I think that most of the women in this room were raised to believe that girls could do anything that boys could do. When I was in college, the Woman in Science groups seemed unnecessary — I didn't need an extra hand to get to where I was going. Even as I moved to Boston to begin PhD studies, it never occurred to me that my gender would have any impact on my career. For some of the younger women in the audience, you may yet believe the same.
It wasn't until a few years later that I began to see how naïve I had been. Being a woman has been there, in the background, impacting every major decision that I made.
For example, and although things are much better now, when I started, my department in graduate school had just three women faculty, and to my knowledge, all three were childless. It was the male faculty who role-modeled the work-life balance that I dreamed of. Although unspoken, the implication was obvious. You could be a great female scientist, or, you could have a family. But not both.
In hindsight, my male peers spent their 20s making "and" decisions — it was a given that they wanted BOTH a career AND a family. They were just looking for the right partner, and invariably weighing in that search was whether she would support his career. Meanwhile, my female colleagues and I were making "or" decisions. Do I want an academic career? Or, a family? And in that lies the crux of the issue. The men never had to choose — why did we?
I was fortunate enough to have an incredible post-doc advisor. And after I committed to an Assistant Professor position here at Sinai, our relationship changed enough that I began posing him questions that I hadn't been bold enough to ask before. Chatting with him in his office one Saturday afternoon, I asked if there had ever been a time, when his children were young, that he hadn't come into lab on the weekends. His response was matter-of-fact: "no, but it was different for me, Kristen, I had a wife."
We're lucky, here at Sinai. There are lots of role models, both men and women, who demonstrate that it's possible to have both a family and a career. In fact, I don't think any of the senior faculty see this as an "or" decision at all. The question that I'd like to pose for the junior female scientists in the room, is why do we? What would need to change here at Sinai, or in the institution of academic research as a whole, in order to alter our perceptions? The best male post-docs don't opt out of research just because they want a family. It's time to give the women that same opportunity.