Field of Science

The Hidden Women of Science

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article this week on the election of a record number of women to the National Academy of Science, the obstacles women face, and a forum on issues related to women in science. The words "women in science" tend to bring up the image of Marie Curie, Dorothy Hodgkins or, in a peevish moment, Larry Summers. These are not the women in science I'm thinking about. It's the hidden women, the women behind the scenes that fascinate me. The truly hidden women of science are the wives of the scientists who make it possible for them to work 80+ hours per week and still play golf.

A recent look at Princeton's cadre of science faculty, which is reasonably representative, one might presume of the larger cohort of top research universities, reveals that the majority of male faculty enjoy a stay at home spouse. None of the female science faculty are so blessed. On the face of it, this is not surprising, since the bulk of women with doctoral degrees are married to highly educated spouses. In these days, men (highly educated or not) do not frequently choose to stay out of the job market and work in the home. Women have more freedom to make such choices in the current social millieu. So what? So, the guys with spouses who work at home have staff. Someone to coordinate the school activities, the after school activities, the errands, the house repairs (who stays home for the plumber, eh?), the grocery shopping, car repairs, cooking, cleaning. Yes? In households where both work, say as science and math faculty, someone still must do those chores! And these things do take time. Outsourcing is expensive, particularly for younger faculty, and in some cases just not easily accomplished. (Again, who stays home for that plumber? Our toilet was stopped up for a week until one of our schedules was open enough to allow for someone to be here for the extended period of time required. I was trying to submit a paper, and my session timed out twice while I was trying to help the plumber identify the object that was stuck in the @#$% thing.)

So when we think about women in science, we must realize that much of the top-ranked academic research enterprise depends very heaviliy on the unpaid labor of women -- in science.


  1. Doug and I have actually had this conversation many times. He knows (and I know) that he might be more productive (or at least be able to play golf) if I were at home. But he says he would never ask that of me because he thinks it would be a waste of my talents. Not that either of us think that the women who stay home are wasting their time--they're obviously not as evidenced by what their husbands accomplish. We sort of look at it as a team strategy. Our strategy was just different from many (most, actually) of the others around us. It's yet to be seen if that strategy pays off for him. It's certainly paying off for me. :)

  2. Victor and I view it similarly -- and realize that in that way he is also a "woman of science". When my oldest was small and had an ear infection, Victor taught class with the toddler on his hip (I had a class to teach, too), and brought him to a meeting. I remember Karen Tidmarsh telling him that she thought it was good role modeling for the students to see a dad handling child care issues. Doug is providing students with the same good role modeling, too.

    Go team!

  3. My wife's a lawyer, and could have probably written this exact same post, changing merely "women in science" to "women in big law firms."

  4. scrivener - you could indeed, and in fact, there are some interesting papers written on the entry into and promotion of women within large law firms.

    I'm sure you and your wife would be shocked and surprised to know that in firms studied, women had to have much higher GPAs than men to be hired in the first place (and this is recently!), and that having children increases the chances that a man will make partner, but reduces a woman's chances.

    These issues are certainly not unique to women in science, but really apply to working dyads in careers that require significant educational investment, have a strongly hierarchical structure and for whatever reason, cannot handle resume gaps.

  5. Shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

    But I was thinking about this post more while I spent the day at home taking care of my daughter who's on summer break and cleaning the house while my wife was off billing hours and harrassing the opposing counsels, and I decided the nice thing, too, is that it turns around--I get to be a "man of law" too. Thanks for that.

  6. I thought the breast pump in the lab was brilliant, too! Not having to traipse across campus makes for more science (and more milk, when you're not as rushed...). Everybody wins, mentor, students, science and the NIH.

    It's the simple stuff that often makes and breaks us. Mountains are indeed made from many molehills -- and in fact, can be dismantled or shifted one spoonful at a time.

  7. I agree 100% with your concept of "women in science".

    I consider myself a "woman in IT" - although I work in IT as does my husband, he is typically out of the house for 13+ hours a day and so I have fewer options when it comes to having a "career".

    I blogged about Larry Summers and Harvard's $50M -


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