Get a Wife!

This useful phrase seems to be the advice proffered by one physicist – male of course – to questions about how to succeed in an academic career.  It says a lot about what may go wrong for women also trying to climb the greasy academic pole, almost regardless of what their institutions may be trying to do to support them. At least some of the time – and I certainly don’t want to let universities completely off the hook – the challenges for women may reside closer to home.  I came across this response in a deeply disturbing article this week, even if at a certain level it didn’t surprise me. It was a study of married male scientists, at a relatively early stage of their careers, but for once it was the views of the men that were sought. What they said was, in some instances, pretty shocking, although not apparently to all the readers judging by some of the comments added at the end.

The article reported a study by Elaine Howard Ecklund and colleagues, as part of the ‘Influences on Science Careers’ project (which has previously published  an interesting article on the effect of having fewer children than ideally desired on scientists’ careers). That earlier study is fully written up, but I have only a brief description of the ongoing study to analyse and, inevitably, this published brief account may or may not accurately reflect the full work. The report is based on work released at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.  The project leaders had interviewed 74 male physicists and biologists, who were either grad students or early career faculty, as to their attitudes towards couples and family caring responsibilities.  About 15% had no children (at least as yet) to worry about. Some men obviously saw their partners as equals – about one third fitted into this category – and knew that they were compromising their own careers in order to share responsibilities such as putting the children to bed, finding themselves often sleep-deprived and certainly not able to work in the flexible way (ie long hours) that had been possible pre-children.

However, a slight majority had rather less egalitarian attitudes. Some (just under a quarter, largely and disappointingly graduate students) had working wives, but believed that it was the women’s responsibility to take care of home matters. They seemed to believe that this was what the women wanted, that it was their ‘choice’.  According to the study

[I]t appears that men overemphasize their wife’s decision as a ‘choice,’ when in reality their wife’s choice to care for the children is constrained by her husband’s schema of children as primarily ‘her issue,’

Some of the commenters didn’t like this attitude, complaining the authors had preconceived ideas that they set out to confirm and implicitly saying, their wives had opted out of their own free will so why couldn’t the authors believe this happened in general. They obviously haven’t read the literature on ‘choicism’, which supports the view that many women want to believe they’ve given up promising careers freely, either completely or by cutting back their efforts and settling for less than their potential might predict, because they don’t want to admit discrimination or being worn down by partners into putting their careers on the backburner. I wrote briefly about this previously in the context of the book Opting Out – Why women really quit careers and head home by Pamela Stone, but there is a substantive literature out there. A useful summary of the issues surrounding ‘choicism’ can be found here.  This is a problem way beyond academic science.

The final group of men interviewed, about 30% and mainly tenured faculty, fitted a traditional breadwinner role. The women didn’t work outside the home and the men clearly recognized this made their own lives much easier. The one who took the biscuit though, was the one whose response to

Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?


No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.

I am sorry to have to admit he was a physicist; I blush for some of my colleagues.

One moral of all this is that old chestnut, choose the right partner. If you are a woman wanting a career, make sure your partner understands and will support you in this role, even at the crunch time of child-rearing. But even that, I suspect, isn’t always enough once push comes to shove. An earlier report from the Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, looking at dual career academic couples, had some rather disturbing statistics.  Looking at responses to the question ‘whose career is primary?’ where the couple were both academics, showed that 59% of women and only 45% of men answered ‘both careers are equal’. (The following two figures are taken from this report and illustrate these points.)
Figure 17 dual

For 50% of men (compared with only 20% of women) their own career was primary. Interestingly, as women got more senior they became even less likely to say that their career was primary (moving from 33% at assistant professor to 27% at full professor level), whereas the opposite was true for men, where the figures moved from 57% to 63%.
Figure 18 dual
These figures don’t make for comfortable reading; if women and men continue to believe that the man’s career is primary and that, the proportion of women who believe that their careers are as important as their partners is higher than the number of men (presumably the other half of the same couples) who believe this, there is no way that problems for the progression of women to the top ranks in academia will not persist.

The optimist in me would like to believe that the young men of today could not write to me as one correspondent did, after my recent Comment is Free article in the Guardian. This retired schoolteacher wrote (rather sweetly, on a typewriter):

May I simply suggest that the ladies concentrate on useful technology courses, rather than pure science. Men might allow ladies to develop careers in technology, if they sacrificed competition in science.

I won’t attempt to spell out what I find so appalling in those two sentences; suffice it to say the word ‘allow’ seems fairly offensive. But if, as this recent study seems to show, the male graduate students of today are content to assume (or even presume) that their wives are meekly content to watch their career aspirations slip away without checking how accurate an assumption that is, I fear the road to equality will be a long time coming.

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48 Responses to Get a Wife!

  1. LL says:

    A very senior (former ProVC) at my Uni recently told me that most of her similarly high powered female academic colleagues were on second husbands. These men were considered more attractive to them because they were sufficiently senior/well-established in their own careers not to be threatened by their wife’s ambition or to be too demanding of her time in support of their own advancement.  

