Being “out” as a #scimom

Something that is very important to me is to be open about being a scientist – a woman scientist, in particular – who has children. The data don’t paint a rosy picture for scientist mothers, and this is in part because of the biases we all have related to women in science (and especially regarding women in science with children). My hope is that, by being open about being a scientist mother, I can do my small part to normalize the idea of women scientists having children.

How do I try to achieve this? I mention my children in class sometimes (even though I’m sure this makes me seem less serious to some students.) I have artwork by my kids in my office. I tweet about my children and the germs they all-too-frequently bring home from daycare. If a student group asks me to give a talk in the evening, I tell them that I can’t make it because I will be home with my kids. I mention my kids sometimes on this blog.

Another thing that I did in the past is have my children* in my Twitter avatar. At some point, I changed to the little red Daphnia**. I think the little red Daphnia is fun and distinctive. But, thinking about all this more recently, I’ve decided to go back to the avatar of me with my son. In some ways it feels silly, since it’s such a small gesture. But then I am reminded, that sometimes those small gestures matter. I was recently told that seeing the juxtaposition of me tweeting that I got tenure with my avatar (at that time, a picture of me holding my daughter) really resonated with some younger women scientists and gave them hope that it is possible to be a women in science and have children.

So, Happy Mother’s Day, a day late***, to all the #scimoms out there! To celebrate, I’m going back to an avatar showing me with one of my kids:



* Usually only one at a time, because it’s nearly impossible to get me and both of them all looking at the camera at the same time!

** No, it’s NOT a bird!

*** At least, for the US Mother’s Day. I know it’s not the same day in all countries.

23 thoughts on “Being “out” as a #scimom

  1. A happy mother’s day to you too Meg, and thanks for the great post! I have had two kids during my PhD, and it has been both very enriching as well as bringing its challenges (I haven’t traveled to a conference in five years for example–and I had tons of reading to catch up on each time I came back from mat leave). I also have done some lecturing, and make a point to mention my kids…sometimes as an explanation for why I am yawning while teaching–it is not that I find my own course content boring, but that I have a one year old who doesn’t sleep through the night yet. I am still not sure how being a mother will relate to my future post-graduation. Although I think this has more to do with choosing not to be a nomad for science more than with any particular time-constraint my children place on me.

    Being a mother reminds me of my original childhood goals: of wanting to understand the world and help manage it in the best way possible. I think this makes me a better scientist than I would be without children. I agree that we have to be “out” as science moms to make the structural changes necessary in institutions for this to be normalized, and also to encourage other young women scientists to keep at it.

  2. There’s two words there which caught my eye: “being out” and “to normalize”. I remember my first “real” workplace coffee rooms – it was a high school teachers’ lounge. I was just graduated teachers and tried to negotiate my identity as a teacher barely older than my students. The thing about, at least Finnish, teacher lounges is than almost everyone is women and almost everyone has children. Most of the teacher lounge conversations revolve around family, kids and past weekend / plans for next weekends.

    Now, coming into this world as young gay teacher is anything but easy. Especially when I wasn’t really ready to start figuring out how to be gay in this context. There are subtle ways heteronormativity works and then there’s those not-so-subtle situations, like teachers’ lounges where there’s just no way to take part in discourse if you don’t want to “be out”.

    I’m definitely not here saying that your talk about your kids is wrong, and it is definitely in many ways needed. (And I’m sure there’s also need for men speaking about their children and leaving by 4 pm to get them from daycare.) Just to remind that familial relations, gender performance and all that is quite a minefield.

    By the way, research suggests that students are more motivated to study when they know their teacher/professor more personally.

    • “Just to remind that familial relations, gender performance and all that is quite a minefield.” Yes, most definitely!

      “By the way, research suggests that students are more motivated to study when they know their teacher/professor more personally.” Interesting! I didn’t know this. I suppose this might be a component of why evaluations tend to be lower for larger courses.

      Related: when I showed this nest box competition video:

      in my class last year, I mentioned that my daughter, when I showed her the video the night before, said, “Mommy, that is NOT nice.” The students seem to really like little anecdotes like that. (And I agree with her — those birds are NOT being nice!)

  3. Important post. Thanks. Two thoughts.

    1) I think its important to recognize how differentially males and females are judged for being out as a parent (as you noted). Knowing that my female colleagues are going to be judged in a way I’m not going to be when bringing up a parenting-work conflict, I think it is important that Dad’s work extra hard to be out as parents.

    2) It is interesting to think about how many different contexts there are to be out. You mention, teaching, social media, your office, etc. I think another important one, especially for those with tenure is faculty meetings, university committees etc.

    • Yes, to also doing this for faculty meetings, university committees, etc! And I agree that it’s a place where those of us with tenure really need to be leading the way.

  4. Thank you for this post and for your regularly thoughtful post. I struggle with the same issue of being “out”, and one technique I have used is to always mention my kids in any introductions that I am asked to write (e.g., something that someone else will read when they introduce me to give a talk). This strategy runs the risk of being taken less seriously as a scientist, but I try to do it for every talk I give.

    • This reminds me of something I was thinking of including in this post but forgot: sometimes, people get really annoyed when an article about a woman scientist mentions her kids. I totally understand why it’s annoying if that is a central point of the article. But I personally think it’s great when we get the message that successful women scientists have kids.

