Archive for the 'women in science' category

Women: when there's a lot of them they are just like people.

When I went to college the majority of professors were male. I remember that the few times we had a female professor, classmates were quick to categorize them as "bitchy", "motherly", or "good-looking". This is not unlike what happens in many movies, when the female characters often remain uni-dimensional.

Now, I work in a company with a much better gender ratio. The other day I found myself in a big meeting with 3 of the bosses and all three of them were women, as well as many of the team leaders and scientists*. And I realized while I was listening to the meeting that we were all there to contribute with our own expertise and knowledge and personality. And I realized how great it is to be in the presence of so many women as role models. There were just too many women to fit them in the one-dimensional categories. When there are many women, they are just like people, I thought to myself.

 

* Before you think that this is a complete utopia: when you're asked to present something in front of the board, you will still look at >85% men.

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Baby vs. work: sometimes you have to choose.

Yesterday, my anonymous friend wrote a guest post about bringing her baby to work and how - for now - this works very well for both of them. On twitter, @crazygradmama said the following:

which I wholeheartedly agreed with. Obviously, not every baby is the same and then we're not even talking about babies with disabilities or illnesses that make it much harder and more intense to care for them. I'm not sure BlueEyes was officially colicky, but he pretty early on was able to make known what his preferences were. He liked to be worn, but only if the person wearing him kept moving when he was awake. Only if he slept, that person could sit down, and he usually only napped for 30-40 minutes at a time, in a pretty unpredictable manner. He did not like to spend much time by himself in a playpen or something like that. He did not like to sit in his carseat and he did not like to be held by unfamiliar people.

In addition, it took quite some time for me to get used to my role as a mother and merge my scientist/professional-me with my mother-me (there's a post brewing about this, but it's not quite done yet). Especially in the beginning this made it kind of uncomfortable to bring my baby to work or to a conference because it felt really weird to be those two roles at the same time. Also, being able to focus on work and a baby on the crappy amount of sleep I was getting seemed a bit much for my already foggy postpartum brain.

With Little Brother, working during my maternity leave was easier. He was a bit less intense than BlueEyes in making known what he wanted and I was a bit better at going with the flow. At home, I put my laptop high enough that I could stand and work, so I could bounce him while wearing him and type at the same time. I took him to work every now and then just to check in at the lab, but we were also moving when he was four months old, so it wasn't that crucial to find a long-term solution of bringing him to work.

With BlueEyes, we were incredibly fortunate that when I had to go back to work three months after he was born, he went to the daycare at our university, where the teacher:baby ratio was 1:2.5. They assigned a particular teacher for each baby, so the babies were mostly cared for by one familiar person. We were fortunate to get a scholarship, because otherwise it would have been difficult to pay for this daycare on two post-doc salaries (and impossible on just one).

Little Brother went to daycare after we moved back to the homecountry, where the teacher:baby ratio was higher, and the amount of different teachers during the week was larger. He really only started to get comfortable there after he was a year old and could walk and start to talk. Before that, on some days he would sleep for 6 hours and barely drink anything (which he caught up on at night). When I was a post-doc, I felt that I should keep working to keep up, and that is also what the amount of maternity leave in most countries suggests. I'm also not sure if I would even want to be home full-time (and I realize that for many, this is financially not an option to even consider). For me, the ideal situation would be somewhere in between: work a couple hours a day, but also be able to be with your baby during the first year.

In the end, I think it is very valuable to share these stories, so that we can learn from each other. I'd like to hear how academics from countries with much longer parental leave have experienced their first year with a baby. Do you actually stop working, and do you think it is harder to get back? Share your experience in the comments or email me if you want to guest post!

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Guest post: Baby vs. work - why choose?

This is a guest post from a friend who would like to remain anonymous. She is a bioinformatics post-doc and a single mom by choice, and this is her story about combining work as a post-doc with being a parent.

 

I am incredibly lucky.

