Saturday, January 3, 2009

Passion and Success

There are few women in the top ranks of scientists. Often, when these highly successful women are interviewed, they talk about their passion for their work, and how that passion enabled them to overcome the sexism, both blatant and subtle, that they had to fight on their way to the top. They and their interviewers probably think it's inspiring to hear about this passion, because it shows that if you truly love what you do, you can succeed at it, despite the odds set against you.


Passion is a good starting point. I don't believe anyone pursues a career in science without being passionate about the subject, whether you're male or female. Also, I don't want to diminish the achievements of those who have reached the pinnacles of success, whether it be election to the National Academies or a Nobel Prize or just achieving tenure. But I think talking about passion is misleading.

Passion as a requisite for success reinforces the idea that being a scientist is an all or nothing deal. It implies that your rewards are directly proportional to the work you put in. It's the kind of thinking that leads to boasting about how many hours a week you spend at work. It's the same attitude that hurts women who decide to take time off from their careers to have a family.

At the 3rd IUPAP Conference on Women in Physics (ICWIP), there were several plenary sessions to devoted to science talks by prominent women physcists from around the world. And on one level, they were inspiring. But on the other hand, it was discouraging to realize how hard they had to work to get where they were.

I would like to hear more from other voices: women who have successfully juggled the demands of a family and a career without giving up themselves to do it. I am also coming to realize that many of these voices are women who have redefined success for themselves. They aren't going for the National Academies or a Nobel Prize, or even a tenured professorship. In astronomy, we might say that they have "leaked from the pipeline," because unlike many other branches of physics, there is no industry counterpart to academia.

It's for this reason that Motherhood: the Elephant in the Laboratory is on my reading list. (I have a copy somewhere, but I seem to have misplaced it at the moment.) It's a collection of essays by women scientists who have had children, and how it affected their careers. I went to a panel discussion about the book last fall. The room was packed and the discussion was thoughtful and interesting and inspiring in a different way than those talks at the ICWIP meeting.

Redefining success for yourself is not easy. I seem to have it well-drilled into my head that success is defined as tenure at one of 5 or so universities in this country. It's easy for me to say, "well, she can define success however she wants, and I'm glad to see that she's so happy doing what she's doing, but it's not good enough for me." I am slowly learning to stop viewing life as a zero-sum game, that it's not about sacrificing being a good scientist to be a good mother or vice versa, but trying to be the best human being I can be.