    Her advice to me as a young woman in science was ‘get a house husband’. While I don’t have one of those, I certainly have a supportive partner who conveniently took a decision (entirely of his own volition!) to move away from his previously high powered city  job to something more relaxed and (crucially for us as a family) closer to home.  

    This has been helpful to my career as, by becoming the major breadwinner, I have a stronger negotiating position when it comes to the need to work flexibly or travel away from home for work. We are also able to share childcare responsibilities more equally between us, which is a great help too. 

     The slightly depressing truth is, however, that had he maintained his previous job (where we earned comparable salaries but his prospects for advancement and future higher pay were far greater than mine) I would have felt compelled to compromise my career to some extent, through taking the lion’s share of the childcare responsibility (outside the 9-5 of nursery), as being in academia my job is both more flexible and less potentially lucrative for the family. 

    For us, the only solution that would have enabled both of us to maintain more demanding jobs would have been access to more affordable and flexible childcare, while our daughter is still young. Even then, I am not sure we’d have wanted to sacrifice that time with our daughter. 

     Sadly, witg nursery fees for one child alone absorbing 30% of our household income, it was never even an option we could consider. The cost of childcare really does play a huge part in negotiations between working couples over how to balance and prioritise their jobs/careers. In my case we are deferring having a second child because our joint income is not enough to pay two sets of nursery fees and neither of us wants to become a stay at home parent. Given we are in this situation despite our joint income putting us well inside the top 10% for household income across the UK, I do wonder how much tougher this negotiation must be for those women less well paid than me. Maybe on reflection I shouldn’t complain at all!

  2. First time I have heard of “choicism”. The research you reviewed has a disturbing message, but I wonder where exactly we are heading with this. Clearly, the attitudes of many of these men are unacceptable. And obviously, the choices you make will depend on a host of factors, including social pressures, practical obstacles, and attitudes of partners. . But there seems an implicit assumption here that if all of these factors were equal for both sexes, all women would choose to remain in science rather than stay at home with children. It starts to sound as if you think that any woman who chooses to opt out of a scientific career is doing the wrong thing, and is just a victim of social pressures and the coercive attitudes of men. I think it’s more complicated than that.
    For instance, there’s much agonising about lack of women in senior managerial positions. My university is trying hard to address this. They are offering a mentoring programme for women to encourage them down that route, and I was asked if I would take part. Now, I have not got a managerial bone in my body and I am in the fortunate position of being paid to do research, which I thoroughly enjoy, so I declined. Nothing to do with being scared to compete with men or feeling I would not fit in. I just know what makes me happy, and if someone is prepared to pay me a salary to do that, it’s the choice I’d take. But I suspect that my university would get negative ratings from Athena Swan if all senior women did the same, because the notion of choice is regarded with suspicion. There seems to be an assumption that everyone should want the same thing, be they male or female – a position of power with a high salary.
    As far as child-rearing is concerned, it would be good to have a society where it would be socially acceptable for men, like women, to have the choice to stay at home with children if they wished. Indeed, it could be argued that they are disadvantaged because that option is usually seen as a bizarre choice and a sign of weakness. But it does not seem right to assume that women who make that choice are all victims of oppression.

    • a reader says:

      The implicit assumption you read into the article that all women would choose to work, and making a real choice to stay home is the wrong thing just isn’t there in the article. Nowhere was the choice to stay home or to choose a different career denigrated, and nowhere did it suggest that all people who choose to be housewives or househusbands are the victims of oppression. You made that up.
      The examples are all about patterns where the two partners see the situation differently, and the point is the difference between the two, not the numbers of either sex making each choice. The problem raised is that presumed roles apparently push people into things they didn’t choose, and that this systematically happens to women and not men.
      Of course many people, male and female, choose something other than an academic career. This is certainly not a bad thing. We need more than just academics in the world.

  3. LL
    I think the question of whose career is likely to be more lucrative is indeed a crucial matter. Even if a couple marry when both are doing PhD’s, so that they are at exactly the same stage, one of them may be in a field that has higher average salaries than the other. These are the sort of pragmatic factors that make every couple’s situation different. But, you are clearly in a relationship where you discuss these matters. I worry about the ones where the assumptions are so deeply-ingrained they are never actually made explicit.

    I am not sure (because I haven’t read enough of the literature) that choicism makes things as black and white as you imply. In what I have written in many posts, I have always tried to stress that I don’t think we should be expecting a 50:50 ratio of men and women in science. For instance, a few posts back, I wrote

    for many couples the traditional model is likely to remain best, be it for financial, emotional or simply pragmatic reasons

    I also agree with you that many women may not want to take on what look like the leadership roles and that too proves nothing about external factors (see this post on all male shortlists where I made that very point).

    But I, and no doubt you too, do know women who are married to other academics where they are the ones who are by default assumed to be the one to cover when a child is sick, or not travel for the first 5 years of a child’s life, while their husband continues to behave as if nothing has changed. Some of them may indeed be perfectly content, but some do it with gritted teeth. If asked publicly they may indeed say that of course their husband’s career comes first, but it is still through gritted teeth. Some of them may never have got sufficiently far up the ladder for it to be worth fighting; they are the ones who may end up with perfectly satisfactory careers doing something else (e.g. teaching), yet secretly mourn what they gave up whatever, again, they say openly to others. Those are the people I think choicism refers to. I have no idea what proportion of women may fit into that category. I get the impression in some careers it is more common than others; it may be different in the US (where the literature I have read emanates from) from the UK. But I am sure it is genuine, even if the corollary of its existence does not mean all women would opt to stay in science if the problem didn’t exist.

