Science, Gender, and the Balanced Life

People often ask how I “broke through the glass ceiling” to succeed in a field that is predominantly male and overcame the barriers women face in science. They don’t always like my answer, because it’s not about gender. It’s about learning how to be effective as a member of a minority in different contexts, understanding the peculiar structure of academic research, and accepting the choices and tradeoffs facing both women and men in balancing work and life in this field.

From my initial interest in science in high school, I never felt held back, overlooked, or underappreciated because I’m female. Quite the opposite: Perhaps because people in science often are so passionate about their work, they may be gender-blinded by the thrill of sharing their fascination and wish to encourage anyone who is interested. And I was.

My enthrallment with science began with thoughts of becoming a physician. That goal changed after a year off after college, when I worked in the Columbia University lab of the eminent neurobiologist Eric Kandel, who went on to share the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons.

Kandel and his colleagues were so encouraging that they inspired me to pursue a career in scientific research rather than medicine. That led to successful graduate and postdoctoral research work, including a Ph.D. at Yale in biology/ neuroscience and research positions at the Salk Institute and the University of California at San Diego.

My path was set. And I had a lot of support from both men and women in science—and owe them a lot.

But a funny thing happened along the way: Despite loving research in all its aspects, I became unsettled by the choices necessary to pursue a career in academic science. First and foremost, one must select a specific area of focus. That requires a measure of healthy monomania, a conviction that one’s chosen question and approach are more interesting, valuable, compelling, and likely to succeed than others’.

But as much as the scientific problems I was working on were enjoyable and inspiring, equally (and sometimes more) engaging and exciting were the projects and results of other scientists. The need to choose a single focus area, in fact, panicked me. This culminated in a pivotal, life-changing experience when, as a postdoc, I received a phone call with good news about funding of my grant application and realized I was more depressed than elated.

If a research scientist is not ecstatic about rare positive news about funding, it is most definitely a sign not to ignore.

After much soul-searching, I decided to leave research and began looking for career opportunities where my breadth of interest would be an asset. An ad for an editorial position at the scientific journal Neuron led me to publishing and eventually the position of editor-in-chief. The pursuit of an editorial career satisfied every need to remain deeply engaged with science and scientists while indulging in broader scientific issues. And although the demanding schedule of academic research was not an issue for me personally when considering this change in career direction, the structure and teamwork nature of editorial work do provide a framework of shared goals, expectations, and flexibility necessary to support a more healthy work/life balance.

My new path led to my leadership today of Cell and Cell Press. Again, all the while I was encouraged, or at least never discouraged, by male and female managers, mentors, and colleagues.

Science might be served better by a system that favors diversity, teamwork, balance, broad intellectualism, civic responsibility, and healthy work/life balance.

A minority of one

All that said, throughout my professional experiences, from the lab to Cell Press, I have often found myself in the minority; sometimes a minority of one. The only woman. The only junior scientist or editor in a room of distinguished leaders. The only American in a room of Europeans. The only academic in a room of businesspeople. More recently, the only business-minded person in a room of academics.

In all of these cases, effective discussion, successful collaboration, and recognition of the value of my contributions always required a good deal of listening and asking questions, putting myself in others’ shoes, and cogently explaining my perspective and ideas. I’ve found that closing a “gap,” gender or otherwise, requires mutual respect, shared goals, and a positive teamwork approach. Whether or not this attitude measurably contributed to my career success, it certainly made work more fun and rewarding.

If my experience is illustrative, then it’s fair to ask, why is there a gender gap in science, especially at the advanced levels? As the 2011 U.S. Commerce Department report Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation concludes, women remain vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)–related jobs and among degree holders, and women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in STEM jobs, even though the gender wage gap is smaller than in non-STEM jobs. What’s going on here?

Let me suggest a perhaps provocative factor: that the gap is driven by the unusually individualized and competitive nature of academic research. Science trains far more students and postdocs than the number of faculty positions that are available. Growth in government research funding in many countries is limited. Thus, the field is sharply competitive for grant dollars, faculty positions, and stature, and it tends to reward individual over team achievement (no ambitious postdoc ever got a grant or job because she was a good team player or helped another scientist get a key publication). Moreover, no formalized structure tells a scientist what question to work on, what approach to take, or how many hours to invest. No principal investigator I know ever told a postdoc that he or she really should take a vacation.

Right or wrong, these factors are the reality of academic science today and of how scientists are rewarded and advance. Those who stand out and rise above tend to work long days, nights, and weekends, often traveling and presenting constantly. It can be hard for someone who wants a diversified life to compete against someone who’s willing to be in the lab 20 hours a day or on the road for months.

As a result, devotion to science research and pursuing the highest achievement makes seeking a work/life balance (e.g., family time) especially difficult, as is true in many competitive fields. The unique demands of science research exacerbate the challenge. The individualized nature makes it harder for parents and employers to distribute the workload when family duties call. What’s more, in my experience— forgive me—men still tend to be more comfortable with forgoing family time for work. Because the field is so competitive and fast-moving, women who take time for family can lose ground quickly.

Science demands hard choices

So to me, the gender gap is not necessarily a gender issue. That is not to declare the field completely free of gender or other biases, overt or covert, that should be addressed as they occur. Some of my colleagues note other challenges and solutions, including the need for women scientists to serve as role models to inspire young women to follow in their footsteps or mentor young professionals.

On a separate front, many institutions are striving to retain talent by helping both women and men balance work and life. Policymakers and advocates are calling for more generous family leave measures in the United States, similar to what other countries have. And many women and men I know do already achieve the balance they seek and happily thrive on both sides of the scale.

That’s my point: Scientists, like everyone else, understand that life is about making choices, accepting tradeoffs, and adjusting expectations. Plenty of research scientists I know who do not wish to shortchange family life (or other endeavors) for this demanding field are realistic; they understand that they also may not be on the fast track for a Nobel Prize or heading a major research institution. They accept that and are happy to adjust their goals in carving out a successful, productive research career with a comfortable sustainable position in the marathon, but not aiming to be the first to cross the finish line.

I hate to say it, and some might chafe at this notion, but a person who chooses work over other life pursuits may, by definition, do better in that field. That may not be the standard we wish to set. Science might be served better by a system that favors diversity, teamwork, balance, broad intellectualism, civic responsibility, and healthy work/life balance. If so, then collectively we need to embrace and pursue that goal with measures for both men and women that foster and reward those attributes in gaining funding, jobs, and status.

In the end, perhaps Women’s History Month is really about choices, for women, men, and the profession, about the system and life we want. It’s fair to assume that Marie Curie and the other 2013 honorees in the National Women’s History Project Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics made their own tradeoffs. As Dr. Curie once said, “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”

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Cite this Article

Marcus, Emilie. “Science, Gender, and the Balanced Life.” Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 3 (Spring 2013).

Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring 2013