I am a married PhD candidate, you could also say that I am of “childbearing age,” 29 years old. I want children but currently making $30,000/ year and being in a constant state of anxiety, I should hold off. Career-oriented women often find themselves fighting the conservative narrative that women exist to be mothers. I’ve had multiple conversations with my mother about why I am not settling down with kids just yet. My rationalization usually goes something like, “I am choosing to establish my career and be financially competent before I have children, and as a scientist that takes a long time. My studies and my career development need to come first. Not to mention, I still haven’t been to Italy yet." The way I see it, I have at least 10 years of fertility left to go…. or do I?
About a month or so ago, I read Dr. Arghavan Salles’s (@arghavan_salles) article in Time, “I Spent My Fertile Years Training to Be a Surgeon. Now, It Might Be Too Late for Me to Have a Baby.” The article was so incredibly moving, I read it three times (and told all my friends about it). Dr. Salles explains she was exceedingly devoted to her medical studies that she didn’t take the time for family planning until she was 39. She decided to freeze her eggs, a time consuming, stressful, and expensive ordeal which leads her to share her perspective with us, “It is now my mission to raise awareness among younger women to take advantage of their fertility when they have it—which might mean getting pregnant sooner or freezing eggs or embryos earlier in life."
To reiterate, I'm used to the "women can do anything, we don't need babies mantra." I've sung that song multiple times. Although I believe that a woman can be happy without procreation, Dr. Salles's article brought me to an undeniable realization: I will be unhappy if I miss my opportunity to have children.
25% of women MDs experience infertility. When my friends heard this statistic, they assumed the infertility was due to stress. Although stress might be a contributing factor, age is the likely cause. It got me thinking, is the same true for scientists? After all, we have similar career paths: college, possibly a master’s degree, maybe a few years working in a lab, then PhD/MD school, then a postdoc/residency. At what point is it convenient to have a baby? According to a 2019 PNAS paper, 43% of new mothers in STEM cut back to part-time or leave the field altogether.
The PNAS paper provides evidence for something we already know, STEM has a pregnancy problem. Many of us have seen or experienced the issue first hand. At a women in science dinner my department held, a labmate of mine asked a reputable female PI if it was difficult for her to balance family and work. The PI was frustrated at this question, she rose her voice, “That is not something you worry about. If you want to be successful you focus on what is in front of you. Having or planning a family can be something that comes after. Right now, you focus on research.” Not surprisingly, when this same PI had a postdoc with a sick baby, the PI did not accommodate the postdoc’s needs. The female postdoc with a PhD in biophysics and four first-author publications is now a stay at home mother.
I spoke with a member of my PhD committee about this issue, explaining to her I was worried about being discriminated against if I do a postdoc and get pregnant soon after. She didn’t sugar coat it, “It’s very possible,” she said, “You will have to do your research and seek out a PI who will be supportive of you.” “How did you manage it?” I asked. “I had my children in Canada. I had a year off. I don’t know if I could have done it in the US.”
I realize this blog post might be disheartening, this is not my intention. Rather, this post is written in hopes to convince others that the culture of family planning in STEM needs to change. Here are a few ways you can help ignite that change:
A change in attitude towards pregnancy and parenthood in STEM is helpful, but it won’t be enough. We need to implement policies that support and protect new parents in STEM. There are numerous US family leave policies that fall short of ensuring time off for young scientists. I advocate for 4 months paid paternal leave for new parents – moms and dads. This policy isn’t so radical, 4 months is half the paid time off Canadian parents get. Furthermore, many companies in the private sector have adopted similar policies, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Microsoft to name a few. Advocating for parental leave not only helps women; it helps men and non-binary scientists build happy, loving families while also pursuing their scientific careers.