Do babies matter?

The biggest drop in the proportion of women in academia occurs at the post-doc level, e.g. when society says our biological clocks should be screaming “babies”. So naturally the first explanation that comes to mind for the leaky pipeline phenomenon is the difficulties and discriminations brought about by having children in academia.


Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues Nicolas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden wrote a whole book on the subject : Do babies matter? Gender and family and the ivory tower. It gives a close look, data included, at how family issues affect men and women at different stages of the academic career. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that while -spoiler alert- both men and women have babies, women’s careers are disproportionately affected by their choices in regard to couple and baby-making compared to men. The book also offers “Concrete strategies […] for transforming the university into a family-friendly environment at every career stage.”

Good news for those of us who’d like to read the book but already have hundreds of titles on their must-read list, M. A. Mason wrote a piece in the Chronicles of Higher Education that summarizes some finding of the books, and the suggestions offered to reduce the “Maternal wall” in academia : How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science.

Here’s a summary of the summary of the solutions :

  1. Better and more affordable child-care options.
  2. Effective dual-career policies (female scientists are more likely to have a scientist-partner)
  3. Childbirth accommodations. (this ones sounds unbelievable for a frenchy who’s used to consider a 3 month fully-paid maternity leave as normal.)
  4. Compliance with Title IX.

Everything on this list seems to be very common sense, but there’s still a long way to go before we can tick them off, laughing at those archaic times when women somehow had to chose between career and family.

Finally, if motherhood is a very important aspect of the problem, we shouldn’t forget about all the other factors creating holes in the pipeline, say, the impostor syndrome, the Matilda effect, the lack of role models, the double standards, the unconscious bias, the salary gap… As stated in this Nature podcast that I recommend listening to, “Motherhood is the easy answer, but it’s only part of a very complicated landscape. […] Families are a complication. But it’s not the only issue, and  it’s simplistic to think that if you sort that out, then there will be not further problems.” That said, yeah, let’s sort the maternity problem out.



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