We have gone a long way, historically, from not even having the right to attend higher education institutes to being able to study and train in these fields, but are still far from where we would like to be. A piece in the NYTimes last year by Eileen Pollack centered mostly on this subject within the physics and math disciplines is available here:
I could add to the numerous cases and studies mentioned in the above article, based on my personal experience in molecular biology over almost 20 years in different laboratories and several US research institutions, examples from my research field. It is very uncommon to find males, for example, working in laboratories led by female PIs (Principal Investigators = heads of laboratories) unless these are well established and funded researchers. In contrast, male PIs attract both genders.
For women who become mothers during their PhDs or postdoctoral jobs, professional survival depends a great deal on whether the PI has a family and is a caregiver for his/her kids or not (or has an understanding of what this means). Many of us opt to dedicate some time to family not just because we feel this the right thing to do, but because in some environments the work hours required are incompatible with being home when we need (and want) to be. If our spouses have jobs which bring a higher income and demand longer hours (including traveling), this decision becomes a no-brainer, especially with the current economy, as staying home will be cheaper than working and hiring a full time nanny or paying for daycare. Other women, after spending ≥ 5 years of full time laboratory research work, quit this type of research after obtaining their PhDs to take alternative jobs (still science-related) which pay better and/or offer more family-friendly hours.
To focus on a more positive note but also to remark on how much more effort women sometimes have to make to “make it” as scientists, let's briefly look at amazing discoveries by a few women in science in this post dedicated to them. Those working about a century ago often had to teach and train themselves, including even setting up laboratories at home. Another common circumstance was often not having children. I am not going to address the ongoing discussion in modern times centered on whether women can or can not make it professionally and be successful while having a family that includes children. I think it should be obvious to many that when possible, this requires a lot of sacrifice from family members and extra hard work compared to the equivalent situation for a man- of course, as always, generalizations come with exceptions and there are examples of great men who have supported women scientists (and non scientists!) and who are also great care givers at home.
Had children? No
Discoveries: NGF (Nerve Growth Factor)
She asked her father “permission to engage in a professional career” when she was 20 years old. In 1936 she graduated from medical school summa cum laude in Medicine and Surgery.
In 1940 in Turin, she decided to build a small research setup in her bedroom, which she moved to a country cottage where the family moved after Turin was bombed in 1941. In the Fall of 1943, when Italy was invaded by the Germans the family fled to Florence to live underground. In August of 1944, when the Germans were forced to leave Florence she was hired as a medical doctor to treat war refugees. After the war ended in 1945 she returned with her family to Turin to resume academic positions at the University. In the Fall of 1947, she was invited by Professor Viktor Hamburger in St. Louis to do research, and she stayed until retirement in 1977 dividing her time between Italy and the US.
In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and collaborator Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Background: Italian, neuroscientist
Research conducted in: Italy, USA
Had children? Two daughters- one of them, Irene Joliot-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity shared with her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie.
Discoveries: Pioneering research on radioactivity: a theory and techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, discovery of polonium (named after her native country Poland) and radium.
She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (she won two: 1903 in Physics, shared with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, and 1911 in Chemistry). First female professor at the University of Paris. She died in 1934 in France from aplastic anemia developed by her work exposure to radiation; during her working years there was no awareness that exposure to radiation could be extremely harmful so she did not use any protection. Her papers are still radioactive so people who want to take a look have to use protection.
Background: Polish, physicist and chemist
Research conducted in: France
Had children? No, died at 38 from ovarian cancer
Discoveries: Watson and Crick’s “discovery” and model of the double helical structure of DNA reported in 1953 (and for which they shared the they shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Wilkins in 1962, after her death) was based in part on her X-ray diffraction images and accompanying interpretation
Background: British (UK), X-ray crystallographer, physical chemist
Research conducted in: UK
Had children? No, never married either
Discoveries: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for mobile genetic elements (transposons) which she discovered in maize and reported in the early 1950s but the relevance of which in other organisms was not recognized until molecular biology unveiled their existence in the 1070s. Her original observations, based on experiments she carried out on her own, demonstrated that hereditary information was not as stable as previously thought, and her pointing to “jumping genes” was not received with the attention they deserved. If you want a more detailed explanation of her discoveries, you can check out her own at a Cold Spring Harbor site, the institute where she conducted most of her research:
Background: USA, geneticist
Research conducted in: USA
Discoveries: Telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres (see my blog post on telomeres for more info) for which she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009, shared with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak.
Background: Australian-USA, molecular biologist
Research conducted in: USA