Chemistry Nobel, women, and the “choice”

7 Oct
A chocolate Nobel Prize

A chocolate Nobel Prize

On Monday, I mentioned that it was a good week for women in science. Well, it got even better today with the announcement of the chemistry prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science becomes the fourth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (sharing the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  and Thomas Steitz of Yale University).

The science is essential for life, understanding the structure and workings of ribosomes. These packets within living cells that take the master plans encoded within geness and manufacture the working parts, proteins.

For an upcoming story, I’ve been thinking a lot about research careers, work-life balance, and the “choice” that’s often drawn in the sand, particularly for women, between work and family. Some of that comes out in Yonath’s interview on the Nobel website:

[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?

[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.

The Nobel recognition is about Yonath’s science, not her gender. But I find this quote fascinating, and it skirts around the main issue. She’s of a different generation (born in 1939), and I see one point: motherhood was  considered a socially acceptable– maybe even socially sanctioned– reason for a female scientist to leave the laboratory. A man would probably get more backlash for making a choice to leave the laboratory to raise his children.

But that choice, by a scientist of either gender, comes with consequences. I doubt that many of today’s women  use motherhood as a smokescreen for a waning interest in research. They leave for many reasons: because they decide to apply their knowledge in new ways, because they don’t see enough opportunities, and maybe even because they want to make more money. Some of them discover that the research lifestyle isn’t compatible with the family life that they’d like to have, particularly in the early years of their children’s lives.

Working on this upcoming story already had me thinking about my own decision to leave the laboratory. My choice didn’t come down to a line in the sand between career and family. I was single throughout graduate school and defended my dissertation shortly before my 30th birthday. But those issues colored my decision. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I sensed a culture of inflexibility.  I realized that I didn’t want to feel locked into lab work, and I wanted to be able to pursue other creative interests, and, yes, eventually have a family. Did those desires make me a less capable scientist? Absolutely not, but conventional wisdom would say that I didn’t want it “bad enough.” If I had sensed more flexibility– an environment more compatible with my personal goals–  would I have considered staying in research? I don’t know.



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