Sun, Jan 01, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Women in science weigh lab versus baby

Women who train in the sciences often fail to make it to the laboratory or the calssroom


Debrah Rud, 27, is trying to balance motherhood and her pursuit of a doctoral degree in biology.


At the beginning of her Harvard biochemistry class, Debrah Rud proudly told her students that her year-old son was sporting his first haircut. At the end of class one recent afternoon, she warned that if anyone failed to tell her where to return the last homework assignment, "it will just get lost in my apartment and Jack will color on it."

Then, in the elevator with three freshmen, Rud burst out excitedly, "I have to go pick up my little man!" The three younger women exclaimed in adoring unison, "Aw!"

As a graduate student at Harvard University and also a mother, Rud hopes to inspire female undergraduates to pursue both a career in science and a family. The trouble is, she's still figuring out if she herself can have both.

Rud nearly dropped out of her doctorate program after she gave birth, and she still fears that her family would suffer if she devoted herself to an academic research career.

The career choices of young women like Rud will to a great extent determine whether their generation will approach equality with men in university science departments.

In Rud's field, biology, women are 46 percent of the doctorate recipients from the nation's top 50 biology departments. But they make up only 30 percent of assistant professors and 15 percent of full professors. A similar "leaky pipeline" is seen in other sciences, as well. A sizable number of the women who train in the sciences never enter the academic profession -- and the desire for more family time is a major reason.

A rare breed

"I don't know how many tenured female professors there are who have children and are a really big part of their children's lives," said Rud, 27. "I don't know of any who go to soccer games and sometimes pick up their kids from school. I don't need to be there for all of it -- frankly it's a little mind-numbing -- but I want to be there for some of it."

Rud is a little unusual in having given birth to her first child in graduate school, but her soul-searching was echoed by more than two dozen other young female scientists in interviews with the Globe. Many of them are preoccupied with the question of whether to stay in academia at all, or whether to settle for less prestigious instructor positions.

These women, most of them studying in the booming field of life sciences, often describe working in laboratories where women are a robust minority, or even a majority, of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Few of them say they have experienced much discrimination. The primary barrier, they say, is the conflict between lab and family under the grueling demands of today's academic culture.

Career barriers

While it was Harvard president Lawrence Summers' suggestion last January that women lack the same "intrinsic aptitude" for science as men that drew international attention, Summers also cited "the high-powered job hypothesis" as the biggest obstacle to women's advancement.

"A large part of what is observed," he said, is women in their mid-20s deciding "that they don't want to have a job that they think about 80 hours a week."

Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist, has spoken about how in her field, women are nearly half of new doctorate recipients, but only a quarter of faculty job applicants at top-tier universities.

"It does not take much imagination to recognize that the drop coincides with prime child-bearing years," Tilghman said in a speech this year at Columbia University.

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