  4. Regarding matters of choice, a comment on one of my blog posts has stayed with me. It was supplied anonymously via email from a female academic:

    “Few women can argue convincingly that our reproductive choices are truly “free” (that is, free from emotional or biological drives).”

    I found the rest of that particular comment interesting too. It is in the comments of:

  5. Kate Jeffery says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article and equally thoughtful comments. It really is a complex issue and one I have thought about for a long time, and am also wrestling with via our own Athena SWAN efforts.

    I was interested in Athene’s assertion that women often to some extent convince themselves post hoc that they really didn’t want that academic career enough, but I also agree with Dorothy’s suggestion that it often really is a genuine choice. Mixing a career and children is brutally hard work – it requires a military degree of organisation and planning, ability to tolerate substandard tidiness, substandard child nutrition, substandard entertainment and substandard personal care. When a harried, stressed, disheveled scientist mother who has just had her third grant rejected looks at the relaxed, coiffured and manicured mothers of the nutritiously fed, multi-talented, tidily presented children playing in their immaculate houses with the bowling-green lawns, it’s hard not to think there might be a better family life to be had. Being with the children you love and taking care of their home is, after all, quite fun and appeals to a deep nestbuilding instinct in humans. I’m really not surprised women leave science in droves – what impresses me more after all these years is how many *stay*. That convinces me that women really do love science as much as men – there are just more factors conspiring to lure them away.

    My feeling about what needs to change for gender equality in science is that there should be a *massive* drive towards attracting men into the home (men have nestbuilding instincts too after all). My observation/experience has been that the most engaged fathers are those who stayed home with their partners and babies in the very early days, and developed equal confidence in baby-handling and a strong bond that persisted. Therefore, I’d like to see universities strongly encouraging paternity leave. One good suggestion I’ve heard recently is that the teaching sabbatical we currently offer to maternity returners should also be offered to those men who took paternity leave. That sends the message that the university expects fathers to be playing an equal role in looking after their new babies. If established early, that pattern has more chance of continuing. In my ideal utopian world, both sexes would enjoy both their careers and their family-care roles in equal measure (and from choice).

    • I agree that early care by partners seems important. In the last few years, my university (The University of Melbourne) has recently changed its maternity leave and paternity leave arrangements such that there is now “parental leave”. There are particularly good arrangements if both partners are employed by the university; they can share what was previously “maternity leave”. Generous maternity leave has obvious benefits. However, arrangements where maternity leave is substantially greater than paternity leave essentially helps to reinforce the stereotype of mother as primary carer.

      • Kate Jeffery says:

        Michael – I’m curious to know how many men take up their paternity/parental leave option. Our (UK) experience is that they don’t even take what is available, which is why I think offering additional incentives may be necessary to start the ball rolling.

        • The university policy is only a relatively recent change, although I’m not sure it is well known. I only stumbled upon it when I was seeking to clarify the maternity leave arrangements of the university. It will be interesting to see how many men take up the option – but I suspect quite a few. Most younger male academics that I know seem to have at least some primary care role of their children even prior to this policy.

          However, the bigger issue is that in most of Australian society (outside of academia and some other sectors), it is unconventional for men to be primary carers even on a part-time basis. That means that a woman will have fewer options if her partner’s employer does not have equitable parental leave arrangements.

        • Sarah says:

          My husband and I briefly considered splitting the parental leave here in the UK, but the reality was that with him as the primary earner and the part he would be allowed to take being completely unpaid it wasn’t an option. I consider myself very lucky to be able to go back to work at all with two small children – it wouldn’t be possible without a fully supportive husband!

  6. On the corner of my street one of my neighbours and friends is a high power and very successful professor of food chemistry. She has a very successful career locally, nationally and internationally and two very sweet and energetic daughters, eleven and six years old. How is this possible? She has a devoted househusband. Tim is a computer network help-desk worker whose salary if he worked would only be a fraction of his wife’s so he stays at home does the housework and looks after the kids. She is however very careful to arrange her working hours, as head of department she can do this, so that she has enough time to take part in the daily activities of her daughters.

    I am aware that such relationships are still fairly rare but it is definitely a model that should and must serve as an example to others.

  7. Kate and Michael
    The law on paternity leave (allowing sharing of a substantial part of what used to be ‘maternity leave’) has only recently changed in the UK too. I do hope this will make a significant difference in time, but currently I think it is too early for people to have taken it in. I suspect ‘incentives’ will need to be introduced, at least in the sense of making absolutely sure – and trumpeting the fact – that men taking paternity leave are treated in exactly the same way as women taking maternity leave: for instance, promotions/appointments panels being fully up to speed about career breaks for men. It is why I think the word ‘ returners’ should be used without qualification as to gender or what they are returning from in some senses. This is about cultural change as much as anything, as I highlighted in my earlier post where I discussed this much more substantially.

