Motherhood & Career from a College Kid’s Perspective

Blog post written by The Wisest Women Content Creator Intern, Liliana Hildebrand

  According to Cech and Loy, 43% of women in STEM go part time after having kids versus the 23% of men who do the same. The causes of this trend start in key developing years, such as college. As a college student myself, I know that I fear losing my identity to parenthood after working so hard for a career and recognize that, if kids are in my future, I will need to prepare and talk things through with my future spouse to make neither of us a married, single parent. I also  know that my opinions are just one perspective of my generation, so I enlisted the help of some friends to show routes that parents in STEM can take and the fears college women and men have when they think about parenthood. As long as a person feels that they are making their choices based on their own priorities, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the choice of whether or not to have kids.

One of the flaws of steminism ideology is that it can look down upon people who choose to stop their careers for parenthood because steminism fears that, if women aspire to be stay-at-home-moms, they will lack motivation to go after STEM careers. However, Lindsey Harrington and Daniel Morrison show that college kids view this as a valid path. Lindsey’s goal is to work in the STEM field for a few years, then be a stay at home mom when she has kids and ultimately return to the STEM field as a teacher when her kids become a certain age.   Daniel reported a willingness to set aside his career to spend more time with his kids, if his spouse was willing to be the breadwinner. These are valid life plans for parents in STEM because parenthood is more than a career, and remember, one of the roots of steminism is encouraging a woman’s right to choose their path in life. In her testimonial, Lindsey did not imply that her future in motherhood was dictated by societal roles or the possible career choices of her future spouse, and Daniel’s testimony shows that college men are comfortable with setting aside their careers for family, as well.  They are confident enough in their own abilities and goals to go with a career and family path that is controversial to what the stereotypical feminist promotes. If steminism is about empowering women to choose STEM, then it should also empower men and women that decide they do not want to have an ambitious career.

Despite the confidence women in STEM have gained in their own abilities, the fear of a world not ready for STEM mothers still exists in college students. When asked about her perspective on parenthood Jade Blanco, a chemical engineering student, discussed how motherhood in STEM  is often viewed as a “liability because now the woman has less time to devote to her studies.” While having kids does make work less of a priority for people, it should not be viewed as a liability, but, if it is, any potential parent is liability, not just women. Reading about this reminds me of “mom guilt”, where a woman feels guilty for spending time at work and not with her kids. Our jobs tell us having kids make us unloyal employees and our culture has told us that having an ambitious career outside of kids makes us selfish. This makes the decision to have kids all the more confusing if women are met with contradictory opinions on working in motherhood. Luckily two women in STEM have inspired me and my friend on how to make motherhood in STEM work.

Dr. Eva Lantsoght, a civil engineer featured in Wisecast’s “The Concrete Details of Ph.D. Stress,” was able to get pumping rooms added to her university when she was nursing by simply asking her supervisor about where she could pump milk for her kid. Another example is Dr. Jessica Ruyle, who is in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Oklahoma. She was the first professor in her department to ever go on maternity leave. They rewrote their entire policy because what they had in place was impossible for her to work motherhood around. However, Dr. Ruyle’s case did not go unchallenged.  In a department with a striking small amount of women a common mindset, and one Dr. Ruyle faced, was, “why would a department that is 97% male need a well-written and forgiving maternity leave?” Julia Felder, a chemical engineering major, Dr. Ruyle’s cousin, and the person who relayed this information to me, believes the problem can be rephrased: “do you think a poor maternity leave policy might be contributing to the fact that the department is only 3% female?” Simply by asking and making the issue known, Dr. Lantsoght and Dr. Ruyle were able to pave a better life for future mothers in their departments and to make the concept of motherhood in STEM seem less intimidating for college women.

College males view the potential of parenthood and a STEM career as one that will cause time issues. Rahul Gopalan describes how “it is important as a parent to be clear with one’s children, and let them know that you might not be there at all times.” There is importance  in setting boundaries and talking to your children about those boundaries. This can help them understand that parenthood does not have to consume a person, a fear about parenthood that I had growing up. By having this mindset, future generations can see how STEM and parenthood can function. However, the prospect of time commitment can still be daunting; a concept that Spencer Ellis believes the salary for STEM professionals can combat. One of his most significant takeaways from the pandemic is that some STEM jobs can be done from home, which means that parents can do their 10am meeting and still make it on time to their child’s talent show at 11:30am. He also notes the amount of money that comes with being part of the STEM field might include paid “maternity/paternity leave”, which is certainly part of why many people go into STEM. Rahul and Spencer show how, while it can be time stressful, being a father in STEM is something worth doing.

Both  male and female college students recognize that time is the main issue when it comes to parenthood in STEM, but for different reasons. Women’s primary fear focuses on the stigma surrounding STEM parenthood because they are already at a disadvantage in the workplace and anything that prevents them from “working twice as hard to receive the same payment” can have harsh consequences such as earning less, not getting promotions, and harassment. In comparison, men’s fear focused on only not having time for their kids. From being exposed to American culture, society favors women as parents and men as professionals which can put their perspective on time and the solutions contradictory. Women’s solutions to the time issue involves promoting awareness of the issue and changing policy on a large scale while men’s solutions tend to be more “it is what it is.”

From Lindsey’s aspirations to be a stay at home mom to my near fear of parenthood, as long as your choices align with your values, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing to be a parent in STEM. However, the differences between women and men’s fears indicate that change is going in the right direction and still necessary. What’s next is up to you, dear steminism tribe member. An easy way to help with change is to share this blog post and subscribe for more wise content for you only know as much as you try to learn.  Another way is to talk to the youth you know about this topic and blog post because, as I stated before, mine is only one perspective. My last recommendation, if you are ready for this leap, is to look into your job’s paternity policies and actively right the wrongs in them as change does not happen without a little crazy boldness. 

Special Thanks to Jade Blanco (Chemical Engineering; University of Texas), Spencer Ellis (Physics; Texas A&M University), Julia Felder (Chemical Engineering; Texas A&M University), Rahul Gopalan (Biomedical Engineering; Texas A&M University), Lindsey Harrington (Multidisciplinary Engineering; Texas A&M University), Daniel Morrison (Applied Math; Texas A&M University), Jillian Poteet (Biomedical Engineering; Texas A&M University), and Aaron Vera (Electrical Engineering; Texas A&M University) for their insights on this topic.

Resources:
WISEcast Episode 5: Knocked Up or Knocked Out
WISEcast Episode 6: Knocked Up or Knocked Out Part 2

Sources:
https://www.pnas.org/content/116/10/4182

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