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CWIS: Christian Women in Science
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Balancing Career and Family: How Can CWIS Help?

Posted By Alice C. Linsley, Saturday, March 08, 2014

The CWIS Board has been discussing this recently. What follows is part of that conversation, initiated by CWIS President Lynn Billman. The Board would like to hear from CWIS members on this topic and soon will open a Q&A Forum at the CWIS website for members to respond and make suggestions. 

 

Lynn Billman

Ever feel like God is trying to tell you something?  I’ve had two entirely separate instances come to my attention this week (actually in the same evening!) that are making me review our CWIS mission.  I don’t want to knee-jerk a change, but I need some Christian counsel.  And for this, you are it!

The part of our mission that I’m stumbling over is:  “To encourage Christian women of all ages to pursue, sustain, and grow in a career in science, technology, engineering or math…” As I’ve looked at statistics of men vs. women in STEM careers and leadership positions, my passion has been to “right a wrong.”  I still have this passion.

But, what if the “wrong” is not a wrong, but a sincere desire to put passion for family before passion for science/STEM?   What is CWIS to Christian women who thoughtfully choose NOT to pursue such a career (or abort or time-out) after their education?  This is coming up now as I talk to more women about CWIS, within and outside of ASA.  I tell them the CWIS mission, and they look blankly at me, like, “yes, I got a PhD in electrical engineering or a BS in psychology but I’m not interested in a career like that, because it takes me away from my husband and family.”  Is it our place to try to talk them out of that?  What is our response?  Two options that come to my mind:

1.       Is CWIS simply not for them? – i.e., the response is, go forth and have your family, and come back to CWIS if you decide you want to start/restart your STEM career and then we’ll try to help and inspire you.

2.       Or, should CWIS have a broader mission? – i.e., to provide encouragement to pursue their interest in science/STEM in non-career ways – ways to inspire their own children, ways to help out at their children’s schools or camps with science, ways to educate their congregations about science/STEM issues and topics, ways to be involved in science-related policies in their area or nationally, ways to otherwise stay involved with science, etc.

We can certainly open this up as a blog or forum (Q&A) item, but as the CWIS Board, I’d appreciate your reactions first and foremost.  Thanks!

 

Cheryl Touryan

My first reaction is to say "Amen" to your point #2, Lynn.

As per our discussion, the experience in our family is probably typical regarding women, STEM, and the Christian faith. Of my 6 'children' (includes spouses), 3 have PhD's in science (neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and bio-engineering). One son-in-law has several Masters in Environmental Engineering and Geotech, etc. So we are pretty well embedded in the hard sciences.

The women (I'm including my niece also, a medical doctor), are all married to very capable, high-level professional men, Christians, very supportive of their wives whatever they choose. But when a decision is made to have children in a marriage, it calls for a serious decision regarding career, marriage and one's faith. In our case, the three women decided to be the one to forego a fast-track career and stay home with children, at least for a while. If there are circumstances that can make the decision easier (like nearby grandparents willing to watch kids, being able to afford an nanny, husband wanting to stay home, etc) that would help, but apart from these, my experience shows that it will be extremely hard for a woman to pursue a demanding career in the sciences, while also maintaining a healthy marriage and serving as a mother to her children. It would be good to talk to someone who has done this successfully.

So if a Christian woman in science decides to step off the career track, she feels like a 'failure' because it seems she has wasted her education. On top of that, if she is involved in the average American evangelical church, she has a part of her that she cannot share with her friends or fellow believers. In many churches there is either a fear of science, or even worse, a denigration of the work of scientists. This results in tremendous ignorance, prejudice and closed-mindedness.

So this Christian woman trained in science is 'lost' in the chasm between the church and the scientific world. It is a lonely place to be.

Finally, given all the hype about the need for people in STEM, I have yet to see where there are many 'real' jobs, jobs that pay a decent wage, that don't consume 60 hours per week, etc. Maybe at a lower level, like a technician, or basic IT engineering, there are plenty, but where are they at the higher levels, with cutbacks of government funding, university education being in a transition mode, etc. Finally, there is the challenge of competing with job applicants who are willing to work 60-70 hour weeks, because career is first and foremost in their list of priorities.

There is a lot CWIS could offer - first of all, acceptance of the situation and of the women who choose other priorities. They could be encouraged to use their scientific knowledge to impact the church, the next generation, their communities, as policy makers, and many other ways. They could also be given a realistic view of careers in science and the options of getting back into science once the 'kids are raised.'

I do think this would be a good subject for discussion.

Thanks for bringing it up.  BTW, I love the mission statement - "A Place to Connect!"  That says it all.

 

Kristen Tolson

Excellent points, and I know in my own life my husband and I have had to make choices that weren't always the best for our careers because that's what worked for us as a couple (we try to take turns).

At least for me personally, I would love it if CWIS were involved in advocating for more family-friendly science practices. While there are certainly times that long hours in the lab etc. are unavoidable, I think a lot of it is a culture thing, which can be changed. Certainly we should be supportive of women who have felt they had to leave science careers for their families, but I also feel like we shouldn't have to choose. Especially considering that most men do not have the same pressure to choose between science careers and family, it should be possible to make it that way for women too.

 

Gayle Ermer

I would second Kristen’s points. I think there are many ways to pursue a STEM career without committing to 60+ hours a week. For example, my appointment at Calvin is reduced load (~70% of a “normal” faculty workload) which has made it possible for me to balance work and family. I also have married colleagues who share a full-time position (so both mom and dad get to work and spend time with the kids in equal measure). But, the availability of more family-friendly STEM jobs depends on more employers being willing to offer them. I see the perception that women have to choose between a STEM career and a family as one of the main barriers for young women in choosing technical studies.

I interpret STEM careers as much broader than just full time PhD research or academic work. In my mind, nurses, elementary school science teachers, and chem lab technicians also count as STEM careers. And for most women, the early-childhood years are only a fraction of their working lives. So, maybe our organization doesn’t have much to offer in support of the STEM graduate who is currently at home with the kids, but those same moms may eventually be back in professional STEM work (whether they want to connect with a group like CWIS in the meantime would be a personal choice, depending on how they identify themselves in relation to STEM and professional work). In terms of righting wrongs, I see it as a very important justice issue that women have access to well-paying careers in fields like engineering, especially in a society where many women are not in a position to rely on a spouse with a well-paying career to financially support them or their family.

END

Tags:  CWIS Board  STEM 

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