    That earlier post also discusses the wonderful character who is a househusband – I have one and without a shadow of a doubt he has made my career possible, just like your friend on the corner. We need to celebrate such men and make sure that their status is recognized for what it is, not as representing some sort of failure. This is also another aspect of true equality. As Kate says, men can enjoy nestbuilding (or I would phrase it more as spending time with their children) and they should be free to do so if that’s what works for them.

    • Kate Jeffery says:

      Just to defend my nestbuilding terminology! I’ve noticed that today’s “new men” are quite amenable to the idea of spending more time with their children – taking them to and from school, enjoying leisure actvities with them etc. I have noticed less of a inclination for them to take on the mundane, boring, housekeeping tasks that keep the place running. In the majority of two-career households it is still the woman who does the bulk of the housework. Equality in the workplace shouldn’t mean that women sacrifice time with their children in favour of time in the office/lab, while still getting to do all the scraping of the grunge off the dishwasher etc.

      Since men are understandably reluctant to take these tasks on (nestbuilding instincts notwithstanding), hired domestic help is a way of bridging the gap, and having two salary-earners makes that much more possible. I think it would be great if universities paid for domestic help for staff with a new baby – having gotten them addicted, as it were, that arrangement is more likely to carry on, which would disproportionately benefit the woman in the family (and, by extension, her employer – so there’s a business case to be made…).

  8. Brigitte says:

    Hmmm, isn’t ‘get a house husband’ very similar to ‘get a (house) wife’… same issues, same problems, same cop out, in a way….???

    • I don’t think either Thony or I were saying ‘get a house husband’. But if that’s what works for a couple, then that’s what works. I have always said it is about working out what is right for a couple, not that there is any simple solution. But I do think it is important the discussion between a couple is had, not that the assumption that one (either) bears the brunt is made implicitly without airing the issues. The physics student who said a wife was the solution to his problem may have been ‘right’, but it wasn’t obvious he had ever stopped to consider the problem, which is where he would undoubtedly be ‘wrong’.

      • Brigitte says:

        I completely agree. However, I still think it should be possible to create a world, infra-structure, support system, whatever you may call it, that enables, encourages and empowers couples to solve what Austin Elliott quoting Ursula LeGuin calls ‘the ‘three-full-time-jobs-problem’, without necessarily having to adopt either the house wife or house husband option. Probably a bit of a utopian dream!

        • Ursula Le Guin was actually responding to a question about how she and her (academic) husband had managed their two careers and three children – her answer, paraphrased, was that:

          ‘One person can’t really do two full-time jobs, but two people working together can, between them, manage three full-time jobs’

          – which a lot of academic couples I know do. Though obviously more support makes it progressively easier.

          In fact, I think academia is better than other settings for doing this in SOME respects – working hours for PIs are flexible, for instance, as Athene has pointed out before, and other than during scheduled teaching one is not ‘required’ to be physically present, which makes it easier to do things like the school pick-up. But of course, in other ways academia is less accommodating, such as there being no clear ‘ceiling’ on hours or amount of work – something that I would view as having worsened over the last couple of decades.

          • LL says:

            Austin, I agree academia has its advantages as you say, however, it is important to remember that the average age at which a woman (in my town at least) have their first child is 30. Most of the women in my department having kids are around this age (or usually a few years older). I point this out because I do not know many women under 35 who are PIs of any sort, and not a single one who has tenure.

            A post doc with a young child has significantly less flexibility than a PI. Depending on their PI’s attitude they may be expected to work fixed hours (often in excess of the 9-5) and may be judged unfavourably in comparison to their colleagues if they cannot meet this demand. They are more likely to be working in the lab, and so experiments (that might take several days to complete) are often adversely affected when they have to/decide to work restricted hours or take time off at short notice to deal with inevitable infant illnesses. On the plus side they have 35 days holiday a year, which can give you some wiggle room for dealing with those unexpected days off.. so it is not all bad.

            My point is that while the academic life may be conducive to raising young kids, the post-doc life is significantly less so. Just at the point in your career in which you are expecting/expected to be maximally productive in the lab, you also need to get on with starting your family before you get too old to do so. This is a factor that weighs heavily on the minds of many of my contemporaries and is a significant factor in influencing many of them to reduce their career aspirations, accepting fixed term research or teaching posts beneath their skill level, or leaving science altogether.

            Even when they see women in more senior positions, such as Athene, who have managed to combine both family and scientific success, they struggle to see how they can pull out all the stops in the lab at this critical point for their (insecure and extremely demanding) career, and meet their aspiration to be equally successful in raising a family. Instead they see that there are other jobs they can do which, whilst potentially less intellectually satisfying, offer greater long term stability, more predictable hours and equal if not greater salary.

  9. I recall talking to a female colleague (full Professor) at my own institution about this topic, just after she’d been to a meeting of the Faculty’s female PIs. [BTW, my understanding is that we have a lot of female PIs, and indeed Profs, relative to many Faculties/institutions]. She commented that they had also been discussing this, and it emerged that almost every single female full Professor in the Faculty who had children reported having had a full-time (daytime) nanny during the childrens’ early years. This was funded mostly by high family income due to partners in high-earning (exclusively non-academic, many business/finance) jobs. So a slightly different solution to the problem than the house-husband model. I would be interested to know what the relative prevalence of these two solutions was.

