Health and Healthcare Systems

5 tips for working from home as a woman in STEM

PhD student Maija Maskuninty works in a laboratory at Imperial College in London, May 28, 2010. Across the western world, Big Pharma is cutting back on the number of scientists it employs in its labs and the money it spends on research and development. The hunt for new drugs continues, but the men and women in white coats - traditionally viewed as the lifeblood of the industry - are not as untouchable as they once were. Tucked neatly behind London's famous Science Museum, which pays homage to the groundbreaking advances that made modern medicine what it is, the chemistry labs at Imperial College offer one last refuge from the realities of the marketplace. Picture taken May 28, 2010. To match Special Report PHARMACEUTICALS/  REUTERS/Paul Hackett/Files (BRITAIN - Tags: SOCIETY HEALTH EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS EDUCATION) - GM1E66G1H0401

'The 60-hour workweek is a norm for many scientists' - but not from home or without childcare Image: REUTERS/Paul Hackett

Mandë Holford
Associate Professor of Chemical Biology, Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY)
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Many scientists are juggling full-time childcare with the demands of writing and submitting grants, teaching classes and more;
  • Typically, the demands of childcare are still largely carried by women;
  • How can working mothers in STEM find support from their skills and network during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’m at home – not at the bench doing experiments, not in my office speaking with colleagues and not in the field on an expedition surveying and collecting venomous snails. Instead, I’m cooking, feeding, cleaning, dressing and trying to homeschool my two children.

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I’m not alone: many scientists are at home and not in their labs, juggling full-time childcare with the demands of writing and submitting grants, teaching classes, advising and mentoring graduate students, writing/reviewing manuscripts, analysing data and more. The 60-hour workweek is a norm for many scientists, but usually, for at least eight of those hours a day, our children would be in school or some form of childcare. The coronavirus has plunged us into a childcare abyss and, as a woman in science, it’s 10,000 leagues of ineptitude.

In the first week of quarantine, the directions from the University were to spend our time shifting classes to virtual remote-learning. We had five days to plan, prep and then be ready to seamlessly disseminate insightful nuggets of learning. That same week, my three-year-old decided she wanted to do a fossil dig and poured all the flour she could find on the kitchen floor, covered her one-year-old sister in what remained, added her dinosaurs and then poured water down the middle of the floor to create a river from which they could drink. This was after she had given her dolls a bath in her bathroom sink, emptied all the puzzle pieces from a box and strapped her sister to the desk in her room “for her safety from the dinosaurs who might attack”. All before 10 am.

I’m not a single parent, but I am a new one and to say this chaotic theme repeated daily in some variation stunts my productivity to write coherent grant sentences is an understatement.

The world's women that are putting in the largest amount of these unpaid hours and in every region
The world's women put in the largest amount of these unpaid hours and in every region Image: Statista

The demands and stress of childcare are still carried largely by women. With stay-at-home social distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many child-rearing female scientists are staring down a tunnel of angst, self-doubt and incapacity. But it doesn't have to be all bad. Like “scientist-in-chief” Angela Merkel, this is an opportunity for “modelling the humble credibility of a scientist at work”. There is always another experiment you can do, so I’ve decided to shift gears and instead of thinking “woe is me”, I’m pivoting to “woe is us”. The “us” is the community of women in science. Misery loves company and in this case, that company is a stable of women who are used to adversity, persistence and breaking new ground.

While it won’t be easy and requires a lot of self-care, we can identify the stressors and articulate our pain points with the goal of removing the cactus spines altogether. Here’s how:

1. Know your limits

There’s no shame in refusing manuscript and grant review requests when you can’t get your own manuscripts out and write your own grants. This is not the time to be “HERoic”. There are many stories about women learning to say no. Read these, put your tongue to the top of your mouth and let it go. A “no” falls out without you having to think about it.

2. Bend the rules

Ask for an extension on deadlines. Deadlines are deadlines, but under these unique circumstances, wrangling kids and deadlines is the new normal for a lot of people, including maybe the grant programme officer. Submitting half-baked ideas on time versus fleshed out concepts with a few more days to think, makes swallowing your pride and asking for help worth it.

3. Spoil your children

If the deadline can’t be extended and you have to write, let them watch PJ Masks and Paw Patrol until they’ve memorized every word from every episode. They’re learning plot and storytelling, as well as how to be creative and use their imaginations. Science communication has become required training for graduate and medical students. Start them on the road to building effective narratives, it won’t rot their brains.

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4. Delegate using teamwork

Our labs are second families. We’ve cultivated a team of students and postdoctoral professionals that we trust to get things done. The time and energy spent team building is exactly for occasions like these. Enlist your team to help with tasks you would normally do, but can’t because you have a preschool ZOOM sing-a-long or marathon reading session of The Gruffalo. Learning to write manuscripts and grants is a skill your team will need to hone and there’s no time like the present.

5. Hide

When all else fails, play a high stakes game of hide-and-seek where you can’t be found. Find sanctuary in your bathroom, closet, behind the sofa, even the hall just outside your apartment where you’re in an ear-shot of screams (and nose-shot of something burning). Take your laptop, dim the screen and work as fast and focused as you can until there’s a breakdown from a little one when they can’t find you. Don’t rush out of hiding, wait five minutes after the breakdown begins and see if your partner can handle the situation.

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This is undeniably hard. Trying to do eight-hour workdays while parenting full-time requires a sacrifice of ego and the willingness to stretch, lean-in and back out. After COVID-19 I’ll laugh about the dinosaur dig in my kitchen; right now I’ve got to keep my lab afloat.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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