Unrooted: Read an exclusive excerpt from Erin Zimmerman’s memoir - Hindustan Times
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Unrooted: Read an exclusive excerpt from Erin Zimmerman’s memoir

ByErin Zimmerman
Jun 07, 2024 10:00 PM IST

The evolutionary biologist’s book is her response to being edged out of a highly competitive career. What will it take for academia to be kinder to caregivers?

I spent two more months sitting numb in my office, wrapping up the project, carefully detailing everything I’d done so someone else could take over, because that’s what we have to do in research or the work will have been wasted. The science was more important than my desire to not be there anymore. I avoided my supervisor whenever I could, not wanting any further discussion of my resignation. But the day I walked out of there for the last time, into the early afternoon sunshine of mid-May, I felt freer than I had in ages. I was a failure, but I could breathe again.

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A pair of studies published in early 2020 found that at the undergraduate level, women in the life sciences both outnumbered and outperformed men, but were judged to be less competent. At the upper professional levels, the most significant factor contributing to differences between male and females scientists in both productivity and impact was the high dropout rates of female scientists. Every year that a woman spends in research, she has a 20 percent higher chance of leaving than her male counterparts. According to an eight-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019, a staggering 43 percent of women leave full-time STEM employment after their first child. These are women who spent a significant portion of their adult lives, as I did, training to be scientists. They wouldn’t leave easily, and it’s worth asking why so many of them do.

My story wasn’t dramatic. My advisor wasn’t noteworthy in his hostility or disinterest in being supportive. I hadn’t been harassed or abused; I hadn’t really even been bullied. He didn’t try to ruin my career.

There was no one dramatic incident that extinguished my desire to be in research. What I’d faced was an environment in which I’d felt under intense pressure to never let anyone see that I had other loyalties in my life. It was a death by a thousand tiny cuts. And that’s what makes this story important, because I suspect that’s how it is for many of the nearly half of all women in science who leave after becoming mothers. Each time you’re made to feel unprofessional for having caregiving responsibilities, each time you’re made to feel like a burden for requesting minor accommodation . . . it wears you down a little more. You believe that you are the problem. And when the reward at the end of those years of hard work and low pay are far from assured, it doesn’t take a PhD to figure out you might be happier and better off elsewhere, no matter how much you loved the actual science and the questions you were trying to answer. No matter how much you wanted to change the world, you still have to make sure your own world is on stable footing. I had wanted so badly for my daughter to look up at her mother and see a scientist. But I also want her to look up and see someone who can walk away from a bad situation.

I tried hard to adapt to fit what the job required of me. But in the end, motherhood changed me more than I could ever have changed myself.

(Excerpted with permission from Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood and the Fight to Save an Old Science by Erin Zimmerman published by Melville House; 2024)

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