Less Pay, A Little Less Work
Published in Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, edited by Emily Monosson; this is the original submission.
I have walked the straight and narrow path to success in physics. I went straight from college to graduate school, straight from graduate school to a postdoc, accepted my first tenure-track position five years after my PhD, and was tenured at age 38. At no point in my career did I ever dare to dream that this would be possible. And even now, I wonder how long my career in research will last, or how successful I can continue to be. I never doubted my own intelligence or skillfulness. But I have always known I wanted children and a happy family more than I wanted a successful career as a physicist. I will not dedicate my whole life to science as some around me do. And that is where my career ambitions have always wavered. Is it really possible to do both? Is it possible to be a successful scientist, to make discoveries, without dedicating one’s full attention?
I came up against this question when I was a senior in college and deciding whether or not to go to graduate school. I remember meeting a Nobel laureate while visiting graduate schools. I told him I really liked hobbies like music and drawing and crocheting and dance, and I wanted to know if I could still keep up these hobbies and go to graduate school in physics. He told me that learning physics was really, really difficult, and it probably was not worth doing unless you dedicated yourself to it full time. In retirement there would be opportunities for pursuing hobbies.
This well-meaning professor answered the way I expected him
to answer, though not the way I had hoped.
I had worked hard all of my life – first on our family farm and then in
undergraduate school. I was not afraid
of hard work. But really, dedicating my
life at age 21? Five to seven years of
graduate school seemed possibly more than I was willing to commit to. And having babies in retirement was an unworkable
plan. But when I received my acceptance
letter to go to the
I have done some things differently to balance family life with a career as a scientist. I took a postdoc position at a national laboratory because they were fairly certain the position would last five years, and not one-year-at-a-time-with-possibly-a-total-of-three years-contingent-on-funding positions offered at major research universities. Unfortunately for me, I had difficulty conceiving a child and did not become a mother until the last year of my five year postdoc. I stayed at the national laboratory for a total of seven years, and though I expect that conditions there were much better than for postdocs at research universities, there are some ways in which conditions could be improved. Some things are simple, like daycare close to office areas and facilities for using a breast pump. But the primary need of a new mother is time to take care of her child, and herself.
My first daughter we adopted, and one year later I gave birth to a second. My children came at about the time I was up for promotion to a tenure-track position at the laboratory, which I succeeded in getting after a fight. I took three months of leave for each child, as did my husband. We juggled our schedules so that we each worked three days per week and took two days of leave per week so that we could keep the babies at home as long as possible and keep things going at work. It was a condition of my employer that all of my vacation time be used up as part of the guaranteed three months of (otherwise unpaid) leave afforded by the Family Leave Act.
When my children were one and two years of age, I had two children in diapers and in daycare full time. At least one of the children was sick every other week. Before I became a parent, the five weeks per year of vacation time I received had seemed infinite. Now my vacation coupled with my husband’s seemed barely adequate to cover the days when the kids were sick. But, my older daughter was almost three and mostly potty-trained. I was starting to build up a cushion of vacation time so that I wouldn’t have to worry about having it when the kids were sick and maybe we could think about taking a vacation. Then, at a kids’ birthday party / barbeque, my younger daughter put both hands directly on the charcoal grill and received second degree burns on both palms. My nerves were shot. My daughter was out of daycare for a week with bandaged hands and required almost constant care. My cushion of vacation was gone.
I returned to work, but I was beginning to feel that I could not keep going this way. I asked my supervisor if I could work 80% time. I planned to work four days per week – whichever four days neither of my kids were sick. My supervisor agreed, but the division head would not sign the papers without talking to me first. The division head thought I might be able to work this out, without losing pay, by working from home part of the time. I tried to explain to him that one- and two-year-olds don’t play by themselves very long, and about the problems when they become sick. He told me that he and his wife didn’t have any children, and they just worked all of the time. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
To his credit, the division head signed the papers, and I worked for a year at 80% time. In reality, I’m sure I often worked forty hours per week with this schedule, but I didn’t feel guilty about the time I spent with my children. It amounted to about two months of leave, and may easily have saved my sanity and my career.
