The Specter of Motherhood in Academic Science and Engineering

Why do women leave academic science and engineering? This puzzle has plagued scholars and practitioners for decades. Despite a rising presence in graduate programs, women still constitute only 24 percent of tenured professorships in the natural sciences and only 15 percent in engineering fields in the US. 

A popular explanation is that the job is very demanding. The work hours are long, and the structure, like the ticking tenure clock, does not make combining a career with parenting easy, especially for women. This is even more apparent now that COVID has exposed and exacerbated the disproportionate impact of caregiving responsibilities on women’s academic careers. It’s no wonder that some women don’t want to stick with it.  

Though parenting demands are undoubtedly critical, they don’t paint a complete picture. Many women leave before they have children, and therefore, before they presumably encounter work-family conflicts. Further, parenthood doesn’t explain why women are more likely to leave science and engineering careers than other demanding professions, like law or medicine.  

Fortunately, studies of academic workplace culture can offer some insight: gender-based discrimination, exclusion, and harassment have been documented for decades in academic science and engineering. But knowledge about the ways in which academics actually communicate beliefs and assumptions about motherhood, in particular, remains limited. As such, it is an open question as to whether or not exposure to workplace beliefs about motherhood might help explain gender differences in early-career decision making. 

The Research

Our study, based on in-depth interviews with 57 young, childless, PhD students and post-docs in natural sciences and engineering fields at four universities, fills this gap. We find two critical things. First, the young women and men that we talked to described a pervasive workplace culture that frames motherhood, but not fatherhood, in opposition to legitimacy as a scientist or engineer. In this context, it is widely believed that motherhood is controversial and should be feared, rejected, and hidden. Second, these ideas about motherhood disadvantage women in their day-to-day interactions and, ultimately, motivate some of them to leave academia. 

Interviewees told stories of faculty saying things like “There’s more to life than babies” and “I don’t understand why women complain . . . you just have to decide you get a family or a career in chemistry, one or the other and just accept it.” One recounted how a professor’s “gist was that having children is sort of narcissistic. And she’s above that . . . like, simpletons want to have kids.” When asked what topics she might discuss with her dissertation advisor, one graduate student explained: “If it were something [like] ‘I’m having a child’ . . . I would feel uncomfortable about how he’d receive that because of the ‘women always fail’ thing.” Some described an alarmist narrative about motherhood, such that women’s, but not men’s, reproductive plans and decisions were publicly discussed and critiqued by colleagues. 

Not surprisingly, most women reacted negatively to this culture. Words like “scary,” “frightening,” “worry,” “struggle,” and “stressed” routinely came up when we asked women their thoughts on combining family with a career in academic science or engineering. These words were never used when we asked men the same question. The more women were taught to fear motherhood, and the more they felt they could not discuss family plans, but rather had to reject and hide them, the more these plans seemed to pose an insurmountable obstacle to career success. We use the phrase the “specter of motherhood” to describe these circumstances. 

These beliefs and practices surrounding motherhood made it particularly difficult for young, childless women to gain professional respect. Women recounted stories of having their commitment questioned and being asked why they were getting a degree since they would likely “end up dropping out anyway to have babies.” Others realized they would be taken more seriously and given more attention from their advisors if they made it known that they did not plan to have children. These experiences taught women that their already questioned presence in the profession would likely become more tenuous if they were to become mothers in the future.  

We show how this recognition—that gaining professional respect requires continuously engaging in practices that reject, denigrate, and hide motherhood—disproportionately drives women away from academia. Of the people we interviewed who had already decided to leave academia, despite originally being open to it when they started graduate school, the specter of motherhood was a factor in nearly all of the women’s rationales. It was not a factor in any of the men’s. 

It is noteworthy that most of the men and women we interviewed disliked or disagreed with these norms and practices around motherhood. Most perceived them as “extreme”, “odd,” and generally out of step with “normal” people—people who presumably value family and see motherhood as an ordinary aspect of life. Given that, it is not surprising that some women are unwilling to engage in this unusual approach to family life, especially if they can still achieve career success outside of academia that doesn’t require them to give up motherhood.  

Our findings offer insights for academic institutions. A larger presence of mothers could help dispel the specter of motherhood and so policies that lead to better recruitment and retention of mothers, like tenure clock extensions are necessary. But our work reveals that interventions that target attitudes about motherhood are also critical. Programs that raise awareness about the many mothers who are successful academic scientists  and that describe the benefits of academia to mothers—like, scheduling flexibility and job stability—are crucial to counter the spectre of motherhood we discovered. Programs should also address motherhood during graduate advising to normalize seeing and talking about children in workplace settings.  

Our study is focused on academia but the specter of motherhood may be present in other professions, especially elite male-dominated ones. If ideas about motherhood are similarly powerful in shaping women’s career aspirations in other occupations, then measures that target these attitudes are  critical for addressing the stalled progress toward gender equality more broadly. 

Sarah Thébaud is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research identifies cultural, social psychological, and institutional processes that contribute to gender inequalities in the workplace, families, entrepreneurship, and higher education. She earned her PhD in Sociology at Cornell University and was a postdoctoral 
fellow at Princeton University. 

Catherine J. Taylor is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a mother. Her main research and teaching areas are gender, work and occupations, social psychology, health, and methods. Before joining the faculty at UCSB, Professor Taylor earned her PhD in Sociology at Cornell University, was a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University, and was a faculty member 
at Indiana University. 

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