It’s no secret that there aren’t as many women in scientific fields as there are men. Eileen Pollack wrote a comprehensive analysis in her book titled The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club. She discusses her own challenging journey to formally pursue the study of physics at Yale, and how many years later, discovered women were still experiencing the same discouragement in academia that she had experienced more than twenty years previous.
Steering women away from science seems to be commonplace. I remember the first time this happened to me was in 9th grade, when I went seeking counsel in the academic programs office to pursue a career in science. Hoping to find inspiring guidance, I instead was told that since I was a girl, I should probably focus on something else and forget about being a scientist. If only I could go back in time and change that moment! This is an historical problem, and it isn’t going to get better overnight. It will, in fact, require intergenerational change, which brings us to the complicated reality of being a parent in the workforce.
It stands to reason that part of the challenge for women in science, as well as many women generally, is that discrimination against mothers in the workforce further complicates the matter. As a single parent going through graduate school to earn my master’s degree in environmental science, I was shocked how often I was treated poorly not only by classmates, but sometimes faculty as well. This put me at a distinct disadvantage as I re-entered the workforce while also balancing coursework and parenting. If you think something like that is easy to do, that probably means you’ve never had to do it. Spoiler alert: it’s not easy.
When you have kids, and especially young kids, you can’t be as nimble as the childfree. There is a lot more planning and logistics involved (as well as sheer exhaustion). Academia does not slow down to accommodate parents, and if it does, you’d better hurry up. Grad school is competitive, and being a parent can and will be used against you as others jostle for position. Just in case you think it gets better in the world of work, surprise! It doesn’t. Motherhood is treated like something you must earn, it becomes a circus of basic needs being turned into benefit perks that you can have access to only after attaining the proper rung on the proverbial ladder you must climb.
Except that the needs of children don’t work that way, and having a family isn’t something anyone should have to earn as a perk of employment.
With all these trials and tribulations of being a parent in the workforce, has anyone considered what children experience? Children need their parents to be responsive to them, especially in a changing and unpredictable climate. Just what are the climate adaptation needs of children? Extreme weather events, massive swings in temperature from one day to the next – these scenarios create very specific situations and adaptation needs for families.
It is also generally the case that women bear most of the burden of child rearing, whether as single parents or with a partner. Being a mother and participating in the workforce should not be at odds. Not only is it difficult for women to pursue careers in science, it can be difficult to engage in the workforce at all. When we perpetuate norms that make it difficult for parents to participate in the workforce, we are responsible as a society for the poverty we create. If we push norms that impoverish multitudes of highly trained competent specialists, society suffers for it. When we adhere to unspoken mandates that workers must behave as childfree adults or else be deemed ‘not committed enough to the job’, we perpetuate a disservice to the public at large. Yet we push these norms as if they are somehow justifiable, that it’s just ‘business as usual’.
We adhere to the old business as usual world of work, even when smart climate adaptation and mitigation (which is still a goal, isn’t it?) easily takes form as flexible work standards. Telecommuting. Flexible scheduling. Less vehicle miles traveled. Is it so hard to figure this out? We resist change at the same time we call out for it.
So today, on International Women’s Day, I reckon once again with reality, that I find myself trying to conform to standards that are not reasonable. I challenge myself to make peace with what is, how far we have come and how far we must go. I challenge you to do more, to take stock of your own actions and beliefs, and to change the cultural norms that perpetuate gender inequality. Do more.
Ask yourself this time next year how well you contributed to achieving gender justice, and strengthen your resolve to once again, do more.
If you need a common reference, the Sustainable Development Goals establish the need for gender equality in Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Empower all women and girls. Read through the details of this goal, and you will find plenty of opportunities to do more.