When my children were two and three years old, I was offered a job at a research university near where my extended family lives. The opportunity came at a time when my relationship with the national laboratory was strained, and though I had some concerns about juggling a family and a faculty position, I took the lateral move. I wouldn’t say taking on a faculty position is easy – with or without children – but I worked through learning to teach, advise, and write grant proposals using extensive time management techniques and constant prioritization. I was awarded tenure after five years on the faculty.
My husband and I have recently added two more children to our family – one adopted and one by birth, so I have experienced new motherhood at a university. On paper my university has a great family leave policy: one semester without teaching (nominally a two day per week commitment at my university) and an optional additional semester without teaching at half pay. My younger children arrived 16 months apart, so I have taught one semester in the last five semesters, and the policy has worked exactly as intended. I have been able to keep up my research, write grants, advise students, and fulfill my service functions to the university while spending some extra needed time with my children.
Because I need to cover childcare for after school, school holidays, days when any of my four children are sick, and full time care for two very young children, we have employed a nanny this time around. It is possible to hire wonderful young women to care for children if one is able to pay a living wage, which is rare in the childcare industry. Our childcare bills alone, which are mostly paid after taxes, eat up half to three quarters of my (reduced) income. We are lucky to be able to spend at a small deficit for the few years before preschool and public schools significantly reduce our childcare needs.
I remember thinking as an undergraduate that a faculty position is the perfect job for a mother because the hours are flexible and it is easy to reduce the workload without changing the job description – one just teaches fewer classes. In some ways it has been easier, because the university really can lower the work load by reducing the number of classes I teach.
The part that does not work is the same part that did not work at the national lab – the perception of my supervisor and my colleagues is that I am not working as hard as everyone else. I have tried to educate people that I am paid less to do less work. I have tried to educate my peers that I am not on sabbatical – I am still on campus doing everything I would normally do except teach. And when I am on half pay, I work much more than half of the time I would normally work. I am currently half time and pay a 40 hour per week nanny to take care of my children. Part of what fuels the resentment is that other faculty members are asked to teach the classes I normally would teach instead of or in addition to their normal class loads. Although it states in the handbook that funds will be provided to cover a replacement instructor during my family leave, there is no money actually set aside anywhere in the university to cover these costs – the money must be squeezed out of the budgets that are already in place.
My children are now aged 11, 9, 2, and infant – two sets of two. And I am again feeling the strain in my relationship with my employer. Despite recently surviving the tenure process and international attention to my research, administrators at the university have told me I am underproductive. This is not unlike the discussions I had with administrators at the national laboratory when my older two children were toddlers. Though there are many stressful things happening at my university that have nothing to do with my motherhood, the similarity in timing – coinciding with the birth of young children – makes me wonder if the real problem is my decision to take time off to have children.
Years ago, a 40-year-old friend of mine who had resigned her position in the management of a bank after adopting two children told me that they look at you differently when you work part time. The kinds of assignments and the available options shrink. “You’ll see,” she told me. Now I am 40, and I think I see. I am no less able, no less ambitious, no drag on the organization who pays my salary. When I did less work, I took less salary in accordance with the written and agreed employment policies. I do not expect to be “mommy-tracked” now.
As I do often in my career, I am again asking myself if I am doing what I really want to do. A few months ago, I asked my nine-year-old daughter if she cared if her mother stayed an astronomer. She got a long look on her face, and told me she liked my being an astronomer because I could help her with things that other mothers couldn’t. She smiled when I assured her that even if I weren’t working, I would still know everything I know now. A mother told me once when I was a young girl that education is never wasted on women; I guess she was right. And boy, do I have a lot of education!
Last month, I was awarded two NSF
grants back-to-back. I gave an invited
talk at an international conference. I
was invited to visit
Heidi Newberg is a tenured professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the mother of four adorable children. Her husband, who has switched careers several times to follow her through her career, currently has a re-entry position in bioinformatics research. At UC Berkeley, she was the first graduate student in the Supernova Cosmology Project, which eventually discovered that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. She then helped to build the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has become one of the most successful ground-based surveys in astronomy, influencing our knowledge of everything from asteroids in the solar system to the largest structures of galaxies in the Universe. She is particularly known for pioneering work in discovering tidal streams of stars in the outer parts of our own Milky Way galaxy. She has co-authored more than 60 refereed journal articles with a total of 9000 citations. She has written several previous essays intended to help women succeed in physics careers, including “The Woman Physicist’s Guide to Speaking,” which was published in Physics Today.