Eclipsed Women: The Need for Scientist-Mothers in Popular Culture

In July of 2021, an article was published in Nature titled: “The parenting penalties faced by scientist-mothers.” This article was one of the first to describe in comprehensive detail the challenges faced by mothers within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.

In reading this article, passed to me by one of my graduate student friends, it was alarming to realize how common penalties are for scientist-mothers, whether being ignored for a tenure position or a significant reduction in publications due to challenges of motherhood. The view of women overcoming these challenges is becoming more accepted, but it is still far from the norm of societal pressures and expectations. These challenges apply to mothers in all jobs and positions, but scientist-mothers have additional challenges not publicly recognized or understood. As a science writer working with amazing female scientists, I do get upset when I see scientist-mothers being overlooked for their hard work and dedication toward both their family and career. Women in science have a difficult enough time getting the funding or credit for their work, which can negatively impact their careers and cause them to lose out on prestigious awards. The fact that some of these women are also successful mothers makes their stories all the more inspiring.


Sandra Bullock in Gravity, 2013 (Image: Warner Bros.)


The struggles that these mothers face have never been accurately portrayed for the general public, so many people outside the field of science do not understand the pressures of doing research for long hours and having a family at the same time. One of the reasons for the scientist mother’s “invisibility” is the lack of popular culture role models for scientist-mothers. I spoke to Dr. Lisa Yaszek, Regents Professor of Science Fiction Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology about why there is a lack of scientist-mothers in popular culture, including science fiction. According to Dr. Yaszek: “When science fiction presents scientific women as having the opportunity to pursue marriage and motherhood, it’s almost never a matter of having it all — instead, as we see in mid-century films such as Forbidden Planet (1956) and TV shows such as Lost in Space, such characters are asked to make a choice between career and family — and of course, they almost always choose the latter. And if you believe Hollywood logic, it’s a good thing they do so, because it seems that women who try to have it all are doomed to disaster: the human crewmembers at the center of The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) find themselves in jeopardy in part because their female engineer is struggling with family drama that causes her to make questionable professional choices, and in Gravity (2013), Sandra Bullock’s character is simultaneously presented as the most brilliant mind of her generation and as someone who only pursues a scientific career because her child has died and she no longer has a role as a mother.”

The choice between family and a career dooms these women characters to never becoming successful scientist-mothers, and thus creating a void of scientist mother role models for women. This makes it difficult for female scientists considering motherhood, as they have no one to look to for overcoming challenges with funding, tenure positions, or publications that are intrinsically affected by motherhood.


Dr. Dana Scully of the X Files, played by Gillian Anderson (Image: Fox)


A prime example of this choice is in the journey of Dr. Dana Scully from the X-Files. As the show rose in popularity, Dana Scully’s character was considered groundbreaking for women in science, as she wasn’t oversexualized or submissive, but rather fierce and independent, crusading science as truth. Her character was also a dominant part of the story and got a significant amount of screen time, which is unique for a female scientist character in the film. Scully’s character was so impactful when the show first aired in the 1990s that she inspired a whole generation of female scientists, also called “the Scully Effect.”

Scully’s character is assigned to the X-Files to spy on her FBI partner Fox Mulder and his unorthodox methods. Case after case, Scully uses science to explain paranormal and extraterrestrial activity. Throughout her work, she deals with family drama: her sister’s death, her own battle with cancer, and her desire to be a mother. Through the most unexpected turn of events, Scully becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son named William. While any scientist mother may hope to use Scully as a role model for the successes a female scientist can have in her career and being a parent, this wasn’t meant to be. During her time as a mom, Scully isolated herself, showing that she had chosen motherhood oven a career. Not only this, but due to William’s special lineage, he was constantly in danger. At one point, the danger was too much for Scully, and she was forced to give William up for adoption. She then returned to her career as a female scientist for the FBI. Even at the end of the show, when the X-Files was rebooted, Scully was never able to return to motherhood, as the teenage William rejected her entirely. Scully’s entire journey of desiring to be a mother, struggling with motherhood and her work as a scientist, and finally choosing her career, showcases the common struggle that women in science face.

For the few scientist-mothers who do get some screentime, they are portrayed in a rather negative light. From Yaszek’s research, she found that if there is a pregnant woman or mother in science fiction, they are typically cast as victims, needing to be saved by others with better technoscientific skills. “For example, while Children of Men (2006) technically centers on the last pregnant woman on Earth,” Yazsek explained, “the film really follows the adventures of a male hero fighting male protagonists for control of the pregnant woman’s body and future. Interestingly, Mad Max: Fury Road — which is often celebrated as the first truly feminist Mad Max film — does cast a woman as the savior of the pregnant women that all the male villains are fighting over, but interestingly, she herself is single and without child — a lot like the traditional male science-fiction hero.” These negative portrayals often reinforce the choice female scientists feel pressured to make between motherhood and career.