    Speaking from a male perspective, I think one has to factor in the issues referred to in Michael McCarthy’s first comment above and by Kate Jeffrey. Of my friends and neighbours (mostly professionals but not mostly academics), the only ones that have adopted the ‘house husband’ model are the ones where only the female partner was earning, or working full-time, at the point where the kids were born.

    I think one has to acknowledge that many (most) women still grow up assuming both that children will be part of their life at some stage, and that they will be the primary care-giver in the children’s early months or years. In contrast, I reckon men grow up not thinking about it at all. It also seems to me that most of the women I know with kids (though not all) actually want/wanted to be the primary carer, at least for the initial six months to a year, though obviously I can’t ignore my various biases on that one. Whether, and in what proportion, this all reflects biology, or social conditioning, I will leave to others.

    Anyway, I’d agree it is clear that one can fashion a range of solutions to what I once read Ursula LeGuin refer to (in terms something like) ‘the ‘three-full-time-jobs-problem’ (i.e. two full-time careers plus caring for the kids, the third full-time job). But I wonder if one can really argue that there are no reasons other than societal and male prejudice that women remain the main family caregivers for children.

    PS When I put this same question to my other half she said she reckoned it was ‘basically down to the laziness of men’>. At which point I slunk off back to the computer…

  10. I hope you don’t mind a comment from the non academic. I’ve only successfully studied up to an Open University foundation course level and only read a small number books, specialist ones compared to the normal lay person genre, mind you, having worked as a physical labourer for most of my life and without the time nor energy to do otherwise.

    The logical conclusion on whom should be the bread winner and who does the domestic work is whomever earns more or less respectively, irrespective of sex. What’s important in the organisational running and affording a household is at the end of the day having enough quality time for your partner and children to make it feel fulfilling. Whilst there are those who’d rather restrict their family contribution to just an income because their professional lives take up to much of their time, at that level private childcare is an option affordable for some. It would be ludicrous to expect the world’s elite to do the housework or be there always for the children after a 9-5 job and whilst articles have been published on the detrimental effects of having your child reared by someone else, the monetarily rich understandably do it all the time, with no seemingly ill effects. I am of the notion that a complimentary cohabiting partner should be one’s best friend so organisational household running strategies could be carefully planned in detail. Otherwise the peril of listening to other people’s opinion relative to one’s own relationship with someone else is that it might cause a conflict within a couple, if it causes a disagreement. If your cohabiting partner is not your best friend and there is no quality time spent together then as the point of view of the income earner you have nothing more than somebody solely paid to do the housework and take care of your children, a sort of surrogate prostitution in child rearing or parenting. I’d rather opt for a better quality of life as I actually enjoy the company of women, instructing children also letting them play in safe surroundings and quality time together.

    If I were placed in the situation that my wife earned more within an enjoyable work setting, I’d certainly agree she should be the main wage earner, there is no shame in that and the objective is exactly the same, to have a healthily good life. Were I place in a situation that I married a woman considerably younger than I then I’d motivate her to study, even if that led to her earning more in the future. What is important in a relationship is the time you have together and what you do with it, the goal being the same no matter who is away anywhere, at home, or who takes care of domestic duties paid directly or not. I don’t want to sound too much as real savvy on cohabiting relationships. I try my best and am very lucky that my mind was trained from an early age by the BBC World Service Radio to think differently to the people I grew up with and then came the Internet. I suppose there must be many others around the world like me. Unfortunately the family I was born in was very old fashioned in that the males were never supposed to do the housework even though my biological mother had been divorced and was the sole wage earner during my teens. It was so bad that on the last of a continuous repetition of events, the latter parent screamed at me because I came back from my job as a gardener with understandably dirty clothes. On my calm suggestion that I should be allowed to wash my own clothing from then on so as to not overburden her with work, I was screamed at with increased fervour, the sacrilege in the mere mentioning of it was the trigger. I left my then home to live in a tent in the local nature reserve until I was allocated a house by the local government. As I’m still single, overcoming my past, I’ve great pride in that I do all my own housework, even though it took a while for it to become second nature, and it doesn’t enter my mind in any degree that housework is a female orientated chore.

    • Brigitte says:

      I like your pragmatic approach!

    • Helen says:

      (another non-academic; although I work

      I think a big problem with saying “whoever earns less should do more at home” is that for a wide range of reasons women with male partners (on average) earn less than their male partners – not only are women on average generally paid less than men, but women are more likely to have an older male partner than a younger one and are thus at an earlier stage of their career at every point (even if their salaries increase at the same rate as their partners’).

      I don’t think women are going to gain full equality in employment, especially at the top levels until/unless men take on a full share of the non-paid work of running a household and family. I’m not convinced that the “top jobs” really do REQUIRE a single person to be putting in 80 hour weeks at them; and I think that if more of the people currently in those positions were more willing to say “no, I’ve got to pick up my kids and make dinner” or even “nope, gotta go play footy now” then the world would probably be a happier place for it.

