The lab or love? Catholic women and STEM careers

This false dichotomy can harm women interested in STEM, and weaken the larger scientific community.

Photo by Tim Gouw via unsplash.com

There is a manifest faith and science conflict that no one talks about, so here goes. Young Catholic women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (i.e., STEM careers) get mixed messages from their two cultures—scientific and Catholic. I am concerned that the ambiguity is harming them and causing a missed opportunity for society in general.

The scientific community emphasizes the importance of women among its ranks. Administrators and policymakers note that STEM fields are historically male-dominated. Experts conduct studies to figure out to what extent discrimination, bias, and the “girls-can’t-do-math” stereotype are the causes of gender disparity. To compensate for the inequality, young women are pervasively encouraged to become STEM professionals. Missing from all the gender-bias dialogue is a defense of exactly what it is that women contribute to the scientific community. More bodies?

In a parallel, but very different, universe, young Catholics are taught the importance of the family in God’s plan, that marriage is ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of the children (CCC 2201). Although there is no mandate that a woman must become a wife, or that a mother must be a homemaker, there is a natural and reasonable expectation that mothers of young children forego demanding careers. In this role as matriarch of the domestic church, the contributions of a woman’s genius to the good of society are strongly emphasized.

So, when a young Catholic woman decides she loves science because it is the study of the handiwork of God, and she becomes enthused about a STEM career, she is faced with two (seemingly) opposing choices: the lab or love. This a false dichotomy, but not one that is clarified much in public.

Science of today needs a woman’s touch. Men are analytically rigorous, focused, and goal-oriented, and that is indeed good. But women nurture. They step back and take in the tapestry. They are adept at systematic thinking, placing the details of projects into the context of the past, present, and future, the local and the global. They ponder things in their hearts. The civilized world is navigating difficult technological and ethical issues regarding the dignity of human life (cloning, euthanasia, stem cell research, CRISPR), the stewardship of our planet (alternative energy sources, public policy), and the betterment of humanity (food sources, water supplies, medical care). Women leaders, especially those who have embraced the practice of virtue, are needed to equilibrate the decisions.

I hear from these high school and college-aged women a lot. They experience angst because they want to do the right thing. They realize that they have opportunities women in past generations did not have, and they are humbled and appreciative. Many (not all) also feel called to be wives and mothers. The newness of this women-in-STEM career phase has left a void of balanced guidance.

A woman considering a STEM career worries about the potential of raising a family. Secular culture says to put off having kids or to limit the number of them if you want to work outside the home. Yet, this is contrary to the Catholic understanding of the conjugal love of man and woman in marriage that instructs spouses to submit to the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity so the marriage remains ordered to the procreation of human life (CCC 2362-66).

In feminist circles, they say, “Let the man take care of the kids.” And certainly, for some families this is a viable solution. The woman works outside the home; the man tends the housework and children. But let’s be real. While young men can assume they will work outside the home and a wife will stay home with the kids if the couple decides to raise a family, no woman, no matter how modern and forward-thinking, assumes such will be her situation. Besides, making such assumptions about a man makes the woman guilty of reverse gender discrimination. We’re trying to avoid that, remember?

In Catholic circles, they say, “Just trust God and follow his will.” But this is not really advice so much as it is a statement of fact for leading a life of faith. Some go further and insist, “A woman’s place is in the home,” which is not helpful at all. Discernment demands that a woman try on different scenarios in her mind so she can decide what works best for her situation. That’s the problem, though. How is she supposed to figure out various scenarios without any data? It’s not like a woman can commit four-to-eight years of her life to an advanced STEM degree and then another five years raising a family before she chooses her path.

These anxieties are common for young adults in general. It is natural for young people to wish they could plan out their futures. In STEM fields, however, there is added pressure. These ladies wonder (in secret) whether it is a form of male-aping to become a scientist. Will the “masculine” traits that make her a good scientist also make her a bad mother? Will nurturing come naturally for her? What if it doesn’t? Is she wasting her life studying science if she is only going to “throw her degree away”? These are some of the things I want to address in future writing.

For now, listen up ladies. Yes, it’s worth your time to devote your life to science if you are a Catholic woman, even if you become a mother and decide only to work in your field a handful of years (as I did).

