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Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science

  • Peter A Lawrence
  • Published: January 17, 2006
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040019

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Women, children, money and career

Posted by plosbiology on 07 May 2009 at 22:13 GMT

Author: 'Monica' 'Steinmann-Zwicky'
Position: Professor
Institution: University of Zuerich, Switzerland
E-mail: mstzw@zool.unizh.ch
Submitted Date: February 18, 2006
Published Date: February 19, 2006
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

I wish people could see the problem as Peter Lawrence sees it and that society could find ways to give a fair chance to everybody. In some countries, e.g. Sweden, women really have better possibilities than they used to, as men do help with traditional women's tasks. However, I have experienced that in Switzerland it is more difficult than elsewhere. If men just do not take care of the children, not after 6 months and not afterwards, it becomes "unavoidable" for women to put the needs of the children first and climbing the career ladder second. It is clear that "the average aggression and lack of empathy" of men makes it easier for them to neglect the needs of their children. Besides the points that Lawrence addresses, society helps the men to set priorities with a further argument: the money. In Switzerland a family is expected to live on one salary. Salaries are therefore higher than elsewhere, but to earn a high salary, you have to work more hours than in other countries. "On average" you can say, that the number of working hours per family and the salary received is about the same in Switzerland and in other countries. But for the two sexes the situation is not the same. Arguing that the family needs at least one high salary, which can only be obtained with full commitment to work, men do not participate in home tasks, which forces women to work part time. This part time would be full time in many other countries, but in Switzerland, women earn less and get stuck with those parts of the job that were less attractive. Looking after their children, they lose the time they had for the extra activity, the things that are really interesting and that give you chances for better career opportunities. Not only in Switzerland, but also in other countries, women accept to work in less attractive positions and for less money, if they can also care for their children.
I know how it works when you have children. But I would love to have answers to the following questions:
1) Are we born with a male or a female brain or does our brain get feminized when we look after children or other persons who need our attention?
2) Are women still underrepresented in top positions if you exclude women with children (i.e. if you only consider number of women without children compared to all men).
3) In our Institute (and University) the number of women at the top has increased in the last years, but most of these women do not have children. For these women the fact that the criteria for a successful career are defined by men and that these criteria favour male applicants does not seem to be a problem. Is this because these women (on average) have a male brain?
In the past years, I have often wondered about the criteria that could make a male or a female brain. Before I had children, I could concentrate all my energy on work and I was very successful in science. Now I have more difficulties concentrating on one task, but I am very good at doing lots of things simultaneously, which is important if you want to be a good mother. So I wonder: is it possible that I used to have a male brain, but that I switched to having a female brain because of all the tasks I had to accomplish? Are data that give answers to such questions available? It would be fascinating to know more!
I want to thank Peter Lawrence for daring to break a taboo. If we want real solutions we have to define real problems. Existing differences should not just be ignored. Accepting differences will open doors for new possibilities, where the strength of women might be valued, also in Science.

Competing interests declared: I declare that I have no competing interests