The biology of motherhood

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When Britt Glaunsinger isn’t receiving prestigious awards or working as a tenured professor for both the plant and microbial biology and molecular cell biology departments, she has another full-time job.

Glaunsinger is one of many female professors at UC Berkeley who is also a mother. These women navigate everyday responsibilities such as breast-feeding, pregnancy and child-rearing — responsibilities that academia does not easily accommodate.

“Because I have children and because I am also in science and have done fine, a lot of people ask me, ‘There must’ve been some miracle there, how did you do it?’” Glaunsinger said, adding that miracle or not, a compromise between science and her children was never an option.

UC Berkeley has recently made efforts to address the challenges facing female professors. On-campus daycare, reformed tenure policies and a marked increase in overall women faculty are noticeable improvements, Glaunsinger said.

And yet, UC Berkeley has been the focus of national scorn with 19 campus employees having violated sexual harassment policies over the last seven years. This stark discrepancy raises the question: What is it like to be a woman in academia?

For Meg Bond, the director of the Center for Women and Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the experience of female academics depends heavily on their area of expertise.

“Female-dominated departments (are) completely different from those that are male-dominated,” Bond said, citing as an example that in STEM fields “it tends to be much less acceptable to say I can’t come at seven because I have to drop my kids off at school.”

While UC Berkeley’s overall faculty is 31 percent women, they make up less than 15 percent of the faculty in departments such as computer science, mathematics and physics.

Ellen Simms, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, said she believes that departments with a lower female presence run the risk of inappropriate behaviors toward women faculty.

In just the last few years, the female academic community has experienced former campus astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy allegedly groping, kissing and touching his students, as well as former campus statistics professor Howard D’abrera allegedly sending his students inappropriate sexual emails. Yet incidents like these are nothing new, and according to Simms, the mere fact that such behaviors are considered inappropriate today constitutes a substantial improvement from conditions for women in the past.

Implicit bias and imposter syndrome

As a member of the campus plant and microbial biology department, which has a faculty of about 40 percent women, Glaunsinger has not been greatly affected by the consequences of working in a male-dominated field. But looking back, she began to notice other disadvantages women faced that were lying under the surface.

According to Bond, one of these disadvantages is implicit bias — the idea that there are preconceptions ingrained in our society that perpetuate stereotypical roles for men and women. Glaunsinger herself became aware of this implicit bias against women when she became involved in the faculty hiring process, and as a scientist, she made sense of the bias through the basic biological principle of self-selection.

“If you have a field that is populated by white men … they think ‘I’m going to hire someone I feel most comfortable with,’” Glaunsinger said. “So because of that, you tend to start to exclude women.”

Because of implicit bias, women are often expected to put their work aside to take care of their children, Glaunsinger said, adding that if someone is a mother, the perception is that they can be less dedicated to their job.

Often departments with few women or few people of color can feel isolating, according to Ula Taylor, campus professor of African American studies. After earning her doctorate in American history from UC Santa Barbara, Taylor purposefully sought out a small, interdisciplinary department such as African American studies.

“I didn’t want to be in a space where when you talk, people think you’re talking for all Black people when you’re really just talking for you,” Taylor said, adding that this misjudgment is often found in departments that lack diversity along both racial and gender lines.

Bond noted that implicit bias tends to exacerbate the phenomenon of imposter syndrome — an internal state of perpetual insecurity felt about one’s skillset — that greatly affects blooming female academics.

The 2015 campus equity report conducted by the Office of the Vice Provost of Faculty concluded that while imposter syndrome potentially affects both men and women, women are more likely to be “limited in their success” because of it.

Bond attributed the disproportionate effect of imposter syndrome on women to the lack of support and validations provided to them. Such lack of validation, often a product of implicit bias, can “absolutely eat away at a woman’s confidence,” Bond said.

At each step in her career, Glaunsinger thought she wouldn’t get the job she wanted, the grant she applied for or the funding she needed. But she tried anyway and was surprised at the number of times she did get the job, the grant or the funding.

“Let somebody else say ‘no’ if they are going to say ‘no,’ (but) you should go for it.” Glaunsinger advised. “That has been my mantra.”


For years, childcare has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women; therefore, in order for women to be successful in both their career and as mothers, they need supportive partners.

“The perception is that (women) feel this burden much more than almost any males I’ve interacted with,” Glaunsinger said. “Even though in this day in age, with most couples I know, there is a real sharing of responsibility.”

This shared responsibility, according to Bond, is encouraged through policies such as “stopping the clock” — a form of leave that enables both male and female professors to take off work to care for a child without repercussions for the tenure process. Bond explained that these policies are extremely valuable but that they “can’t stand alone and have to be paired with educating the rest of the faculty.”

Mary Ann Smart, a professor of music at UC Berkeley, said she was grateful that she had her daughter after she received tenure and had a consistent job. What Smart did not anticipate, however, was the difficulty of finding affordable daycare for her daughter.

Professors, students or staff members who enroll infants in the Early Childhood Education Program, UC Berkeley’s on-campus daycare center, pay $2,125 a month — a total of $25,500 per year.

“It never occurred to me to worry about giving a child to other people, but it turned out to be pretty impossible to do that here,” Smart said. “The set-up just isn’t there to continue doing your job full time and have affordable care for (your) kid.”

Campus associate psychology professor Tania Lombrozo emphasized how difficult, both financially and logistically, it is to care for a small child and travel to present research. In order to address this problem, Lombrozo and June Gruber hosted Misconceptions of the Mind Conference, or MoMiCon, at UC Berkeley.

MoMiCon aimed to model a research setting that accommodates academics with young children, while also drawing attention to “how academic norms and institutions can change to accommodate scholars with different needs throughout their academic careers,” according to the conference’s mission statement.

“We wanted to have real academic content, but we also wanted to model what (a conference) could do to make it more accommodating to women who have kids,” Lombrozo said.

The conference offered lactation spaces, breaks between presentations to nurse or pump milk and a designated play area for children.

“(The conference aimed) to model the things that are relatively easy to fix,” Lombrozo said. “And of course they don’t address a lot of the larger questions about parenthood and academia, but it seemed to us that it was one domain where you could make a big impact with some pretty small changes.”

MoMiCon offered female academics the rare opportunity to be surrounded by other mothers who understood both their personal and professional challenges, women who shared common experiences.

Such opportunities are crucial, Glaunsinger said, because women and people of color often feel limited in their career options when they don’t see people like themselves holding positions of power.

“Common experiences foster an environment for success and make you feel like you can succeed,” Glaunsinger said.

A ‘miraculous’ balance

Pinned in Glaunsinger’s office, on what she has dubbed her “happiness corner,” are two letters.

One of the letters is from a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who attended a speech that Glaunsinger gave. “It’s always inspiring to hear successful women scientists give such great talks,” the letter said.

Right beside it, Glaunsinger hung a letter from her daughter, who enthusiastically wishes her mother the best of luck at her next research conference. “You are the best mom ever and I love you so much,” that letter reads.

In those two letters, Glaunsinger shows what thousands of other women have achieved and what many have called a miracle. For Glaunsinger, though, striking that “miraculous” balance has always seemed within her grasp.

“Why shouldn’t I be able to do it?” she said.

Contact Brenna Smith at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @bsmitty1853.