The other day I received two communications. One was an email alerting me to a new post on the ‘Women in Science’ forum on Nature Network (http://network.nature.com/groups/women_in_science/forum/topics/6635) that linked to a article on academic motherhood in the ‘Manage your Career’ section of The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Academic-Motherhood/64073/). The other was a flyer for the Anne McLaren Memorial Fund panel discussion at Christ’s College, Cambridge on 10 March on ' Which career first?-planning family and career (http://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/news/events/pg/view==month/date==01-03-2010/article==248). At first sight the two appear very different. The article in The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the difficulties faced by mothers in academia who simply cannot produce as much as their childless or male counterparts because of pregnancy, child-birth and breast-feeding and makes a specific proposal as to how that could be countered, namely by women making the time spent on these activities visible on their vitae. The flyer promises a discussion of the decline of fertility with age and whether it can be prevented or circumvented. However, they do have a common theme. The article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talks of ‘a widely accepted practice of silence on child-related matters in hiring.’ It identifies three problems arising from this silence. First, academic women have no information on the potential effect of child-bearing on their careers. Second, it is hard for women to deal with discrimatory questions at hiring interviews because they have not been prepared for them. Third, unless the effect of child-bearing is made explicit, lower productivity looks like lesser competence. The flyer for the panel discussion promises an exploration of the medical aspects and consequences of fertility deferment amongst women. Two of the discussants are Melanie Davies and Susan Bewley whose editorial in the BMJ in 2005 (http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/331/7517/588, available online with free registration) described reproductive ageing as a public health problem. The penultimate sentence of their editorial is ‘Free choices cannot be made with partial knowledge, economic disadvantage for mothers, and unsupportive workplaces.’ The common theme is women's need for knowledge: Knowledge of the consequences of deferred fertility, Knowledge of the consequences of having children on a woman’s professional or academic career. I believe that one of the important functions of women’s networks is to ensure that knowledge is shared. I also believe that another important function is to lobby for changes. Which is easier to change – the biology of reproduction or the social and workplace pressures that cause women to defer having children or not have them at all?
Decorative data are collected and presented not because any useful conclusions can be drawn from them but because they can be used to make a pretty picture for a report. The picture shows an example: all staff at a university by school and gender. (The data are based on real information but the numbers have been randomly adjusted by small amounts.) Yes, I’ve cheated and presented the data in a way that obscures the information content – the numbers are represented by the height of the different coloured sections of the cones but the eye sees the area. However, even if I had presented the data as a boring bar graph, it would still be difficult to draw conclusions from the data as the numbers are for all staff, but the gender balance of academic and research staff varies from discipline to discipline much more than the gender balance of support staff.
After working for many years as a research physicist, I became a part-time project officer with the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI) at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I've also been a member of the steering group of the Cambridge AWiSE networking for women in SET. I am now based in New Zealand.