The knowledge changes you, and you will always be able to put it to use. Some people travel the globe to see the world. But scientists, engineers, and mathematicians can grasp the world at an entirely deeper level. Knowledge of the inner logic of nature will allow you to stand perfectly still and peer into an invisible reality that underlies all the macroscopic realm surrounding you, the cars, the smartphones, the plants, the angles, the waves, the trickling water, the intensity of sounds traveling in compressions and rarefactions through the air, the frequencies of light racing at a foot-per-nanosecond that make up all the color you will ever see. You’ll traverse landscapes in your mind without moving a muscle.

Even more, you will be an explorer. If you earn a PhD, your work will add new knowledge to your field. You will reach into the unknown and pull back the veil a little further, and forever own the satisfaction of knowing you discovered something new. That insight will affect your relationships. It’s true. Should you ever be so fortunate to hold your own child in your arms, you will understand the miracle of human life and the passing of time in a way that will leave you utterly breathless and awed that such robust matter could become such fragile life. Trust me when I say this: this is the kind of passion that the scientific community needs. Even if you never enter a lab, you can be a leader in society.

Last, let me just say that I realize the teaching of the Church regarding vocation, fertility, marriage, and virtue can seem distant and dry at times, like pronouncements lacking in tangibility, but so do physics equations and chemical reactions to those who do not rely on them for their work. You are not winging it alone. The instruction from Scripture and Tradition will illuminate your way. If you don’t already, in time you will maneuver through the teachings of the Church just as agilely as you will manipulate matter in the atomic world.

I will explain more of these points in separate essays—the beauty of living the scientific method, the practice of prudence, dealing with anxiety, remaining true to your femininity, having courage to make changes when necessary. You know what I am going to say, don’t you? I’m going to tell you to be a saint—a Catholic woman scientist saint. Because humanity needs you.

Mary, Queen of the Universe, Mother of our Creator, pray for us.


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About Stacy A. Trasancos 3 Articles
Stacy A. Trasancos holds a PhD in chemistry and a MA in dogmatic theology. She teaches chemistry and physics at Kolbe Academy and science and theology courses at Holy Apostles and Seton Hall University and is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki and Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. As a mother of two daughters, someone with a technology background, and a faithful Catholic, this is so refreshing. I’m weary of hearing that women shouldn’t do anything but be mothers and homemakers – don’t misunderstand, I’ve done it and it was the most wonderful thing I could have done, but I’ve always had the desire and means to work in one way or another. My background in project management at a large tech company turned out to be a huge advantage when I had to manage all the needs of my older daughter who is special needs. I’ve listened to a lot of Catholics say women should just stay home, and when they were little I did. But as the kids got older I had the energy and desire to be back out in the world. I’ve worked with my husband to not have this interfere with our family, much the same way we wouldn’t want his work to be disruptive to family life. I only hope and pray that others see the value of women pursuing things that interest them outside the home. I thank God for my supportive husband and hope that my daughters will find a good man like him. God bless you and I look forward to your other essays!

  2. “Science of today needs a woman’s touch. Men are analytically rigorous, focused, and goal-oriented, and that is indeed good. But women nurture. They step back and take in the tapestry. They are adept at systematic thinking, placing the details of projects into the context of the past, present, and future, the local and the global. They ponder things in their hearts.”

    Oh, are they? Do they? What, *all* of them? And I would certainly hope that all scientists, women and men, would be “analytically rigorous, focused, and goal-oriented.”

    “Women leaders, especially those who have embraced the practice of virtue, are needed to equilibrate the decisions.”

    *Leaders* who have embraced the practice of virtue are needed, and whether they are men or women is irrelevant.

    Also, I am so very very very tired of the word “stewardship.”

  3. I suppose it is too much to expect that CWR could avoid SJW-convergence (even if it is more in the guise of complementarianism rather than overt feminism), as the Latin churches in the US are already further along the path of convergence.

    1. Civilization can do fine without women in STEM but it cannot survive if women are not good mothers and wives, and that is not innate but requires preparation, self-discipline, and practice.

