My recent article in the THE about cultural expectations being imposed on young girls (which also appeared as a post here) got a mixed reception in the online comments. Several seemed to have failed to grasp the central point that upbringing does affect what girls (and boys) feel is acceptable and desirable regardless of any intrinsic neurological differences, and also appeared to think I was urging that every career should have a 50:50 split between the genders. It is depressing to find how little people are prepared to invest in reading an article properly before shooting off some reply. But the following response from ‘RS’ (quoted below in italics) is interesting in the assumptions it implicitly and explicitly makes.
As for ‘Female scientists can have families, you’re not excluded from that either’ – the thing is, due to biology, a man is physically capable of becoming a parent without taking time off work, a woman isn’t. Undeniably true
Generally academia will view you as unserious and uncommitted to your work if you take time off to have a family, and in the hell of the academic job market, even a brief interruption of full-time research can seriously damage your prospects. This is the sort of defeatism that makes change so hard, but it is also a serious assumption that – I would like to believe – is of decreasing validity. It is why the current debate about the rules in the REF about maternity leave is so important (see here for a fairly strongly worded introduction to the issue if you aren’t up to speed on this one). As long as time out to have a baby is accepted as implying a lack of commitment women, indeed society, will continue to have problems. The answer is not to say women should not have children if they want a career but to address the circumstances which lead to the disadvantages being referred to and change the mindset which perpetuates the myth that wanting a family/life equates to lack of commitment.
This is made worse by social expectations that it is the mother who will be primarily in charge of child care, not just in infancy, but until adolescence. So yes, it’s possible, but it results in women, unless they choose not to have children, finding it harder to rise through the ranks. Again this is defeatism. The social expectations will possibly begin to be challenged (I am optimistic on this front) by the changing law around paternity leave. In which case, post-delivery, in principle we should only ever talk about parental leave.
This topic is brought into sharp focus by the recent release of the much-hyped (though not well reviewed) film ‘I don’t know how she does it all’. You cannot stir without coming across reviews of the film and articles prompted by it, or see the face of the Sarah Jane Parker – who plays the ‘she’ of the title – splattered on the sides of buses. It is the film of the book by Allison Pearson, a book I would not recommend to anyone. My mother (!) kindly gave it to me to read, rather recently in fact, and I just found it intensely annoying. In case you aren’t familiar with it the book describes some female financial hotshot who desperately tries to combine continuing as a hotshot with being the perfect mum until she realises that she is miserable and quits the day-job to stay at home with her children. At least, that is my memory of the outline, but what is so irritating – to my mind – are the things she feels she has to do to retain her status as Perfect Mum. The iconic moment of the book/film seems to be the image of her at midnight hard at work ‘distressing’ mince pies – distressing them in this context meaning to make a Sainsbury’s version look home-made and therefore acceptable to the other mothers (and in the book it is definitely mothers not parents that are being referred to). Maybe that really is the world some people move in, but I’m glad to say not me. I would guess probably not most scientists, but perhaps I’m wrong.
I doubt the book could describe a stressed scientist parent because surely, on average, we believe there is more to life than needing to shop for that ‘essential’ Gucci handbag (or Armani suit for men) to impress at work, and making sure our kids win the best costume prize on dressing up day. We have other ways of expressing our competitiveness on a daily basis than through our children, because that’s the academic world for you. Maybe we are too abstracted in our research always to be the perfect parent, but distressing mince pies just seems an act too far. But that’s absolutely not the same thing as saying scientists don’t want or shouldn’t want to be parents.At this point I should put down a marker to say that once upon a time I helped organise a Blue Peter Sale and cooked a gross of chocolate buns for it; it’s not that I think none of that sort of good parenting matters, it’s just that one really doesn’t have to attempt to do everything.
I believe strongly we – and by ‘we’ I mean those parents, and particularly women, who have managed both to have children and a scientific career – need to counteract that pernicious message that younger women still receive along the lines of science career + children don’t add up, and state categorically that it can be done, albeit with difficulty and a lot of hard work. If you don’t believe this, let me refer you (as I’ve done before) to Ottoline Leyser’s fantastic booklet of 64 case studies demonstrating the myriad ways of accomplishing it . The hard work should be devoted to nurturing our children and our science, not feeding material insecurities in either ourselves or our children. Shed the guilt about the state of one’s mince pies or the lack of a pristine ironed shirt, and concentrate on what really matters which is healthy, happy children and exciting research. Life is hard enough without adding insecurities of this sort. The financial world is presumably different – maybe one’s ability to iron really does matter there, although probably it is the home help who does it – and I, for one, am glad I’m not part of it.