The logo for Mothers in Science, a nonprofit global organization.


Off-screen, women don’t always have to make this choice. Isabel Torres, a science editor/writer and science communicator with a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Cambridge (UK), realized that the struggles of scientist-mothers needed to become more visible to show women they don’t have to choose between career and family. She co-founded an organization called “Mothers in Science,” which works to support scientist-mothers, as well as expose their struggles and successes. “Research shows that around 80% of scientists over 40 years old are parents, which means that mothers represent a large proportion of STEM professionals (and students),” Torres stated. “We can’t continue ignoring mothers in STEM and their enormous contribution to the advancement of science and technology. STEM institutions, and the academic system in particular, still function based on a model that does not accommodate the needs of parents and caregivers, and this leads to structural (albeit invisible) barriers that disproportionately affect mothers.” From Torres’ research, she found that the pandemic did nothing to close the gender gap in STEM fields, in fact, it seemed to magnify it. In creating “Mothers in Science,” Torres commented that: “mother scientists are truly an inspiration because, despite these barriers, and the challenges of pregnancy of motherhood, they can lead successful careers in STEM.” Torres’s work highlights that female scientists can succeed at being a mother and a scientist, without feeling the pressure of having to make that tough decision. Mothers in Science has continued to grow since its establishment as more and more women have found the community of support they need.

In fact, many women are choosing to be both a mother and a scientist, though not at the same time. In a conversation I had with a friend who is a female computer scientist and coder, she spoke about how she is considering freezing her eggs, so she doesn’t have to decide. She can focus on her career now, and then have a family later when she’s ready. Egg-freezing is becoming more of a common choice for women scientists, as they remove the stress and pressure of having to choose between two different dreams for themselves. Instead, they can succeed within their scientific institutions and then later have a family. Delaying a family has other benefits, including the added time to build more financial stability.

The hidden stories of scientist-mothers show just how truly inspirational these individuals are, due to the many barriers they face. According to Torres: “Besides facing gender bias and discrimination, scientist-mothers encounter additional obstacles to career advancement. In our global survey, we found that bias and discrimination against mothers (known as the “maternal wall”) are widespread in the STEM sector. For example, mother scientists are offered fewer professional opportunities, such as promotions or invitations to speak at conferences, they are perceived as being less competent by their employers and colleagues, and many reports being removed from research projects or even being fired during their maternity leave.” And this doesn’t include childcare. Childcare can be expensive, forcing many scientist-mothers to sacrifice their career to take care of their children. This sacrifice can significantly affect a scientist-mother’s career by reducing publications or time spent on applying for funding.

But the struggles for scientist-mothers only continue. “Another issue is the work culture in the STEM sector, especially in academia,” Torres explained. “Scientists are expected to be ‘visible,’ they need to attend networking events and conferences for establishing collaborations and building their reputation, and they are also expected to work round-the-clock, including evenings and weekends — this is obviously impossible when you have children.” These same stressors do not generally apply to men, as women tend to do most of the childcare and housework. In her research, Torres discovered that the research productivity and visibility of a scientist-mother tend to drop after having children, which isn’t the case for most scientist-fathers. To Torres, these struggles were all-too-invisible for the general public, including the scientist-mothers themselves. Because of the lack of scientist-mothers in popular culture or even within scientific institutions due to the “maternal wall,” these barriers go unnoticed by the general public.

There are other barriers that scientist-mothers face due to the institutions that were created by men, for men, and not for scientist-mothers. Many scientific institutions did not set out with the intent of making things difficult for scientist-mothers, they just weren’t exposed to these individuals’ needs. In an article for Scientific American, Dr. Rebecca Calisi Rodriquez of UC Davis describes the challenges of not having lactation rooms at a scientific conference for breastfeeding mothers. When confronted with this problem, the conference administration admitted that they hadn’t thought about the fact that some of their attendees or speakers would be breastfeeding and need a lactation room.


Mattel’s 2021 Line of Scientist Barbies (Image: Mattel)


For centuries, women have shouldered the load of child-rearing while trying to succeed in society. It’s about time that their struggles were made known to those who can help support them. The need for popular culture scientist-mothers has never been higher. The ball has already begun rolling as Mattel’s Barbie released six new dolls that celebrate female scientists. None of these dolls however were shown to be scientist mothers. As our society shifts to embracing more diversity and openness for problems such as mental health or sexual abuse, the time for scientist-mothers is now. “I have frequently been questioned,” Marie Curie once stated, “especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.” For the women who choose to have a family, it will always be a challenge, but providing more recognition and support can help make it more possible.

Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA and a staff writer at The Quantum Daily and The Deep Tech Insider. She has written various pieces on diversity in deep tech, covering stories from underrepresented communities, as well as discussing how science fiction contributes to the reputations of deep technologies. Follow her on Twitter @kennaculture