Marriage and the making of scientific careers

14.02.2015 14:55

There are many examples of couples in the
history of science, though few are as well
known as Pierre and Marie Curie. What,
for example, of the less familiar Hertha
and William Aryton, who conducted work
on the electrical arc? These examples
suggest that unconventionality could be
the key to success, particularly for women
who would otherwise struggle to make a
scientific career.
Indeed, the few books that cover careers
and personal relationships in the history
of science, for example Pnina G. Abir-Am
and Dorinda Outram’s, Uneasy Careers and
Intimate Lives, tend to only deal with the
impact it had on women scientists. But
partnerships mattered to men too.
Acknowledging this can help to challenge
the stereotype of scientists as objective and
detached. Although a 1977 study entitled
On the Shoulders of the Spouses of
Scientists , co-authored by social scientist
Ian Mitroff, seemed to reaffirm this view –
claiming that “A recurrent theme is that
the men seem to want to manage the
emotional lives of their families with the
same detachment and objectivity as they
manage their work” – it is hard to agree
when listening to the interviews recently
recorded by the British Library for their
Oral History of British Science.
By listening to oral histories, we learn
about the strategies used to make a
scientific career work with a family.
Families could, for example, be taken out
to the field, as in the case of geographer
Dick Grove, who helped his wife pursue
research into glaciers with their children
in tow. Alternatively, science could be
moved into the home in order to juggle the
demands of domestic chores and scientific
work. Current Met Office Chief Scientist,
Dame Julia Slingo, recalled ironing her
husband’s shirts as she retrieved climate
data via a computer terminal at home that
was linked to the National Centre for
Atmospheric Research.
The ideal of the egalitarian partnership
that defines a dual career can, however, be
tested by the demands of coordinating
scientific work with daily domestic duties.
We also need to be careful of simply
relegating women’s identities as scientists
to the background, even as they describe
taking on domestic responsibilities. This
was alluded to in Slingo’s interview, when
she spoke of her occupation making her
feel different to the women she met at a
coffee group for mums and babies.
Unfortunately, this may be difficult when
science is too often viewed as a masculine
occupation. A 2014 House of Commons
Report about Women in Scientific Careers
suggests that gender perceptions continue
to affect careers in Science, Technology,
Engineering and Mathematics (STEM),
especially when 70% of people around the
world still associate being a scientist with
being a man.
Sociologists Jan and Ray Pahl may have
studied predominately male managers and
their wives, but we also need to lessen our
preconceptions about the gendered nature
of careers like management and science.
This is so that we can allow for further
exploration of the mutability of women
scientists’ identity within their personal
relationships and family life.
But by looking to the stories told about
wives and husbands, we can discover the
ways in which even the smallest
contributions helped to assist scientific
careers. Discussions about wives making
coffee to aid working late into the night
and socialising with other couples also
feature in the British Library’s interviews
with scientists. As oral historian Michael
Roper demonstrated in his study of career
managers, the emotional role that wives
play in their husband’s careers serves to
unravel the rational image associated with
a typically masculine occupation.
For crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale,
who wrote Women in Science: Why so
Few?, career success essentially boiled
down to choosing the right husband: “For a
married woman with children to become a
first-class scientist, she must first of all
choose or have chosen the right husband.”
However, we still need to pay attention to
the more conventional strategies of
scientists, which are equally important for
making a sometimes unconventional
balance between a relationship and career
work in science.