  11. Ruth Mottram says:

    Here in Denmark, dual careers in academia are not as uncommon as in the uk though it is clear that women are still rather under represented. (I don’t have the figures to hand). It is clear to me that the two keys to the much more equal balance between male and female partners are firstly the entitlement to parental leave that can be shared between both parents and secondly high quality and highly subsidized childcare. In my workplace fathers as well as mothers routinely take 3 to 6 months of leave and it is far from uncommon to find fathers as well as mothers leaving at 3.30pm to collect children from daycare when they get older.
    I believe that even so only around 30% of fathers in denmark take their full parental leave entitlement. Even in egalitarian Denmark there is still some prejudice against fathers taking the full allowance from some employs and some men are simply not interested as I learnt from my “mothers group”.
    Because most parents have children in the state daycare system, which has standard hours of care for instance, it is very usual for the working day to be structured around when the daycare starts and ends. This is also an asset for combining work and family life, most of my colleagues work in the office from 8.30 – 16.00 but then log on again in the evenings to catch up.
    If I wasn’t living in Denmark I do not think I would have had a child as soon as I did and certainly not more than one. Here it is very common for phd students to have children for instance, something I would have found unimaginable in the uk. This is also partly because phd students are full employees with the same parental rights as other academic staff.

  12. GMP says:

    I am a professor in the physical sciences, my husband has a staff position. We have three kids. Husband earns half of what I do and the daycare is quite expensive, but I would never ask him to quit his job because he says he would not feel good about himself if he didn’t work. I still do most of the mundane work (cooking, dishes…) and all of the sick-kid care. When we were first married I lobbied much more for equal division of labor, but I just ended up being worn down. It’a honestly easier to give in and get stuff done even if i end up doing most of the housework… I guarantee that all this work has negatively affected my career, cut down the number of hours I work… And I would love to say it’s completely voluntary, but it’s not. Still, those are my kids and my family, so ultimately my responsibility. But those sick-kid days arise at the most inopportune of times, I will tell you that….

    Anyway, I also would not be comfortable if my husband stayed at home, because if my success is built on my significant other not working, then I feel that I am no different than all the men whose wives have given up their jobs.

    Like Brigitte, I would like to see solutions where both parties are able to work and raise a family. As long as families and careers work only if kind person drops out of the workforce, the system is broken.

  13. GMP says:

    Excuse the typos and weird autocorrect products, typing all this on a phone.

  14. Uta Frith says:

    Many of the problems mentioned can be solved by throwing money at them. Academics can free themselves from routine housework and childcare by paying for it. Furthermore, if you have a research position, crisis management is easier to allow for than in almost any other job. So why the never ending complaints? I think that perhaps most problems are the same as when negotiating give and take in any social interaction. Not just between couples who negotiate demands of family and career. We are supremely social animals and get our greatest pleasures as well as the greatest miseries from social interactions. The brain has evolved to adapt to the social world we live in. And yet we are not very good at regulating it. I wish I knew why this is.

  15. J Elliott says:

    Uta, isn’t it because the (emotional) brain evolved to adapt to the social world we used to live in?
    Since academics think for themselves and value good reasoning skills as attributes (as opposed to looking athletic or being aggressive for example) I would expect the academic environment to be one of the better choices for women.

  16. GMP says:

    Furthermore, if you have a research position, crisis management is easier to allow for than in almost any other job. So why the never ending complaints?

    A major issue in academia is that there are no options such as lateral movements within the same company, going part-time, taking a break for a couple of years then going back. Evem switching jobs is extremely hard in academia, there just aren’t that many jobs to begin with and the competition is fierce. These constraints affect a lot of the life choices differently than the constraints many other industries pose.

  17. Alice says:

    I very much appreciate this blog-post and the thoughtful comments. I am currently a PhD student in the humanities, but already beginning to feel unease at how my “choices” are being directed. As the first one in the family to stay at school past 16, let alone go to university, I think that perhaps some of this pressure comes from a lack of understanding about what I do. The perception seems to be that since the bulk of my work is “just” reading and writing, it can (and should) be done at my partner’s convenience. My boyfriend came to visit recently, and i was actually scolded by my family for doing work (on a weekday morning) rather than spending time with him. When I responded that my work didn’t stop because he had a holiday, and that although it’s currently quite flexible time-wise, it does have to be done at some point, the response was a “hmmm”. That was last week, and though I know I was right in finishing my work, I have felt guilty since then. My boyfriend is very supportive, and we’ve talked about our expectations of how the work will be divided in future, so his attitudes aren’t a problem. However, he is working towards a very lucrative and respectaible career and my friends and family are simply more understanding of what he does as “real work” – the pressure comes from outside our actual relationship. DIscussions with them about finding somewhere to live post-PhD that will work for both of our careers are already getting responses such as “but you won’t work many hours so you can just have a long commute”. I am passionate about what I do, and presently stick to my guns (even if feeling a little guilty about it) but in years to come I don’t know how successfully I will resist the pressure to do the ‘third-full-time-job’ tasks that everyone expects me to fit around my ‘not-a-real-job’.

