Opinion: A simple act of defiance can improve science for women

Motherhood often feels at odds with a research career.

Antoine Maillard | The New York Times

They don’t tell you beforehand that it will be a choice between having a career in science or starting a family. But that’s the message I heard loud and clear 17 years ago, in my first job after completing my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. During a routine departmental meeting, a senior academic announced that pregnant women were a financial drain on the department. I was sitting visibly pregnant in the front row. No one said anything.

I took a leave of absence when that child, my daughter, was born. Two years later, I had a son. That second pregnancy was a surprise, and I worried that taking another leave would sink my career. So I pressed on. When my son was barely 3 weeks old, I flew nine hours to a conference with him strapped to my chest. Before delivering my talk, I made a lame joke that the audience should forgive any “brain fog.” Afterward, an older woman pulled me aside and told me that being self-deprecating in public was a disservice to women scientists.

It felt like an impossible choice: to be a bad scientist or a bad mother.

The data suggests I wasn’t alone in feeling those pressures. A study published in 2019 found that more than 40 percent of female scientists in the United States leave full-time work in science after their first child. In 2016, men held about 70 percent of all research positions in science worldwide. Especially for field researchers like me, who collect data in remote and sometimes perilous locations, motherhood can feel at odds with a scientific career.

How have I addressed the problem? Through an act of academic defiance: I bring my kids with me on my scientific expeditions. It’s a form of rebellion that is available to mothers not just in the sciences but also in other disciplines that require site visits and field work, such as architecture and journalism. Bringing your kids to work with you doesn’t have to be something you do only once a year.

It started for me as a simple necessity. When my son was just under 2 and my daughter not yet 4, I took them on an expedition to the base of Mount Kenya in Africa, to study how fungi help trees defend themselves against the elephants and giraffes who feed on them. My son was still nursing, and I didn’t want to stop working. My husband, a poet, came along to stay with them at base camp.

As time went on, I began to embrace the decision to bring my kids with me on my expeditions, not as an exigency of parenting but as a kind of feminist act. When meeting other scientists in the field, the reaction was typically the same: They assumed my husband was leading the expedition. Once the facts were established, researchers were supportive and even willing to lend a hand.

Looking back at those expeditions now — after more than a dozen, in far-flung areas around the globe — I understand that bringing them into the field was more than a rebellion: Their presence on those trips also changed the way I do science, and for the better.

I started tasting soils in the field — a technique I now use to notice subtle differences across ecosystems — only after seeing my kids eat dirt. Children have an uncanny ability to make local friends quickly; many of those new friends have led me to obscure terrain and hidden fungal oases that I otherwise would never have come across. And my kids’ naïve minds routinely force me to rethink old assumptions by asking questions that are simultaneously absurd and profound. Can you taste clouds? Do fungi dream? How loud are our footsteps underground?

What can feel like an inconvenience is often a blessing in disguise. Children force the patience that scientific discovery demands. Last year, my kids and I traveled to Lesotho, in southern Africa. Collecting fungi in such a rugged landscape required horses, guides and months of precise planning. But my daughter caught the flu. Rather than mapping underground fungal life, we spent the week in a hut in a highland village with no running water or electricity, eating fermented sorghum. As the days ticked by, I began to panic, thinking of the fungi that would remain unsampled.

But one morning, as my daughter’s health improved, we were invited to cross a small mountain pass on horses. The local herder allowed me to collect dark soil among the agricultural ruins of his ancestral village. It was a type of soil I had never seen — with fungi that would have remained undescribed had we stayed on track. Thank you, chaos; thank you, kids.

Bringing my kids with me continues to challenge expectations, and not only among fellow scientists. In the summer of 2022, my kids and I embarked on an expedition in Italy to study fungi exposed to extreme heat and wildfire. Hiking across mountains with kids was hard and made even more arduous because a documentary film crew followed us. As we wrangled fungi in burn sites, the cameraman strategically positioned me for shots without my kids, presumably so the footage would look more “professional.”

Female scientists are right to fear being seen as unprofessional. How we talk, how we dress, is constantly under scrutiny — and so many of us mirror our male colleagues. Any deviation from that standard is often considered suspect. The primatologist Jane Goodall famously placed her young son in a cage so that he could safely join her in the field, and it is still a point of controversy, decades later.

At its core, feminism is about having the power to choose. For female scientists, this means having the ability to bring children into the field — or the full support to leave them at home. The pressure is acute because, as research shows, women on scientific teams are significantly less likely than men to be credited with authorship. So for me, it is crucial to keep collecting data with my own hands.

What do my kids make of all this? They both love and hate our expeditions. Frustrated by a grueling day of field work recently, my teenage daughter screamed at me, “You love science more than you love me!” In that moment, she — like so much of the scientific world — believed that the decision was binary: science or family. But by taking her with me into the field, I am relentlessly affirming that I won’t make that choice. My kids won’t make that choice either: They recently helped start a youth climate group to help protect soil fungi, including by organizing protests.

We are taught that good science requires detachment. But what if being a mother — with all the attachments that entails — allows you to explore different but equally fruitful scientific narratives? Last year, an article by the editor who oversees the Science journals argued that scientists should not be “afraid to acknowledge their humanity.” We should take that sound advice a step further and challenge the ideal of detachment. Perhaps by exposing our vulnerabilities — such as the children we are raising — we can change the system.

Toby Kiers is a professor of evolutionary biology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and the executive director of SPUN, a research organization that advocates for the protection of mycorrhizal fungal communities. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.