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The "split life" between work and child rearing is one familiar to millions of working parents. For women, balancing work and family can present particularly difficult challenges in the highly competitive, often male-dominated world of research science. Efroymson's story is one of many told in a timely new book, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out.
Contributors to this volume include biologists, physicists, geologists, and oceanographers. They are professors, writers, independent consultants, science policy experts, teachers, and government researchers. For those who fear that motherhood is incompatible with traditional scientific research careers, this book offers some stunning examples to the contrary. An atmospheric chemist writes of raising five children as she works and rises to a position of leadership at NASA. Other women seek non-traditional careers in a quest for balance, and forge new paths for themselves. The editor of the anthology, Emily Monosson, is a prime example: a toxicologist with a Ph.D from Cornell, she has established a career as an independent consultant, researcher, and writer.
The diversity of career paths described is impressive and eye-opening. Even for those who eventually end up in traditional careers, the road may be circuitous. Some of the women in these pages drop out of the workforce for a few years while their children are young, or work part-time. Some eventually return to the lab and tenure-track careers; testament that these traditional careers - often thought of as rigid, unyielding pathways - may have more flexibility than we have been led to believe. Indeed, the fluidity of scientific careers - the shifts between home life, academia, industry, government, and back again - becomes a major theme.
The book opens with scientists who received their PhDs in the 1970s, and marches through the 80s and 90s, ending with the voices of women who are in graduate school today.
It is often said that motherhood is not for the faint of heart. The same could be said for a career in science. The pace of institutional and cultural change can seem glacial. In the mean-time, scientists who are also mothers can find support by sharing their stories with one another. As one woman writes in the opening pages of Motherhood: "In the final analysis, every woman finds her own way. It's just good to know that none of us is alone." -- American Scientist, August 22, 2008
"Women trying to squeeze a career and family duties into one 24-hour day will gain much affirmation from this collection of essays. The writers, who all balance science careers and motherhood, provide a fascinating insight into a world too often kept hidden. For those without children it should come with a health warning: the juggling and compromises these women have learned to live with may add up to a sobering reality check for those who still think they can have it all. For some it may prove a powerful contraceptive."