Such is the stigma of impending motherhood among women academics and scientists that researchers learned one young woman hid her miscarriage and hospitalization from her advisor, who was male. In fact, many women leave academic sciences and engineering, said UC Santa Barbara associate professors Sarah Thébaud and Catherine Taylor, because of the social stigma surrounding motherhood within those fields. Men facing fatherhood, however, did not experience it as an obstruction to professional legitimacy in the workplace.
For the woman who felt her advisor would kick her out of the program if he knew she was pregnant, Thébaud told the Indy, she decided instead to say that she was dealing with a health issue.
Sociologists Thébaud and Taylor interviewed 57 young, childless PhD students and postdocs in natural sciences at four universities for their study “The Specter of Motherhood: Culture and the Production of Gendered Career Aspirations in Science and Engineering,” which appeared in Sage Journals on April 16.
Through the dozens of interviews, both men and women shared that there is a stigma against motherhood. However, Thébaud noted, the negative attitude toward motherhood was a cultural problem that affected more women than men, according to their interviewees. Young women, said Thébaud, “were much more likely to feel anxieties and fears around the idea of combining work and family and feeling they had to behave in a strategic way to be taken seriously. … Most of the people we spoke [to], men and women, made a point of saying they disagreed with the idea.”
Thébaud said the interviewee’s story about hiding her miscarriage and hospitalization from her advisor was a surprising one. “There’s nothing inherent about science that says that it can’t be accommodating toward these things,” Thébaud said. “But she felt very strongly that [her advisor] would not have been as flexible and supportive if he had known that it was on account of miscarriage.”
While there are many efforts to involve women in male-dominated fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), Thébaud said that these efforts primarily focus on policy and not culture. “A lot of the interventions that have been aimed toward keeping women in competitive, high-status careers have been targeted toward policies which are really important,” Thébaud said.
“The other issue we need to talk about [is] the way we talk about motherhood in the workplace. It’s really important to figure out how to normalize seeing children, talking about children in workplace settings. We even had some examples of people belittling people who decided to have children as if it was selfish.”
From here, Thébaud and Taylor’s next steps involve stepping outside of academic engineering and examining other fields like law or Wall Street.
“We show this cultural current going on and pushing women out of these elite careers … It’d be interesting to go see if some of these currents are going on in those professions,” Thébaud said.