    • Brigitte says:

      Ah that reminds me of a remark made by a boyfriend (bench scientist) many many years ago when he found me on the sofa reading a book (I still remember the title: On the origin of language) and greeted me with: “Ah is that what you call the Arts research position?”. We had a good laugh about it, but it stuck in my mind. Nowadays with google etc that research position is becoming rather extinct… Books…. reading… …

  18. Terri Apter says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, not because it is new but because so little has changed in the past 20 years. In 1993 I published a book with the title Working Women Don’t Have Wives. This grew out of an article Elizabeth Garnsey and I wrote exploring why the obstacles to equality for women in the workplace persisted when good will and policy had changed so much. ( The focus was precisely on the key issues in this discussion: how explanations about persistent inequality swing from women’s own decisions (choicism) to external bias, whether overt or embedded, whereas what is needed is an understanding of how these two different forces combine. We sought an analysis that showed the ways women are constrained and the ways they are agents.and concluded that the sticking points lay in the ways different structures – the structure of careers, the structure of the family, the structure of parental norms – intersected.

    The tedious path of argument’s pendulum is set in part by a sophisticated version of choicism commonly known as “preference theory”. According to preference theory there is no particular gender issue in the persistent inequality of women. This inequality is based on the choices many women make, but these are personal choices, and men make them too. What limits a person’s career is his or her preferences for some personal activity over professional activities. According to this theory, a wish to devote time to building model trains or hiking is no different from the decision to devote time to caring for children. The men who do not make it to the top are placed along side many women whose careers are limited by their personal preferences.

    Preference theory might simply be quaint sophistry if it did not have such a foothold in some management cultures. A young woman engineer who recently had her first child was denied flexible work by her employer who argued that their decision was free of discrimination because they turned down such requests from men, too. The management were comfortable in arguing that a mother’s wish to spend time with her child was merely a personal preference and their attitude was devoid of gender bias.

    That talented young engineer is now working for one of the firm’s competitors. I would like to think that this would trigger a reconsideration of preference theory, but I doubt it. Preference theory leaves everyone off the hook, and supports the status quo. The real work we all have to do to advance and enact equality is not easy or comfortable; it requires courage and creativity.
    Many thanks to Athene Donald for re-opening this discussion and to Uta Frith for tweeting about it.

  19. Jackie Cassell says:

    I too share life with a househusband who works on a variety of things that can fruitfully be done from home – he’s probably “REF ready” as they say, but without the job that makes it necessary. A mixed blessing. My commuting 5 hours a day for around 10 years clinched this as the status quo quite a while ago. However like Austin Elliot I noticed that my (female) mentors and role models spent a large amount on domestic help, full time nannies and the like, mostly being married to similarly high earning supportive men and seeing the domestic expenses as paying for the woman’s work.

    When my first daughter was born my dear old dad gave me, an “elderly primigravida” as they used to say so picturesquely, detailed instructions on the prevention of nappy rash. Now he is recovering from a brain injury, I am equally concerned to prevent his own. One of six, he learned early in life to care for and teach small children and I have benefitted enormously from his gender blindness which he shares with his brothers and sister. Yet even if we could afford it, music practice for my children – like for my dad the early reading, language games, the training of boys and girls alike to mend a fuse and cook a roast dinner – cannot be contracted out to the nanny. Obsessed with education as we are, academics find it hard to entrust our children’s education to the vicissitudes, and unconscious sexism, of communal childcare. Can we, should we, risk our children being non-readers, unable to play a musical instrument, uninterested in languages/the prime numbers? Somebody has to prepare our children to be counted in the next generation of one-sided academics, or what will we find to talk about when they are 35? How will they even know what to hate us for? Until his recent accident, my dad was teaching my nephew to read, and talk Japanese, in his spare time after teaching at the local prison. Doesn’t every child need this, or something like it?

    The tension between visiting one’s own interests and aspirations on one’s children, and fulfilling them personally, is a real one. Without these in common, your children might be anyone’s….

  20. Robert Massey says:

    Reading through this post and the comments that followed, I’m struck by how little of the US article describes the attitude of male scientists I know here in the UK, at least in astronomy and geophysics. Those I work with would find the statement ‘get a wife’ abhorrent and most of us celebrate the time we spend with our children, however mundane. Fathers also limit our careers through that involvement and sometimes find child-free male and female colleagues to be less sympathetic than to women if we can’t cover an evening or a weekend or need to work at home to support our partners.

    As an aside, when the Royal Astronomical Society commissioned an assessment of the demographic composition of our community, we found the most glaring issue not to be the under-representation of women, where the proportion of academic recruits at least up to lecturers outstrips the fraction of A-level physics entrants (not that the ‘leaky pipeline’ doesn’t apply at more senior levels) but the vanishing small number of staff and students from UK black and minority ethnic backgrounds – something for a different discussion.

    The problem and its consequences are hardly unique to science or academia and I suspect are much worse in many other areas of the economy, one exception possibly being local government with its tradition of leading on tackling inequality and so unsurprisingly where a lot of women choose to work. It would be really interesting to see some studies that cover a range of sectors and how men and women progress within them to give us some comparable baseline data – if these papers are out there then it would be great for someone to post links to them.

