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A Mom-to-Be and a Researcher

Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, writes at Occam's Corner at the Guardian that she had noticed that there is a gender imbalance in research biology, as compared to medicine, but hadn't dug too much deeper. In medicine, the number of men and women in the field are beginning to approach parity. A recent paper from Shelley Adamo, a psychology professor at Dalhousie University, got Rohn wondering, though, about why.

In BioScience, Adamo notes that similar numbers of men and women begin graduate programs in biology, but that fewer women go on to become academic researchers. Medical fields, by contrast, retain more women, despite its tendency to be less family-friendly. Adamo suspects that the timing of when each field is at its most competitive may be a major factor in the discrepancies between the fields. "Competition for entry into medical school is intense, but this period of competition occurs prior to family formation for most women," Adamo writes. "For women biologists, the most intense period of competition occurs during the search for faculty positions. Many women have partners or children at this time."

Rohn adds that she is now encountering this firsthand, as she is eight months pregnant. "The whole experience has been psychologically fraught in a way that I had never envisaged," she notes.

In her case, she writes, not only did she have to inform her bosses that she would be taking maternity leave, but because her contract was short-term, she also had to worry whether she was eligible for that leave, or that her contract would end and she'd have to job-search while pregnant.

Her worries, she notes, were soon eased as "my bosses seemed genuinely delighted at my news, and remain extremely supportive of my long-term career." In addition, her university extends its leave policy to short-term contacts and her grant's clock will be frozen while she is gone.

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