Let’s put that first, because I’m very aware that this is the case: not only do I get paid for doing what I love, but every day I get to bring my infant son with me, too. My boss is OK with it, the department is happy to tolerate my son’s occasional shrieks echoing through the hallway, and my office mate is completely in love with him. (I totally understand that last one, by the way.) Also, I’m not working in the lab at the moment, so there is no risk of spilling acid on my brand new baby. All of this means that I don’t have to choose between work and family: I get to do both, and whichever part insists the loudest gets most of the attention at any given time. I know that not everyone has this option; I am thankful that I do.

Here’s how the logistics work out: I have a playpen in my office, where he spends most of the time gurgling and attacking his mobile while I do low-level work; assembling figures, processing images. When he nurses, I read. In fact, I feel I get a lot more mileage out of my reading time now, as there is very little incentive to multi-task. And when he naps, I get to focus properly, and code or write. (He won’t nap in the playpen, only on me — but it turns out I am perfectly able to code with a three-month-old on my chest, drooling on my shoulder and snoring in my ear.)

That’s not to say that our arrangement does not lead to the occasional conflict. When I am trying to figure out something difficult, and he’s fussy or crying — or simply wanting my attention. Fortunately there is almost always a colleague who doesn’t mind taking a baby for 10 minutes (I never realized how much work could be accomplished in 10 minutes of baby-free time! Take note, ye childless!) while I finish whatever needs doing, so I can then focus on my child.

Also surprisingly doable, I found, are meetings and seminars — provided people are aware that I am there with a baby, and OK with it (or at least not too vocal in their disapproval). Carrying him in a sling usually means he falls asleep, and if he gets fussy I can walk around a bit to calm him down. He’ll never be completely quiet, but really he’s no more disruptive than a random audience member with a cough.

In fact, the biggest barrier to success in that case is me: I once snuck in a seminar after it had already started, with my son sleeping in the sling. Sleeping babies, I found out at that moment, are actually quite noisy, and his occasional squeals made some people turn around to check the source of the sound. That — not the noise itself — made me so self-conscious I spent all my time worrying about being disruptive and trying to shush a sleeping baby.

(Yeah. That makes no sense to me, either.)

Then a few weeks later, I joined a seminar at a university I was briefly visiting. My host quickly pointed out to their colleagues that “we have a very young scientist in the audience!”, everyone smiled, and the speaker started. This time, no one was annoyed at the intermittent baby noises — they already knew he was there, and I knew they knew, so I could relax, too. My host had opened the door so I could walk in and out in case he started to cry. This worked well for me (I could actually focus on the talk!), and while I didn’t poll the audience afterwards, I would guess it worked for them, too.

No, I am not as productive as I used to be and as I would be without him. But low-level productivity is productivity still. For example, when he was 10 days old, I submitted a paper. It took me two days, assembling all the documents and filling out forms in between feeds, diaper changes, and many, many cuddles. I typed the cover letter with one hand (which was not that bad, as my brain was about as slow as my typing at that stage). Nevertheless, at the end of these two days I could tick it off my list. Point here: there is a lot of downtime in taking care of an infant, and you might as well use it. That is not to say you shouldn’t use it for Netflix or naps — I did a lot of that, too — but think of it as an IKEA workday: some assembly required.

I know his is not going to go on forever: in a few short months he’ll be mobile (I both dread and look forward to that time), which will most likely throw a wrench in the works. But I’ll worry about that later: this is precious time in a baby’s life, so every day I get to spend and bond with him is valuable. For now, this is what works for us. And I feel very lucky indeed that it does.

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On going to a conference alone

On twitter, @Dr24hours asked the following question:

When I think about going to a conference by myself, I think mostly about my fear not being able to find people to hang out with. I think about how a conference can feel a bit like starting in a new school or going to college first: I'm afraid of being the only person who has nobody to eat lunch with. It really depends on the conference you go to whether this becomes reality. And actually, most of the times other people are by themselves too and I end up meeting really nice and interesting people. However, it is much easier at conferences that are set up to stimulate interaction, for example by automatically sharing meals together. At other conferences it can be much more difficult, for example if all other people seem to already know each other and hang out in seemingly difficult to break into groups.

