preliminary findings for 2010. (See my article for the Association for Women in Science magazine posted here:

Williams and Ceci's hypothesis that "the effect of children on women’s academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors" seems to require further evidence in order to explain these and other recent increases in proportions of women in top mathematics departments.

posted by Cathy Kessel
February 15, 2012 @ 3:48 AM

Why do women have to match men's numbers in science? Who decided that?

If women want to stay at home and raise a family, why is that a bad choice?

Isn't it time for modern society to realize that women and men are different? Women are the ones who have the children. They are the ones tasked by evolution for the primary task of raising children (they have the mammary glands after all).

Maybe we should just stop trying to force women into the role of men and acknowledge their value as women, for a change.

posted by Ken Steen
February 15, 2012 @ 9:35 PM

This is an excellent article pointing out the challenges faced by young women who wish to make a career in science and engineering. Diversity is missing in academic institutions around the world. In India, if we look at the top academic institutions like the Indian Institute of Science and the six major Indian Institutes of Technology (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Guwahati) there are only 11 women faculty in a total of 235 in chemistry with none at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The number is probably not very different in other disciplines. These institutions are the premier institutions of the country and the percentage of women graduating with a PhD degree from these institutions could be as high as 25.
The choice for women scientists is between having a successful career in academics and a normal family life. Option of having both is not given to them at all which is unfortunate.
posted by Sheela R
February 20, 2012 @ 10:11 AM

In the caption of Figure 5 we read: "The years in which a scientist is forging her career are the same years in which her fertility (represented by number of ovarian follicles, green line) reaches its peak and begins to decline." But in fact the green line reaches its peak a little before birth. Please clarify.
posted by Joseph Fineman
February 20, 2012 @ 11:24 AM

I take issue with the authors’ assumption that "success" can take only one form: earning tenure. Figure 4 presents this assumption particularly clearly. The endpoints are either "successful career" or "teaching" while being a "primary caregiver to children." Who is to say that the latter outcome does not feel like "success" to some individuals? I would like to see data on subjective affect states of individuals from various career outcomes before we go accepting statements like "It is when academic scientists choose to be mothers that their real PROBLEMS start" (pg 142). Success can and should be defined by an individual for him or her self. I am not at all convinced that objective statistics on attrition and the hours of professional work tell us anything about what's actually going on with regard to parenting and career
posted by Rebecca F
February 20, 2012 @ 8:57 PM

Excellent article, especially since this issue remains to be adequately addressed and deserves discussion. One thing many of the previous commenters have ignored is that the take-home message of this article is not that some life choices a woman might make are better than others, rather that not all choices are as accessible to women in science as they are to men.
posted by Mary MacLEan
March 7, 2012 @ 6:52 AM

Certain things in life are not fair. Unfortunately, I see this issue as one of them, along with any number of other issues that impact peoples’ lives.

Gender equality, in itself, has merit. Women who want to go into the sciences can be successful and have done so although I believe that it is much more difficult for them in some clear measurable ways.

However, I just don't see fixing this inequity as generating more money for the Universities. How much would it cost total to equalize the professor levels to 50/50? The logical conclusion is that these proposed interventions would cost significant money now, while protracting future grant revenues to the Universities. The universities, just like insurance companies and banks, must make money.

Unless compelled, why would they want to pay extra to keep family-minded female PhDs in the supply when tons of PhD applicants and those with PhDs and several post-docs are waiting hungrily in to fill in the gaps, (and they thank us heartily for the chance to work long hours in pursuit of tenure)? This is the most cost-effective solution that I see continuing into the future.

I have lived in S. America for several years as a humanitarian service worker. Seeing the little kids roaming the dirt streets half-naked, tick infested, and running from wild packs of dogs certainly reminds me that life can always get harder.

Let’s also be a little optimistic. What a privilege to even be in a position to discuss this.

posted by Cameron Gundry
March 26, 2012 @ 2:15 PM


Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Year-end indexes in PDF format:






Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

Write for American Scientist

Review our submission guidelines.

Subscribe to American Scientist