      I remember hearing/reading that Nobel Laureate Carol Greider was doing the laundry when she received the call from Stockholm, and thinking how it was nice to hear about a scientist being a normal person (while, again, fully recognizing that there’s a fine line between showing women scientists as people who are more than just their science and between falling into the trap of focusing on things other than their science). Link about Carol Greider:

      • This is a tough issue. In an old linkfest (sorry, can’t find it now), I linked to an interesting piece complaining about standard tropes in biographies of female scientists:

        Interesting because it suggests that attempts to paint female scientists as unique individuals end up subtle stereotyping them instead, by implying that it’s only “weird” women who can succeed in science. Also suggests that biographies of female scientists do those scientists, and women in general, a disservice by avoiding criticism of their subjects. I haven’t read enough to judge myself, and I don’t entirely agree with it (I mean, isn’t *any* really successful scientist, male or female, likely to be weird in some ways?). But I found it thought-provoking.

  5. I was just thinking in exactly those terms this weekend. I was “out” as a new mom as a grad student (whether I wanted to be or not — as a soon-to-be birth mother, you don’t exactly get the choice of whether to be out or not; your belly is out and so are you), and as a result, several other grad students (including one to-be-dad) to ask advice about navigating the process of grad school while parenting. After I wrote the bit on maternity leave here, I’ve had several people ask for advice (behind the scenes, as it were). I’m guessing this is a pretty common occurrence for “out” moms; there are more people thinking about and in the early stages of parenting than there are people who are loud about being parents to babies and young children.

    And I was thinking about other “out” moms who inspired me. I’ll particularly mention Sarah Hobbie, who was a faculty mom to very young children when I started as a grad student and was a role model for me in how to be a mom scientist. (She is also a kick-ass scientist who was elected to the National Academy a couple years ago.) When I was originally looking at the postdoc position I have now, I noted that on the PI’s “people” page was included a list of postdocs with photos. One postdoc was a woman with a baby in a carrier on her back. That immediately got my attention (in a good way), and I contacted her to find out about the family-friendliness of the lab. So I think being “out” and visible can definitely be inspiring and send the message of “it’s possible” when so many other messages are “you’re handicapping yourself”.

    For me, personally, I have trouble navigating how “out” to be. I come from the computer science world, which is often hostile to women in general. I learned very early on to be as gender-neutral as possible, always signing as M. Kosmala or by my initials MCK. (M is thankfully a common male first initial.) And I’ve found that a hard habit to break. Or, perhaps, not so much hard, as that I’m acutely aware that I am judged by my gender — and even more so by my family status. So I generally default to not advertising my mom-edness, unless I carefully think through the benefits of being more “out”. I wonder if how much comfort mom scientists feel with being “out” is based (in part) on how secure they feel in their jobs…

    • “So I think being “out” and visible can definitely be inspiring and send the message of “it’s possible” when so many other messages are “you’re handicapping yourself”.” Yes, this is exactly my thinking on the topic!

      One thing I’m not sure I was clear enough about is that I’m not trying to say that all scimoms should be “out”. (Though, as you say, it can be pretty hard not to be in certain situations.) That decision is definitely up to each woman, and I try to be very careful not to “out” someone as being a mother in case she doesn’t want that aspect of her life to be focused on. Instead, what I am saying is that I think it’s important for someone like me, who has a stable, secure position, to try to normalize the idea that women scientists can be mothers.

  6. Thanks for this post! I’ve been struggling for the past 2 years to be “out” as a transgender ecologist/TA/Phd student. I can relate to the struggle of being visible in a field that tends to ignore personal identities.

    Are there meetups for science moms at any of the large science conferences? Seems like it would be a great way to identify others who are in similar situations, and build a sub-community.

  7. Just want to say that, as an undergraduate student, I was inspired by professors (both male and female) who mentioned their children. It was always a bit of a shock to hear such accomplished people casually mention they had kids, and made me realize that they are real people with lives outside of academia.

    In particular, I once had a female professor who is a superstar researcher and an excellent teacher. She never explicitly mentioned her kids until one day in class she started laughing in the middle of lecture – she then explained that her daughter (who was sitting under the lectern colouring, unnoticed by the class) had done something funny. I think that was the only time she ever acknowledged being a mother, but it made a big impression on me. I had definitely previously had the idea that being a successful female scientist precluded having children.

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  9. Question, Meg: a while back you noted that you’d hesitate to make jokes involving your kids in talks, because you were worried it might negatively affect some people’s perception of you (I think this was in response to a post of mine where I mentioned that I’d joked about my son in a talk). But it seems like over time you’ve gotten more comfortable with being “out” as a scimom. So I’m curious: are you still as worried as you once were about the possible costs to yourself to being “out”, but you’ve decided that those costs are outweighed by other considerations (e.g., the importance of coming “out”, even at some possible cost, so as to help bring about a world in which it’s no longer costly to be “out”)? Or do you think the possible costs are lower for you now than they used to be, e.g. because you have tenure now? Or have you changed your mind about the possible costs of being “out”? That is, have you decided that, in retrospect, you were overestimating the possible costs, so that now you want to be “out” to help show others that it’s not as costly as they might think?

    Or is my question here a bad way to frame your thought process?

  10. Lovely post Meghan – just discovered it. I try to normalize being a scientist and a parent for everyone – new dads as well as well as new moms. I have always talked about my kids, my graduate students were de facto babysitters sometimes – I even brought a baby to a departmental meeting once – I had no choice, I was a single parent. I didn’t ask permission, I just did it – respectfully (luckily I had a good baby!). It is wrong to deny our humanity, our “other” lives – and we should celebrate our lives fully – so every birth, every life event, every success. As Dean of a Faculty of Science, I encourage everyone to include families at events where possible. It’s important to intentionally normalize family life for men and women with success as a scientist (or any career). Is it hard work – absolutely! But lots of people are doing it all the time. So lets celebrate our kids – they are the best science projects ever. Then again, I now have teenagers…………’s a whole different ball game! One caveat – I have started to be much more careful about posting images of my kids – showing them without their faces being clearly seen. Privacy becomes an issue as they get older. Keep up the great work!

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