When going to a conference with your PI (but without other peers), it really depends how willing your PI is to introduce you to other people, either their peers or your peers. If you PI is doing that, it is really helpful to go with them, but if they run off to hang with their friends, it might be even more awkward than if you just go by yourself.

Even though I've become much more confident going to meetings by myself, now that I am in a new job going to different conferences than the ones where I started to know many other people, the feeling is still a bit the same. And actually, one of the conferences I went to last year, with many non-scientists attending, was almost worse in terms of not being able to find people to hang out with than when I was an undergrad. Other people attending this conference seemed to all come in groups that were seemingly not that interested in networking, so I ended up talking mostly to the other people from my company.

To come back to @Dr24hours' question: he also seemed concerned that his student would be more vulnerable going to a conference alone because she is a woman. I had not even considered this option, perhaps because I have been lucky enough not to experience harassment at a conference. Or should I say: not to experience harassment other than I experience in daily life? Which is why the same rules apply that my mom taught me, like: don't go somewhere if nobody knows where you are, don't hang out with people that don't feel right, don't make yourself extra vulnerable by drinking too much for example and leave when you feel uncomfortable.

What are your biggest concerns when going to a conference alone?

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Random bits of busy

I just noticed it's been a month since I last posted here, which is mostly because it's busy here. Like I wrote before, I have this whole list of things that need to be finished before the end of the year because those are my targets. And really they need to be finished now because higher-up people need to put those things on longer lists to show the even higher-up people what we have been doing all year.

In the meantime on the internet, IBM did a poor attempt at drawing girls/women (?) into science and technology with the #HackAHairDryer hashtag. I agree fully with what @wandsci said on twitter about this:

And this:

 

I do this. Every time BlueEyes says:"this is for boys and that is for girls" I correct him and tell him anyone can be this or that. So for now, I have this awesome NASA video that we watched ad nauseam when BlueEyes had a space shuttle period, that shows men and women astronauts in a space station.

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On #womeninscience and footwear

Oct 11 2015 Published by under Academia, role models, science, women in science

In a continent where 67% of Europeans don't believe that women possess the skills to be in high-level scientific positions, it is nice that the Dutch scientific organization (NWO) organizes a talent day for female scientists. What is sad about it, is that they call it "Pump your career"*. What is wrong with that, you might ask. Well, by focusing on uncomfortable footwear for women, it focuses on appearance. And by focusing on appearance, you essentially disempower women and take away the focus from their ability to do awesome science.

Interestingly, NWO isn't the only one in this country who thinks women are attracted to things if you show them pictures of shoes. In yesterday's newspaper I spotted this ad for a women-only fellowship at the technical university in Delft):

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* Ah, a kind of sexist play on words when talking to females with regards to science, where have we heard that before (hint: the UK's recent "Pretty curious" campaign to attract girls to STEM)

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#Quitlit link love

Coincidentally I came across two posts from people I follow who recently transitioned outside academia. I first read Zinemin's post who writes about working at a large financial corporation for the past 6 months:

I am not used to working in such an orderly and reasonable way. I feel like working like crazy on some days and not doing anything on others, like I am used to, but there is no reason to, I only rarely have deadlines and work is never exciting, there are no real breakthroughs, but also no disappointments, no rejected grant applications.

And then I read Doctor PMS' post about her transition from academia to a sales position:

I love to talk about science and now I spend most of my time in the phone with researchers, trying to understand their work and helping them to find the right equipment for them.

And Biochembelle has a whole series of posts describing how she decided to leave academia and what it took to find the job she has now.

 

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Repost: pumping milk at work - a technical report

This week is World Breastfeeding week and this year's theme is combining breastfeeding and work, so I decided to repost this post from May 2012. But before I do that, I want to draw your attention to this Kickstarter that has only 7 days left to raise money for a new type of breast pump that uses compression instead of suction, and can be used very discreetly, which might be nice if you're traveling or have no access to a proper lactation room.

