Science Careers Blog

July 22, 2008

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.

This 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 daughters.

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.


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