I have finally got around to finishing a book I started months ago called Opting Out – Why women really quit careers and head home. Written by Pamela Stone in 2007 it analyses the response of her interviews with 50+ high flying women who opted out of their careers in order to stay at home with the kids. Or, as she concluded, women who were in essence shut out because of the inflexibility of their working environment and (in some cases) the blindness of their partners as to what was going on. It is not a book about academic women but about women in business, law and management. It is a book that probably should be read in tandem with Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping talented women on the road to success, which similarly discusses the women who end up staying at home, but also in this case the subsequent challenges they face when eventually they try to find their way back into the workforce. Both books, written about the US job-market, highlight the hurdles people (almost invariably women, but in principle it need not be) face if they want to keep a high-flying career going with small kids at home, or kick-start it again after an absence. They both make well-argued cases which make for sombre reading.
These books tie in with remarks made by Sylvia McLain (Girl, Interrupting) in response to a previous posting of mine, referring to the way the media report on female scientists and the ‘impossibility’ of combining a successful science career with a family. Sylvia said of her mother
But what I saw was her being a ‘super-woman’ meaning she worked, did most of the child care, housework and cooking ON TOP OF working more than full time – she has a lot of energy and now she is 76 she would say she wouldn’t have it any other way.
I think a lot of people don’t want to necessarily work like this, I am not saying this is how it has to be (as in many cases it definitely is not!) but I think there is maybe a general impression that you have to do about 10 times as much work in order to achieve family and a good career. and equally I think there is still an impression that women like you ‘aren’t normal’
I said at the time she made these comments I would come back to them, and linking them with these books seems a good moment to do this. Whatever the business world is like, however much the evidence suggests you would be hard-pressed to be a hot-shot financial wizard with small children in the US, I actually think academic science – indeed academia more generally – offers a reasonably friendly environment for combining career and family. Why do I say this? Because academic life offers some scope for informal flexibility, whatever the working norms may be thought to be. We don’t have to clock in or out; we don’t have to travel week in, week out, to see clients or to do the court circuit, and we can usually write papers and lectures from home and access email at times of our choosing (which may be 11pm if that is what one wants, so as to be able to get to the school play in the afternoon). I think that gives us an enormous advantage over our colleagues in other professional spheres.
This, you will note, implies I am not really talking about bench scientists. Here, for the postdoc or PhD student who is still primarily carrying out their own experiments full time, the challenges will be greater. Reactions don’t stop because you need to pick up the children from school, and the timing of some critical analysis can’t necessarily be fitted around child minder’s hours, but for those who have made it to the point that paperwork/ overseeing students/lecturing (and writing lectures) are the main tasks, there is more flexibility. This flexibility should be embraced to facilitate whatever working pattern works for the family, consistent with the need to be present at certain key times e.g when actually delivering a lecture, running a practical class or attending a departmental meeting. But for the rest, it seems to me that people (probably this means women, but I want to be as inclusive as possible) can be creative in what works, as long as the necessary gets done. The main problem is working out what is, in practice, ‘necessary’ because the devil of academic life is it never needs to stop: it isn’t finite but as all-consuming, certainly as time-consuming, as one allows it to be.
Within my own university I know of two women – there may be others I don’t know about – who have been promoted to professor whilst still formally working part-time (I believe 4 days a week). Declaring that you work part-time most certainly should not be a bar to promotion. But I am also talking about the situation where someone is working full time but at times of their choosing rather than a regular pattern of 9-5 (or indeed 8-6 or whatever). For lecturers it should be perfectly possible to find a schedule that works but that may not be conventional. People have done this for a generation or two informally, without drawing attention to it, and we should use it to our advantage.
This doesn’t solve all of Sylvia’s concerns about needing to be a ‘super-woman’ and do, as she puts it, all the childcare, housework and cooking on top of a full time job, but it does offer something of a solution. What I am describing should apply equally well to the academic husband as well as wife, so it offers the couple a chance to fit in what is important to them at home around the demands of their jobs. It does mean that fathers, as well as mothers, can choose to take the children to school some mornings and arrive a bit late, as long as it’s not the day they have a 9am lecture to give to 300 first years. It should mean that either partner can stay at home one day to deal with the plumber (and simultaneously they should be able to clear that backlog of email so it is hardly wasted time). The problem is likely to be much more acute when one partner is not an academic, who does have to work a 9-5 job, or is frequently required to be in the US without the luxury of saying ‘I’ll give that conference a miss this year’.
So this is the message I think we should be putting out to young women thinking about an academic career in science. Don’t simply read the depressing books I mention above and assume that the challenges are as bad in academic life as in the law or business. If/when you can get your foot on the permanent-staff ladder, the flexibility that academia offers to work the hours you want, not the hours some faceless boss requires of you, is actually a benefit. You can work at home much of the time and still accomplish a great deal; the weekend is just as amenable to lecture writing as Monday-Friday, so use it to free up time during the week if that is to your advantage. Don’t think you have to be ‘not normal’ so much as imaginative – and as scientists you’re bound to be that.
(I appreciate this message may be cold comfort to those who are languishing in that frustrating land of post-doc insecurity where what I am describing may be seen as an impossible luxury.)