Disclaimer: I have no ties to Kohana, Inc and have never tried their breast pump, but I think this innovation is really cool and I hope they raise enough money to continue the development.

 

Introduction

Recently, there were a couple of articles in the news talking about how breast feeding is not free at all, because women who breastfeed longer than 6 months earn significantly less, even five years after their baby was born, compared to women who breastfeed shorter than 6 months or women who formula feed their infants. It turns out that this difference in earnings is mostly because women who breastfeed longer than 6 months work a lot less than the other groups. In other words, women who (have to) go back to work sooner apparently have a hard time breastfeeding past 6 months.

To me breastfeeding is like walking; you do it because you can. And if you can’t, there are alternatives like using a wheelchair. However, very few people use a wheelchair if they are able to walk just because it is more convenient. That’s not to say that breastfeeding is easy: it’s a learned skill and the fact that we rarely ever see people nurse their babies makes it harder to learn. The same holds true for pumping milk; even though there are some great resources online, when you have to do it yourself you’ve probably never seen someone else pump milk, and perhaps you don’t even have women nearby to ask questions. That’s why I decided to write up what has worked for me over the past months.

Materials and methods

It’s very important to have a good double sided electric breast pump. I have the Medela pump in style , but if I’d have to choose again I would probably go for the Medela Freestyle, since it’s weighs a lot less, which is nice if you go to a conference. Save your receipt, because breast pumps can be tax deductible. The advantage of the black signature Medela bags is that it’s also an easy way to come into contact with other pumping moms who recognize your bag (yes, this happened to me multiple times). It is important that your breast shields fit well; you can ask a lactation consultant for advice. I also have one of these, so that I can pump hands free.

Before going back to work it is important that 1) your baby can drink from a bottle and 2) you have familiarized yourself with your breast pump. To do this, I started pumping one feed in the evening when BlueEyes was 6 weeks old (apparently there’s a window between 4-8 weeks when it’s best to teach babies to drink from a bottle. I have no idea whether that is true but it worked for us.) and Dr. BrownEyes would give him the bottle. I noticed that it takes some practice to pump a decent amount of milk, so don’t worry if you don’t pump a lot the first time. It is also nice to have about a week’s supply of milk in the fridge before you go back to work, so that if pumping doesn’t go well because you’re too stressed in that first week, at least you don’t have to worry about having too little milk to feed your baby. I built a supply in the freezer by giving BlueEyes a little bit less milk in the evening than the amount I pumped (don’t worry about the baby, he will drink whatever he needs during the night). If that doesn’t work: your supply is highest in the morning, so alternatively you can nurse your baby on one breast and then pump the other to build up your freezer stash. Also, make sure to figure out ahead of time where you can pump. I realize that having a clean room and a fridge available is a luxury, and that that’s probably why more higher educated women continue to breast feed, but no one should be afraid to ask for this. In some countries it is a right for women to pump milk for their baby during work hours.

Results

So for the past 6 months I have been pumping milk at work for BlueEyes. Until a couple weeks ago I religiously pumped for about 15 minutes at 10AM and 1PM every day. This fit very well with my experiments, which I think is part of why it worked so well for me. I would cut brain slices, and while those were incubating I would pump the first time, and when I was done with my recording experiment I would pump the second time. I have two sets of breast shields, so I don’t have to bother about washing them in between. I pumped about 200-250 ml (6-9 oz) in total, and because BlueEyes drinks a bit more, I would also pump in the morning after I nursed him. In total I pumped about 300 ml (10 oz) and that’s exactly what he drank in daycare. Being a post-doc, I obviously don’t have my own office, but our department has an empty office that the pumping women can use to pump milk. Now that BlueEyes is eating solids and I have the feeling that my supply is pretty stable, I usually pump once or sometimes twice at work (my total yield is still about 250-300 ml per day).

Troubleshooting

What can you do when you are not pumping enough milk for your baby?

