Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Women, Science and Social Responsibilities

This week, I faced a professional dilemma.  I was supposed to attend a conference in Arlington on increasing the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.  Despite the fact that this was sandwiched in between two other conferences I needed to attend in an eight day period, I was looking forward to the dialog and being able to share some perspectives from my own career path.  However, while out of town for meeting #1, my son ended up in the hospital with a severe case pneumonia that wouldn’t respond to the normal antibiotic treatment.  Given how frightening this was (to him and us as parents) and the fact that I have a younger son at home who couldn’t be left alone overnight, I had to make the decision to cancel attending the meeting in Arlington.  There was no question as to where my priorities had to be, but I felt horrible backing out of a professional commitment.

Balancing (whatever that means) family and a career is faced by many families and isn’t a women-only issue.  Key to making the dual-career family situation work is a healthy relationship with a partner who understands and is willing to be supportive and share in the responsibilities.  I am extremely fortunate in having a husband (also a scientist/academician) who is incredibly supportive of my work and travel and an excellent father.  My decision to remain at my son’s side in the hospital was by no means based on feelings that my husband couldn’t handle things.  But there are societal pressures that do make women feel guilty.

When I arrived at the hospital, more than one nurse commented on my not having been in town when my son was admitted.  And yes, perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to meeting #1 but I had taken my son to the doctors, he was on antibiotics, I had stayed at home with him for 3 days, and the day I left, his fever was down and he urged me to go.  When I got the call the next day that he was in the hospital, I felt horrible about my decision.  I had ridden with others so pondered renting a car to get back sooner instead of waiting until the next day.  Both my husband and son said to stay.

I emailed and called the folks from the Arlington meeting to explain the situation and let them know that I had to unfortunately renege on my plans to attend.  Upon return, I went immediately to the hospital and spent the next 24 hours there until I could take my son home.  It wasn’t a life or death matter, but he loved the company and I had the comfort of seeing him and seeing that he was starting to get better.


My students know that I have a very high bar – both for myself and for them.  I push them to work harder and do more than they think they can.  But it is equally important for them to see that I am also compassionate and that my family will always come first when there are problems.  A supportive workplace is critical in encouraging women to come to work and to stay—be it in the sciences or other fields.  Many female students come to talk to me about balancing family and job and they are fearful that they won’t be able to do so.  I talk about the challenges and the rewards and strategies that I have used.  I bring my boys around the department a lot and, in the summer, they are out in the field with me sometimes when I am doing research with my students.  They hear about the successes of my children.  I think that this is all important to do and I am not at all afraid to mix work and family in my conversations with students.

My son (when healthier; photo by R. Wiltraut at the 2009 World Series of Birding)
As a department chair, it is important that I help to create a supportive, family-friendly environment.  At the moment, we only have one other tenure-track faculty member with young children, but last spring, her 3-year old started experiencing serious seizures.  Immediately, the department stepped up and took over her responsibilities so she could focus completely on her son and the rest of her family—without my asking.  I was so proud to be a part of this community.  The students noticed this as well.  But I know from personal experience that other places (departments, research labs, etc.) are not so cooperative and compassionate.  I left a tenure-track position because the environment towards women students and faculty had grown unbearable and no one would take the leadership to make improvements.


One of the sessions I was to attend at the conference was “Selling social science to scientists and engineers”.  As someone long interested in the social impact of science and technology, I was very curious as to what would be covered.  I won’t know but I pondered a number of things while spending the night in the hospital with my son.

I thought of some incredibly influential female scientists that I had met over the past year:  Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai from Kenya and Vandana Shiva from India – a particle physicist turned activist.  Both have fought for the rights of the poor and women of developing countries, for democracy, and for improving and protecting the environment and food security.  I recently heard Nobel Laureate Peter Agre speak not so much about his award winning research but of the responsibilities of scientists in promoting world peace and engaging in dialogue with the public.  As former President of AAAS, he had helped to initiate the Science Diplomacy projects of the organization.  And I had the opportunity at the end of the summer to attend a conservation leadership training workshop where I was thrilled to see so many women, many of them scientists, in the group.  Having studied and written on the history of environmental leadership, I knew first-hand that this high percentage of women in the conservation movement was a relatively new phenomenon. 

Wangari Maathai - COP15 (2009)

Moravian College students with Vandana Shiva (COP15)

I am immensely interested in following climate science and climate change debates and have noticed that most of the prominent (and controversial) voices from the scientific community seem to be male.  Why is this? These individuals are atmospheric physicists, geologists, climate modelers, etc.  But when one thinks about the potential impacts on people, the planet, on life as we know it – this is an area where we really need compassionate people who also understand science at the table where policy decisions are being negotiated and I would think that the topic and the research would attract females.

Why do the life sciences (especially areas linked to health science) and environmental sciences tend to attract more women than some of the physical sciences and engineering?  I am not saying that women can’t and don’t enter other areas of science.  There are some programs and departments that have high numbers of female geoscientists, physics majors, engineers.  But overall, they are still in the minority as compared to the life science programs which often have more females enrolled than males.

How do all these seemingly random thoughts connect?  It dawned on me that perhaps the concepts of compassion, social responsibilities, and attracting women to science might be related in ways that I had never considered before.  I have heard many female students indicate that they need to understand the relevance of what they were learning to some greater picture.  They say that some types of math or physical principles were too abstract for them to wrap their heads around.  Do we, as females in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), need to do a better job of making connections and illustrating the social links of what we are teaching and researching?  Do we need to better emphasize how science can help to solve critical world problems such as poverty, food shortages, the status of women and children in developing countries—i.e. to help achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goals for 2015 or some of the Grand Challenges that have been identified?  Do we need to show how science and compassion for the larger human family are closely connected?

Given the growing public distrust of science and its applications (think climate deniers and the anti-vaccine movement) along with our concerns about advancing opportunities for women in science, I am thinking that shifting the conversation towards the role of science in world peace, sustainability and prosperity might be pretty important for our future.

Some future scientists and environmental leaders from Moravian College (class of 2010)

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