Mathematician and mother
4 October 2011
Dr Beatrice Pelloni is Head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Reading. Last year she presented the Olga Taussky-Todd Lecture at the International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM) in Vancouver, Canada, at the invitation of the ICIAM Congress, the Association of Women in Mathematics (ACM) and European Women in Mathematics, and in recognition of her outstanding contributions to applied mathematics, .
This is my first outing in the blogosphere, and I will use it as an opportunity to write in support of initiatives aimed specifically at women scientists.
I am a mathematician, and a mother of four children. I state both this facts at the onset –I am passionate about my research work, and the teaching of mathematics, but my professional identity has always included also my role as a mother. My first two children were born before I finished my doctorate, and my work life has always had to include the consideration of their needs.
Mathematics, first: an intellectual occupation that should be seen as ideal for women, as all you need to indulge it is pen and paper, and maybe a computer, and it is very easy to arrange to work from home, in one’s own time. Indeed, one is always working, thinking about details of a proof, the construction of an argument, the connection between ideas coming from different angles yet converging into one abstract conceptual structure. It is a wonderful and very rewarding intellectual activity, and one that should be ideally suited to any woman that engages with it but also wishes to raise a family.
Yet, the percentage of women professors of mathematics in the UK is abysmally low (hovering around 4%). Most of those who start this career, drop out of it around the time of the first postdoctoral position.
As a young woman aspiring to be a scientist, I was somewhat worried that, after I had children, there would be a change in the perception of the more senior mathematicians around me of my commitment to research. I tried to keep quiet about my needs, as I wanted to be taken seriously. I needn’t have worried - with few unimportant exceptions, I have always worked alongside very supportive colleagues, and my work environment has always accommodated my time constraints, forced absences, general rhythm of work. Despite the fact that such experience is becoming more common, many young women I know experience similar worries. The challenges are not scientific, but rather lie in the perception of what is acceptable, in acquiring the confidence to value and have valued both the time given to work and the time given to one’s family. There is also the issue of self-confidence, which I think affects women more than men.
For this reason, I have come to think that it is important to offer good role models, to provide support and inspiration. Early in my career I resented that special allowances would be made for me. I wanted to be valued for the results of my work irrespective of the particular circumstances of my life as a whole or my gender. However, there are special challenges that have so far affected women more than men, and it must be accepted that the scientific progress of women and men need not follow the same path and timeline. I have come to believe that women need extra encouragement and support to become bolder about continuing their life as professional scientists.
When I was awarded a prize lecture reserved for women, earlier this year, I was happy to accept. I feel that it is right to recognize that some women do well in their scientific work while caring also for children and family – as, increasingly, do some men. It is right to send an encouraging signal. Becoming a good scientist does not require the sacrifice of one part of your life for the benefit of another part.