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Career vs. Family: An ESOF Smackdown

In an ESOF
session on alternative careers for scientists on Saturday, I heard something I
haven’t heard expressed out loud in a while: Women do need to choose between a
career and family.

The provocative
statement came from Susana Asensio Llamas from the Spanish National Research
Council, and another panelist, Maria Aguirre of the Biobask Agency, agreed.
Now, both women noted that they are roughly the same age (mid-career, let’s
say) and from Spain, so their situations won’t be the same as young women
scientists from other geographic areas coming into the ranks now. Both women
felt that their career changes and their job hops around Europe and the world
wouldn’t have been possible with a family in tow.

I was
somewhat baffled by this sentiment, so I felt a need to find some women who
would say it is possible to have a
career and family. In a session on the Marie Curie Actions, I met Nancy Tokola,
a physician by training and mother of four who’s had some pretty amazing positions,
such as a visiting professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Mongolia
and a field researcher at a malaria research institute in Turkey. "There
was no way I was going to sacrifice having a family," Tokola says.

She admits
her path is pretty unique: She’s a "trailing spouse"–her husband’s
diplomatic job takes the lead and takes them around the world. She’s got a self-described
service mentality, so even though her husband’s career has been the most
consistent, she’s applied her expertise in whatever region she’s in. "I
believe it’s my responsibility to prepare myself to say yes to
opportunity," Tokola says. She adds that she’s managed work-life balance
by having a husband who’s 100% supportive and by having outside help with
childcare. Now, at age 54, Tokola is starting a Ph.D. on poverty-related
diseases in Mongolia.

morning, I went to a session on women in science around the world, chaired by
Marja Makarow, chief executive of the European Science Foundation–the first
woman to hold that post. Zohra Ben Lakhdar, physics professor at the University
of Tunis El Manar, offered up a statement about choices that was slightly
different from the one I had heard on Saturday: "In life, you have to
choose. There are moments for each step, each thing has importance at some time,"
she said. For example, she and her husband, also a physicist, decided not to
have children until they both finished their Ph.D. theses. They later had two

The other
speaker, Josee E. Leysen of VU University Amsterdam, had one child during her
Ph.D. and a second right after — and then she and her husband divorced. For
the 10 years following, she says, her supportive family was key in maintaining
a successful work-life balance. Now, her new partner does as much as she does
in terms of home and family life.

I spoke
with someone today who attended Saturday’s alternative careers session, and she
actually said she found it refreshing that the women were so candid about thinking
that they did need to choose. We women are only human, after all, and we also
have the choice to choose — and not try to do it all.

To read
some inspirational stories about women in science, check out our new L’Oréal
Women in Science Booklet


4 comments on “Career vs. Family: An ESOF Smackdown”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I wish people would talk more about how men balance careers and fatherhood.
    Clearly, parenting is a time-consuming activity, but (with the exception of pregnancy, which should be treated no differently from any other temporary illness) there’s no a priori reason the parenthood-career conflict should be more challenging for women than it is for men.

  2. Jim Austin says:

    Thanks for your note. What you say is certainly true; I’m a father, and a full-time professional, and I take on more than half of the parenting responsibilities in my household (though my wife, a scientist, works hard to do her share).
    Still, I think the attention paid to mothers in the workplace simply reflects the reality that it’s a far more common problem for women than for me. Regrettably, the burden does tend to fall more heavily on women’s shoulders, despite the fact that there’s no reason (except tradition) why it should.
    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers

  3. Mark Myers says:

    I agree, it seems like only tradition is keeping the attention on mothers. Within a couple of generations I would have to guess this association will fade away.

  4. Emma Riley says:

    At the end of the day, it has to be SOMEBODY’s job to take care of the children.
    Now, there are of course many options for this, each with its own pros and cons. However, in the absence of a specific deliberate choice on the matter, the default is usually still the mother.
    Culture, tradition, and I imagine genetics, keeps us from making that decision with as much objectivity as we would otherwise use in our scientific lives. I think as mothers, we often hold ourselves back – maternal instinct is a powerful emotion to overcome, even when we know that it is not always logical.

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