Science, parenting, and resisting easy answers

International Women's Day event "Being the Best" at University of Manchester, as tweeted by @fionacoll. Dr Heather Williams is seated next to the podium.

International Women’s Day event “Becoming the Best” at University of Manchester, as tweeted by @fionacoll. Dr Heather Williams is seated next to the podium.

Today, to mark International Women’s Day, I took part in an event organised by the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences entitled “Becoming the Best”. I joined a panel discussion in which 5 women with STEM degrees talked about their career paths and what had helped them along the way, then took questions from the audience. The other 4 panelists were a senior academic and 3 successful businesswomen.

We were sent questions by the attendees ahead of the session, and I was surprised to see that the issue of how to combine being a Mum with a career in science came up over and over again. Then I arrived and looked at the women in the audience: most were undergraduates, early postgraduates, women in their most fertile years who were also passionate scientists. The problem of raising children on a series of short-term, poorly-funded academic contracts was a looming reality for them, as well-documented as it seems intractable. All I could offer was that I understood; this was one of the reasons I left academia after my PhD, to take up a permanent post as a Medical Physicist in the NHS before starting a family.

There was much good advice from the panel about working hard, being bold, having stamina, getting organised, identifying your strengths and priorities, networking, and seeking out mentors and wider support networks. But it was also clear from the reactions to some of the advice that approaches which formed the cornerstone of one person’s life were anathema to others.

This just goes to underline that there is seldom one solution to the many challenges faced by women, the blending of an academic career and family responsibilities being just one of them. In matters of family and relationships in particular, the priorities and needs of the individuals concerned and the resources and opportunities available to meet those needs will vary dramatically. How mothers divide their time between children and career is an intensely personal decision, and often limited by factors beyond our control: conception and contraception are not as predictable as we expect, birth and new parenthood is a huge upheaval even when everything goes ‘well’, job and home situations change unexpectedly, health fluctuates, support networks form and dissolve without our intervention. But most fundamentally, children are not projects you can manage, they are individuals to be nurtured. All the methodical organisation in the world creaks at the seams when your little darling comes down with something as common as a tummy bug. This is exactly what happened to my youngest this afternoon, as if to illustrate my point.

That’s why sharing the stories of how the many make it work, rather than falling back on a one-size-fits-all ‘template solution’ based on the few, is so important. It allows us to see that there are many different approaches to successfully handling the complex interplay of work and parenting, and inspires us to be more open-minded and creative in the options we allow ourselves and each other. I punched the air when I saw The Royal Society have done just that with a new set of case studies entitled “Parent, Carer, Scientist”, launched today.

Have a read. There’s lots of encouragement in these stories for anyone with a commitment to science and responsibility for a family. Or, to generalise, anyone who wants to combine a career in science with interests and relationships outside of it. Which is most of us, to be honest – not just the ones who are called ‘Mum’.