Babies, math class and parents with STEM careers

Old balance scale with weights

Let’s tip the scales to make STEM more inclusive of parents. Photo credit: Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia CC

CNN, the Washington Post, BBC News and other publications recently covered a viral news story about a U.S. mathematics professor. The story didn’t focus on mathematical research or groundbreaking teaching techniques. Instead, it was about a professor holding a student’s baby during an algebra class. People are even calling the professor — Nathan Alexander of Morehouse College in Atlanta — a hero, BuzzFeed News reported.

There are a myriad of ways that I could jump into this conversation, but I’ll start here: That people consider it heroic for a professor to hold a baby for one 50 minute math class so a college student can take better notes says quite a bit about the world we live in. Might I suggest a few different (and less dramatic) ways to describe that professor’s actions?

  • Kindhearted
  • Invested in student success
  • Going above and beyond to help a student and their family

I don’t want to discount Alexander’s actions by any means, but if we choose to call them heroic, that puts them on a pedestal. “Why is that a problem?” some folks might ask. Here’s my answer:

Heroic actions are ones that we expect very few people to take. We call them heroic because they are so out of the ordinary that we’re surprised to hear they happened. But the fact of the matter is, there are many students with babies/toddlers/older children, childcare is expensive and its easy for that care to fall through at the last minute. Wouldn’t those students have a better chance at success if society started treating childcare issues as common ones that shouldn’t get in the way of learning or successful careers?

On a related note, these recent articles cover the intersection of STEM careers and parenting (especially motherhood):

“Nearly half of US female scientists leave full-time science after first child” by Holly Else, Nature, February 19, 2019

“Parenthood drives women out of science, US survey reveals” by Michael Allen, Physics World, February 21, 2019

“After a baby, 28% of new parents leave full-time STEM work” by Rachel Bernstein, Science, February 18, 2019

Strangely, while there are tons of articles, non-profits and other initiatives focused on connecting kids with STEM, the climate is such that many of their parents are leaving STEM careers.

In 2018, the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics released a “Special Issue on Mathematics and Motherhood.” In that issue, Pamela E. HarrisBecky HallEmille Davie Lawrence and Carrie Diaz Eaton wrote “Math Mamas: Changing the Narrative.”

“Motherhood and mathematics are not commonly discussed unless you identify as a ‘math mama.’ So why would the mathematics community need an entire issue of a journal discussing experiences by mathematical mothers? Moreover, why would we, as editors, not present an issue on parenthood and mathematics? The simple answer is that we are mothers who are mathematicians. We realized we were not anomalies but comprise a productive part of the mathematics community. So we sought to uncover hidden narratives like ours, full of hope and courage, involving women breaking the stereotype of what a mathematician and a mother should be,” they wrote.

This year, the AMS welcomed a new Math Mamas blog, which is edited by Emille Davie Lawrence (who is editor-in-chief), Amanda Ruiz and Rachelle DeCoste.

In the first post for the blog, Emille wrote “Welcome to the first post of our new blog ‘Math Mamas’!  We, the editors, were hoping to create a space where we can share our experiences, learn from each other, and discuss how our identity as women underrepresented in mathematics interacts with our role as a parent. Research shows that academic men benefit professionally from having children, yet women are penalized for having children. Therefore, the community we hope to create through this blog centers mothers and non-binary parents, particularly those who are raising or are considering raising children. We hope that our conversations will help all genders understand the joys and challenges of balancing life as a working mathematician and as a parent.  Mathematics is the more formal part of our lives. Motherhood is the less structured and messier part of our lives. Each of these enriches and impacts the other. These roles are not separate and parallel. Instead, they are constantly intersecting which sometimes makes both jobs better and other times brings about unique difficulties.” Her second (thought-provoking) post is “The Road to Success.”

I’m excited to read future posts from the Math Mamas blog. Do you have stories to share about STEM careers and parenthood or suggestions for making STEM more inclusive of parents? Share your thoughts in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter @writesRCrowell!

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