Your milk supply is a matter of supply (duh) and demand, so the first thing to do is pump more often or try to get multiple letdown reflexes during one pumping session. Also, make sure you empty your breasts well, because that will let your body know that more milk is needed. What I would sometimes do if my supply was getting low, was to ‘cluster pump’ at night. After BlueEyes had gone to bed I would pump according to the following schedule (pump 7 min – rest 7 min – pump 5 min – rest 5 min – pump 3 min – rest 3 min – pump 1 min). This did not yield a lot of milk at the time of pumping, because I had just nursed BlueEyes to sleep, but it does give a pretty good boost for your milk supply.

If this doesn’t work sufficiently, you can take various herbs, teas or foods to increase your supply . I’ve personally never tried that, but I've heard it works.

What can you do when it takes you very long to pump?

To me, the time it takes to pump depends for the most part on how long it takes me to get a letdown reflex. Some people like to look at pictures or movies of their baby to speed this up, but I usually just take a couple deep breaths (at home it even helps me to picture the empty office I usually pump in). However, if you still have problems getting a letdown reflex, and therefore need a long time to empty your breasts, you can consider using an oxytocin nasal spray.

Conclusion

I wrote this post to share my experience and to show that it is very possible to breastfeed for at least 6 months and work. Even though I couldn’t believe it at first, breastfeeding does get better and more fun and much less painful (even not painful at all) after 6 months.

Another disclaimer: I’m not a lactation consultant or any other type of medical professional. However, feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions.

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The thing that made going back to work after maternity leave a bit easier

I recently came across Laura Vanderkam's post about dealing with going back to work after your maternity leave.  It made me think about the one thing that I did when going back to work after BlueEyes was born and that was for my husband to take a week off to take care of BlueEyes the first week I went back to work (BlueEyes was 3 months when I went back). This was a great thing for us for a couple of reasons:

1. By being home for a week with BlueEyes my husband realized what it takes to be home with a baby and why some days when I was on maternity leave I would be ecstatic to have contact with another grown-up after being home with a baby all day. He realized how exhausting it was, how for some reason you get nothing done all day and by 5 PM you find yourself on the couch with a crying baby, still dressed in pajamas that may or may not have been puked on. After this, he would never ask:"what have you done all day?" on days that I was home.

2. For me, it was nice to go back to work and not have to worry about how BlueEyes was doing in daycare that first week. Instead, I only had to worry about pumping milk, being incredibly sleep deprived, not fitting in my old clothes yet, trying to remember what I was sciencing about before going on leave and adjusting to being this entirely different person who was mostly very alert whether somebody was crying or hungry.

3. I don't know if for BlueEyes it mattered whether he was home with my husband or at daycare. I like to think it was a nice transition for him, to have to drink from a bottle but still be in the house that he knew before going to daycare, but with such a little baby, it's hard to know.

I think my ideal situation would be to have some hybrid work-baby situation with a small baby: be able to bring them to work or be able to work a bit from home (which I did much more with Little Brother), or be able to have both parents work half days, but of course each baby (and parent) is different. What would your ideal transition back to work look like?

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Some observations from a conference

Recently, I went to a certain conference in a certain European country. I made some observations there:

At this conference (and representative for this field as a whole) the percentage of women was somewhere around 60-70% I think (I don't have the exact numbers but this was my guesstimate). When examining the gender ratio of the main speakers, the women:men ratio was 4:27.

There were 4 prizes that were awarded during the meeting for various accomplishments. Here the women:men ratio was 0:4. Is this because women don't get nominated? Or do the men ask people to nominate them?

When you have moved to industry some people are very interested to hear about that, and others don't even seem to notice you anymore.

 

When talking to people from my generation of PhD students and those slightly older than me, it struck me how most people were very much struggling for grant money, and in a position that no grant money means no job (senior post-doc, research associate, etc). Multiple people told me that they were going to give it one last try and then perhaps move on to something outside academia. These are people that on paper have all the things necessary to be successful. It's almost like there is no money. Or is it because a very small group of people get all the money? (link is in Dutch, but contains a very nice visual at the bottom showing the distribution of grant money)

Also at this meeting: awesome science, nice and helpful people and seeing old friends.

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