I have three children aged 10–15 years, the middle of whom has a disability. I am also a marine ecologist and conservationist at the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St Andrews, UK. To balance these work–life demands, I work part-time. All of these facts are important for anyone assessing my career trajectory, and many organizations now take personal circumstances into account when considering promotions. Nevertheless, I struggle with whether to mention aspects of my family life in many work situations.
Since 2016, I have chaired my department’s equality and diversity committee, and so am all too familiar with the lack of senior women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and the initiatives needed to help rectify this. Indeed, I have benefited greatly from my institution’s support in terms of allowing part-time working and annualized and flexible hours. I am also aware that science needs role models, and feel that perhaps I should make my case known, and put my story forward to act as a role model for others facing similar situations. I’d hope, also, that people sharing their experiences might encourage other universities and institutes to be as supportive as my department has been.
But although I wear my heart on my sleeve with colleagues, I have felt uncomfortable disclosing personal details to unfamiliar audiences. When asked to talk about my career, should I simply mention that I work part-time? Or should I justify my hours? Should I stick to the professional in terms of my career path and timeline, or should I be more open about the cards life has dealt me that have made this all a little more challenging?
There are many reasons I wrestle with this. This information is private and I worry about disclosing my daughter’s personal information. Furthermore, talking about my part-time status and caring commitments opens the door to discrimination — some people might see me as lacking commitment to my work. My own imposter syndrome can raise concerns about the reverse: that if I talk about this, I could be accused of having benefited from sympathy or from extra support on the basis of a minority status. More generally, the separation of work and life, ‘professional’ and ‘personal’, is ingrained, particularly for those of us with a reserved disposition.
Yet, if I think back to the concerns I faced when my daughter’s disability was diagnosed — particularly the prospect of coping with extra caring needs as well as my then two small children — I benefited hugely from learning about others in the same situation. Two Royal Society publications, for instance, have been a great help: the 2016 booklet ‘Parent Carer Scientist’, which showcased scientists struggling with balancing work and caring commitments, and its precursor, ‘Mothers in Science’ (2008). I very much admire the adept way in which some of my colleagues seamlessly weave personal narratives such as experiences of medical issues or caring commitments into public scientific presentations. For example, in a high-profile talk here at the University of St Andrews last year, ecophysiologist Terrie Williams from the University of California, Santa Cruz, described her work but also included detail about her husband’s stroke. I find it enormously refreshing when I see others point out some of the competing demands on their time and energy, and yet still present a view into their life in science.
So, these days, I do put my story forward. At St Andrews, we have published a compilation of stories called ‘Academic Women Here’ (2017), which showcases the multitude of pathways that some of our female academics have taken to a successful career. For my part, I have tried to be honest about the shift in priorities that comes with children with extra needs, the benefits of a supportive department and the challenge of finding balance with reduced hours. I have received appreciative feedback, particularly from younger female academics.
I would encourage others to tell their stories whenever possible. Yet I have been disconcerted by what seems to be a growing tendency towards redaction rather than sharing. Through my position on the equality and diversity committee, I have been involved with the Athena SWAN award process, a UK initiative that looks at representation, working environments and progression into and through academia. The awards recognize and celebrate good practice, and award holders are encouraged to make their submissions publicly available to increase transparency and share best practice. However, it is becoming harder to find submissions online than it was just five years ago, and those that are available are often filled with blacked-out information to deal with privacy concerns. This approach is indeed effective — but the alternative, obtaining consent from individuals to share their case studies and make their information available, is surely a better solution, and one that highlights the diversity of role models.
In a competitive scientific world, we increasingly struggle to present an ‘ideal’ image of ourselves. I suspect I am not alone in questioning whether to disclose some aspects of my personal life. But if we ‘black out’ or omit our personal difficulties, and showcase only the positive, we present a skewed and unrealistic view of life in science. We should try to declare more, and be more honest with each other, to provide the role models that new researchers need. Few scientists will have a totally smooth ride in life — and honesty about our challenges can only help those who follow in our footsteps.