I believe that women are endowed with certain advantages and disadvantages, just as men are. We are all different, and I don’t think these competencies are necessarily gender-based, although one can argue that women are more inclined to have certain capabilities. But every individual is different and we don't recognise that enough. That however doesn’t change the fact that as a society, we have had a history of not providing as many opportunities for women as for men. It’s a systemic issue, and must change.
So people tend to advise individuals based on institutional rules and labels, but I think the worst advice you can give a woman about her career is to say that she should do this or that, as though she embodies the “typical” attributes of being a “woman,” and these institutional rules somehow work for or against her in some generalised way.
Striking a balance
Balancing one’s early career and family is, and will forever be a challenge, regardless of whether you are male or female. We should always build a system to provide more choices and greater flexibility so that both families and careers can thrive for both men and women.
In the STEM world, scientists pride themselves in their rationality and logic as applied to work. Women in the STEM world are quite adept at rationality and logic and it is normal to assume that the same rationality and logic can be applied to family lives. This is true to some extent. However, as both a scientist and a social scientist, I will tell you that human lives are not fully rational and neither are our choices consistent. For many women, and probably men too, our work lives exist within a wider life – without the need to compartmentalise them. With technology and social connectivity, we do not and often cannot compartmentalise and say we work from 9-5 and then spend time with family. Anyone who reply emails in the evening will know how futile it is to try to do this.
Proudest achievement? That I managed to have a career and also get through the most challenging aspects of parenting unscathed (although I am saying this because I have no idea what's coming up). I am constantly surprised with how well adjusted and sensible my three (now adult) daughters are, and I am so proud of them. As you get older, you get to acknowledge some inconvenient truths. For example it is commonly perceived that academics are self-centred and egoistical and on reflection, I think there must be some truth to this, because I attribute my self-centredness as a paradoxical attribute that made me less willing to compromise my own happiness. So perhaps my girls are quite well adjusted because mum has been happy – working hard, playing hard and enjoying my family. And I've reduced as many of the conflicts by using technology and managing the system holistically so that I can remain happy. I always believe that happy parents beget happy children.