I have a few more things to say about how taking a break from science/academia could kill a woman's career.
First, the Executive Director of the Elsevier Foundation wrote a letter to the New York Times about retaining women in STEM (emphasis mine):
The work-life balance challenge faced by working women is particularly difficult for those in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math). Taking time off the research track can be a potentially career-ending decision for a woman, as she can lose valuable connections and funding.
Career brakes indeed. This letter prompted me to flip the issue and think about it from another side: what if men took more career breaks? The anecdata I have say that paternity leave (or, parental leave, in more generic terms) is becoming more common. Could we make it an expectation that parents will take breaks?
I have heard of a university (but now can't seem to find the article in which I read about it) that stops the tenure clock for new parents automatically. They have to ask for it not to stop, rather than the other way around. This is to encourage people to use the parental leave they have and make using it less stigmatized. It's a simple enough policy that might actually change academic culture. Parental leave is generally a few months, not multiple years, of course, but if we can change the attitudes about short breaks, I think it's possible to make longer breaks more acceptable, too.
Then there's this post at Chronicle Vitae about the proliferation of "quit lit," the genre of essays about leaving academia. I have read a number of quit lit pieces, but what strikes me about the topic this time around is that academia is a place people leave. Not take a break from, but leave for good. In that sense, it's not just women who might be unwelcome to return after time away, though men aren't likely to be accused of "leaning out" in the process.
I have to wonder how much of this attitude is related to the priesthood of science (and academia in general) and the ridiculous notion that "dedicated" scientists are single-minded in the pursuit of their work to the exclusion of other interests or obligations. I'm not sure and have no data to back it up, but I suspect they are linked.
Lastly, here are a few thoughts about working parents, moms in particular.
From an interview with Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo.:
I don't think women can have it all. I just don't think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.
She says "you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother," but is her husband also presented with the same decisions about being a husband or a father? Maybe, but maybe not.
I also feel the need to invoke the Finkbeiner test on her interviewer, even though she's not a scientist.1 Until men are asked in equal proportion about how they balance family with work, we have got to stop interrogating women about it.
Finally, go read this post by dinahere about being the daughter of a working mother.
For the first 12 years of my life I don’t remember my father being there for my birthdays or attending a school play. He was busy saving lives in the OR, earning his share of the money and my mother was there for all of those occasions. So, why didn’t his absence count while hers did? Why were her absences so glaring while her presence so fading?
You know why. Women will never be able to have it all because what we think ‘all’ refers to has been pre-determined by a society that will always be stacked against us.
We can't keep blaming women when they don't measure up to an unachievable standard. The culture has got to change.
1: I'll just leave this right here, in case you haven't seen it yet.