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Science, Upstream: The maternity shuffle

The Cure by Deb ~*~,

A little more than a month ago, I was listening in on a Natural Capital Project marine team conference call when Anne Guerry, the lead scientist facilitating discussion, made an offhand comment about the group’s “maternity leave shuffle.”

Jodie Toft, a Stanford fisheries ecologist, had recently returned to work after taking a few months off to have a child. But her reappearance coincided with the departure of Katie Arkema, a Stanford marine ecologist, who at the time of the call had just given birth to a baby girl.

The do-si-do meant Guerry and the others would need to reshuffle the preparatory work required for upcoming symposia and InVEST training sessions. The International Marine Congress meets in Victoria, B.C., in May, for instance, and NatCap will be teaching would-be users of the software how to use the tool.

“As far as I know, we have no buns in the oven,” Guerry laughed.

Of course, Guerry – a mother of two – knows as well as anyone that accommodating women scientists who want to have families is an effort that pays enormous dividends. Most of us would agree that failing to do so doesn’t merely punish individuals; it’s bad for science, and society as a whole.

As Alice S. Rossi wrote in Science in 1965:

If women have difficulty handling the triple roles of member of a profession, wife, and mother, their difficulties should be recognized as a social problem to be dealt with by social engineering rather than be left to each individual woman to solve as best she can.

The maternity leave is nothing new at NatCap; in fact, the shuffle has been ongoing for almost two years now. Heather Tallis, lead scientist on the terrestrial and freshwater side of the project, took leave to have a son about two years ago; next was Guerry, who left to have a second child; then Emily McKenzie, the group’s policy lead; then Toft; and finally Arkema.

“That’s all of our women except one who have literally joined NatCap and then gotten pregnant,” says Tallis.

The baby boom reflects on the team’s makeup – one-third of the collaborators have two X chromosomes – but also, seemingly, on the fact that women hold both founding and managing roles in the group’s hierarchy. Gretchen Daily launched NatCap with three men; and Mary Ruckelshaus, mother of two teenagers, acts as managing director.

“I just know when I was in that phase of having kids, my post-doc adviser (Peter Kareiva, co-founder of NatCap and chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy) was wonderful, and that was really rare,” says Ruckelshaus. “I know it’s not always the case that the work environment makes it easy to take a leave and come back. It’s very important to me to provide that kind of environment.”

Ruckelshaus enjoys a unique perspective: She is old enough to have witnessed a time in which the scientific world was less accepting of women wishing to start families; and she is young enough to have seen a transition to what she considers a more “enlightened” reality, as more understanding men and women reach upper management roles.

“But it’s really still hit and miss,” she emphasizes – and it’s not only men who perpetuate the old way of thinking.

“Some women, even in my generation and older, felt like they sacrificed a lot and therefore they aren’t going to give anyone a break, even younger women coming up,” she says. “So it’s not even always along gender lines; it really is just the luck of the draw if you get someone who supports balancing family life with work.”

Of course, it’s one thing for society to achieve an acceptance of the concept of “balancing life with work.” It’s another to … balance life with work.

“I know there are women who, when they have kids, say ‘this is what I really want to devote all my time to,’” Ruckelshaus says. “But I’m one of those people who I think go a little bonkers without something outside of hovering around my kids. I do on a weekly basis struggle with that balance; it just never feels quite right. But I think that’s the nature of the beast, and you just have to kind of go with it.”

Women who return to the office after having babies, Tallis emphasizes, confront severe sleep deficits and also the impossibility of living up to pre-child standards.

Footprint by santheo,

Despite the most well-intentioned professional culture, Tallis says, and even a strong office-based support group, returning to work with less energy is hard. It’s her own memory – of a time when she’d pull all-nighters at the office – that weighs most heavily.

The other mothers of NatCap are “an amazing support network,” Tallis says, who encourage her to “put boundaries on things, try not to get overcommitted.”

“But then I think we all also know that our team is getting really squished,” she says. “You know, we six were all workaholics before.”

To Ruckelshaus, accommodating what Tallis considers to be lowered efficiency isn’t just responsible; it’s vital to maintaining a successful team.

NatCap’s work, she says, is “very interdisciplinary and demanding” and it “requires people to know a lot about something but be willing and interested to reach out to other disciplines and make connections to them.”

mother and baby by iandeth, has been female applicants to NatCap who have traditionally shown the most interest and the most qualification for that sort of function, Ruckeshaus says.

Women tend to be good multi-taskers, she says, interested in the direct application of science in terms of “how to apply it and help natural and human systems.”

“Project-wide,” Tallis says, “we still have fewer women. But the women are in this sort of middle role of the doing and the integrating, and the men are either at the top or in the more specialized disciplines.”

“Looking at the people I encounter – which is a really small subset of the world – women are in more roles to connect the dots and find commonalities and men tend to me more in roles where you need a strong opinion, or you want to stay focused on a particular area or topic.”

The female lead scientists at NatCap “spend a lot of time trying to pull our guys out of the weeds,” she says.

The idea that women think big has been around for some time. Again, Rossi, writing in 1965:

“Throughout school boys do better on spatial tests (for example, detecting a simple figure embedded in a more complex one), which suggests that “boys perceive more analytically, while the girls are more global, more influenced by all the elements.”

Despite the important role that women play in the group, Tallis emphasizes, NatCap embodies the trend that still prevails across academia: The supply pipeline of students to science is flush with females, but relatively few of them trickle up into the highest echelons of intellectual leadership. Three of four mid-level managers are women; three of four founding directors are men.

Social change in the sciences might be slow; but if the maternity shuffle at NatCap is any indication, it is in progress – thanks to many individual efforts and much to the benefit of all.

As Bill Murray incants in the late 20th Century classic “What About Bob?”: Sometimes we have to make do with “baby steps … baby steps …”

Photo 1 via Flickr / Deb ~*~

Photo 2 via Flickr / santheo

Photo 3 via Flickr / iandeth

Who is Science, Upstream?
JAMIE HANSEN has written for Sierra Magazine, the High Country News, and Birders’ World. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Stanford, hoping to tie together two passions: a keen interest in the natural world and communicating with broad audiences. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College, but fell in love with biology during her last semester.

JULIA JAMES is a master’s candidate in Journalism at Stanford University. She often writes about issues relating to human and environmental health. When not chained to a computer, she likes to climb rocks and chase Frisbees. She holds a B.S. in geological and environmental sciences (also from Stanford) and lives in Palo Alto with six housemates and five chickens.

  1. Oh, this was a nice read. I had a male PI who happened to be as baby-crazy as anyone, and he was faced with my maternity leave overlapping the leave of the only other person who could handle my duties. We managed to juggle things well enough, in the end, but his positive (even glowing) attitude toward maternity in general made it much less stressful. I wish I could have afforded to stay in that job, but a government job is just plain not steady enough these days for a single-income family.

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