There is a common misconception that as women, we have to choose between having a career and having a family; that the reason there are fewer women in STEM is because women tend to choose the latter. But being a scientist certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t also be a mother and vice versa.
As we prepare for Mother’s Day this weekend, we thought it was fitting to showcase some amazing scientists that were (or still are) also amazing mothers. The choice to do either or both is entirely up to you.
Marie Curie is the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes, but did you know that she also raised two daughters, Irène and Ève? In fact, Irène Joliot-Curie went on to win a Nobel prize herself, making the Curies the family with the most Nobel laureates. Ève was no slacker either, working as a war correspondent during World War II and winning the Croix de Guerre for her service as a volunteer in the women’s medical corps.
Carol W. Greider
Sticking with Nobel Prize winners, Carol Greider won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for her discovery of the enzyme telomerase. She also has two kids, Charles and Gwendolyn. Carol acknowledges that having both a prolific science career and a family is hard, but “many things are hard in life – it’s best to do what you most want to do.”
“Work/life balance is not a thing,” Greider tells her daughter. “It is a teeter totter – sometimes kids require all the time sometimes work requires all the time. It goes back and forth.”
If you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures (and if you haven’t, you should), you’ll know all about Katherine Johnson and her three daughters, Katherine, Constance, and Joylette. Katherine was a genius mathematician who worked at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, which would later become NASA. There she calculated orbital trajectories for space flights, including John Glenn’s flight that would mark a turning point in the “space race”. The quote from the movie where Glenn says “If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go,” is directly from Katherine’s memory.
Ursula Franklin is a renowned Canadian scientist, feminist, and peace activist. Franklin joined the University of Toronto in 1967 as the first female professor of materials science and engineering. She pioneered the field of archaeometry – the use of materials science techniques for dating archaeological artefacts. Prior to this, she worked at the Ontario Research Foundation, during which time she had two children. In this interview with the Atlantic, she tells the story of how the organization was completely unprepared for a pregnant woman.
“They were stunned — because it had never happened,” said Franklin. “The unpreparedness, administratively and legally, to recognize that women… have needs, and require an administrative framework that takes that into account was totally absent. So that the task, then, for women like myself who were feminists, was to know that you had to have laws that gave maternity leave; you had to have provisions for flexible work; and the struggle from there on was not for us, but was struggled for all women to have decent working conditions and safe wages.”
Molly Shoichet, winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (2015) and recent winner of the Killam Prize in Engineering, is one of the founders of R2R, but she is also a mother of two boys, Emerson and Sebastian. Molly had her first child before receiving tenure, despite being told by a male colleague that she should wait.
“I think that I took this as somewhat of a challenge,” she said. “Having children did not slow me down in my career and in fact gave me insights on how best to motivate and mentor others.”
Gerlinde Maria Gruber
You may not have heard of Dr. Gerlinde Maria Gruber, but the students in her classes will surely never forget her. Dr. Gruber is a University Assistant in Anatomy at the Medical University of Vienna. I asked Dr. Gruber whether she ever felt pressure to choose between having kids and having a career.
“I became pregnant at the age of 18, only one year before the final school examination (called “Abitur” in Austria), but I didn’t stop attending school,” she said.
“When I studied anthropology afterwards I became pregnant again with my daughter Jasmin at the age of 20, but I didn’t stop attending courses. I took my newborn baby with me to University (since her third day of life) and successfully completed my study of anthropology. I had children before I finished school and before I started studying and entered professional life. So I never had to choose if I wanted kids or not, I already had them when I started working.”
Gerlinde now has four children – Dominik and Jasmin, but also Johanna and Elisabeth.
“I never thought being both, mother and scientist, would be impossible – I always was sure I WILL be both.”
Overall, the women I interviewed had one message for anyone hesitant to hire a women because she is or may become pregnant (other than the fact that it’s illegal).
You’re missing out.
“Diversity drives innovation – new ideas move science. Excluding any group can weaken any organization,” says Greider.
*** While writing this post, I was actually overwhelmed with suggestions of scientist/mothers from friends and mentors. Though I unfortunately could not contact them all, here is my full list to peruse. ***