    2. Women putting off having children until one’s late 20s and early 30s is a lamentable trend, and Roman Catholics, of all people, with their pro-life (and pro-natalist attitude) should not be pushing this. Women are more physically able to deal with young children when they are younger, it is easier for them to conceive when they are younger, and it is more likely that their fruitfulness will result in larger families if they start younger. If they delay having their first children until their 30s, it is more difficult to conceive and the risk of defects goes up.

    3. Encouraging women to get graduate degrees, while men are dropping out of higher education, is stupid in the light of female hypergamy. You are just reducing the pool of potential husbands for them, as women generally will not marry down in status or “settle.” Even for the few women who are inclined to STEM by their natural interests and aptitude, this is poor advice.

    4. As a long-term goal the feminist push for greater (if not equal) representation in fields previously dominated by men is outdated. The abundance of wealth and cheap energy that enables the female participation in the workplace in the first place is rapidly disappearing, and so will the industrial civilization that is dependent upon that wealth and energy. A young Catholic woman would be better off reading Women on the Verge of Societal Breakdown by Piero San Giorgio.

    • Yes, and I was hoping, though not really expecting, the infamous synod on the family to maybe mention something along those lines. But instead they gave us… what they gave us.

  4. Good point about the stay at home dad feeling bad. Just as we sahm’s feel patronized by ourside- working mothers who say home is all right for us but they could never do it. And then take our husband’s (and sole providers) jobs.

  5. “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe?” Chesterton

    Those who can, homeschool!

  6. “Science of today needs a woman’s touch. Men are analytically rigorous, focused, and goal-oriented, and that is indeed good. But women nurture . . . The civilized world is navigating difficult technological and ethical issues regarding the dignity of human life (cloning, euthanasia, stem cell research, CRISPR), the stewardship of our planet (alternative energy sources, public policy), and the betterment of humanity (food sources, water supplies, medical care).”
    .
    Yeah, women are very pro-life and all that. Just ask Cecil Richards and Company.
    .
    As the daughter of an organic chemist, a man, I find this article not much to my taste. Dad was very much concerned about his fellow man (and woman). Can’t people, men and women, just do what they want to do (as long as it isn’t sinful)? And if more women want to become elementary school teachers than men, so what? And if more men become physicists than women, so what? I don’t see that it matters.
    .
    Funny thing. Become a good plumber, and a person is making some nice money. Same with underwater welding. Real nice money in underwater welding. Work on an oil rig anyone? I never hear anyone say we don’t have enough women plumbers or electricians or welders. Why is that.

    • “Funny thing. Become a good plumber, and a person is making some nice money. Same with underwater welding. Real nice money in underwater welding. Work on an oil rig anyone? I never hear anyone say we don’t have enough women plumbers or electricians or welders. Why is that.”

      Indeed.

  7. Catholicism is critical to my being integrated in my family life and lab life. I dedicated my dissertation to Our Lady of the Highways on Interstate 95 — she helped me get through the sleepless nights nursing my baby in NJ followed by sleeping on the floor in my lab in MD where I was finishing up my doctorate. Her statue is almost precisely between those two points and to me it symbolizes how on earth I could integrate the two demanding components of my life– by putting my Catholicism as the center and fulcrum.

  8. Preach it!

    I would also add: at the time most women decide what they want to study in college, they haven’t yet discerned their vocation. So, girls, don’t assume that marriage and family is your vocation and get in a tizzy figuring out how you’ll care for children whose potential father you haven’t even yet met! Don’t sweat it: study what you want, as long as you want, while discerning. Your education will come in handy whether you’re called to marriage, single life, or religious life. As long as your Vocation, whatever it turns out to be, is your top priority (and if you have kids, make sure they KNOW, by your actions, that they are the top priority), it doesn’t really matter whether your field is chemistry, communications, or liberal arts, whatev, it will not be “wasted”.

    If you are called to marriage and if your are able to have kids (and these are ifs) consider that it will be much easier for you to have job flexibility if you’ve gotten a good education. Along the way, you’ll have met intelligent, diligent men, definitely a good thing if you are called to marriage. When preparing your kids for life, you’ll be able to teach them how to learn, help them with homework or homeschool them, help them with college prep, etc. If your husband dies, is disabled, or his job is killng him, you’ll need something to fall back on yourself, and nothing beats a solid degree.

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