    It’s been said by others here, but we live in a culture where leaving on time is often seen as a lack of commitment to a job, housing costs are huge, childcare costs are huge and ‘domestic staff’ (at least people on a decent wage) are high too. Hence the number of families where both parents work full time and more and where working even four days a week is a distant dream. The additional factors academics face like frequent relocation don’t help but I’m not sure are much worse than in other occupations, at least not at a time of high unemployment and insecure contracts.

    Legislation may mandate unpaid leave for new parents for up to a year or subsistence wages for the first few months but what fraction of the workforce can afford to take this up? None of which seems likely to get a lot better in a depressed economy where senior businesspeople call for the abolition and curtailment of even these limited concessions (see e.g. the CBI comments on the introduction of parental leave last year or Digby Jones and his ‘ideas’ for economic recovery).

  21. Robert
    The headline quote I suspect may be unrepresentative, the statistics much less so and you don’t really address the fact that the study showed that more than half the men interviewed saw their wife as – essentially by default – the primary domestic worker, if I can phrase it like that. I doubt the UK and the US are that different in that respect and several of the commenters above are definitiely from the UK. What do you make of Terri Apter’s comments (based on her own professional research) that things haven’t moved much in the last 20 years?

    The problems may not be unique to science or academia, that doesn’t make this position any better and comparing sectors doesn’t address the root problem (which I also discussed in an earlier post). As long as the majority of men assume, or conveniently act upon the assumption, that women are the primary carers and that’s how it ‘ought’ to be we aren’t going to progress. The reason I hope that changes in the law about the availability of paternity leave may change things (leaving aside financial considerations for the moment) is that if a father spends several months caring for a young baby they may discover various things: it’s very boring, it’s very satisfying (those two obviously not being mutually incompatible), and their work doesn’t go up in a puff of smoke when they’re away. That last point may help to change the culture too.

    The longer term childcare – of the sort that Jackie alludes to – can equally well be shared. Being the one who has to leave early to take the child to swimming lessons can be done by a man just as much by a woman. We have to get past the idea that hours chained to a desk (telescope, lab bench whatever) are necessarily indicative of excellence. There are times one must be physically present, but perhaps not as many as some people seem to believe. The more everyone, male or female, acts upon this, plus the more the leadership demonstrates that they mean it when they say work-life balance is important, the better for all.

    Finally, you speak of astronomy being good for women. If your leaky pipeline leaks at the senior levels I’m afraid I’m not convinced it’s better than other fields. Perhaps the presence of Jocelyn Bell Burnell and, in the US, Meg Urry help to attract female students in the first place. If they still leak out subsequently then your workplace culture seems to be as good or bad as any other subject.

  22. Robert Massey says:


    You’re right of course – the stats from the US study are pretty appalling. What I mean is that they’re hard to reconcile with words and actions from my peers, which of course may be a selection effect based on who I know. We may see a study of attitudes to women in astronomy coming out in the next few months, similar to Christiane Helling’s earlier Astronomische Nachrichten paper on the same in Germany and if so I’ll let you know. I wouldn’t claim that astronomy and geophysics are good, but on our figures they’re certainly better than other physical sciences at all levels, something that isn’t easily explained (I don’t know how to post a shortened link to the survey but you can see it at Until we crack getting the proportion of girls studying A level physics much above 20%, I don’t know how we can expect to see a big improvement across the HE system.

    I really don’t think we can set aside financial considerations for parents here. If you earn a similar amount or a little more than your partner, then taking statutory parental leave sees your weekly income drop by at least 40%. In those circumstances it’s hardly surprising that people are hard headed about these decisions, whatever the merits of the underlying principle (increasingly I do know of friends where the father took more time off as the lower earner). If employers had to pay for parental leave at 90% maternity for a decent period (not the six weeks women mostly get, followed by under £600 a month) then it might be possible to have more of the sharing of responsibilities envisaged. Though we shouldn’t pretend that it’ll be cheap nor that it delivers many immediate economic benefits – just that it’s a case of doing the right thing despite that. Then yes, I quite agree that all the arguments about sharing boredom, satisfaction, not being chained to a desk (or telescope – quite a thought!) could come to the fore for younger children (when they’re older, finances are obviously not an excuse for not dividing caring and domestic responsibilities equally).

    The reason I asked about other sectors is to establish where the best practice is and so help make the case for improvement in science. I used to work in the cultural sector, dominated by women and yet actually sometimes less sympathetic to working parents for all that, whereas local government seemed a lot better, perhaps because politicians are keen to try out new methods of working. Where I am now falls between these two.

    • Robert
      As I understand the new law around paternity leave, the father will get the same as the mother in terms of pay. You’re right if the man is paid much more then it doesn’t make so much sense for him to be the one who stays at home, but if -say – you’re a couple of postdocs it does, or at least it should make no difference. As LL points out (although I think this is more of an issue for biomedical sciences than for physical sciences) women often give birth before tenure, because of the age at which most get tenure/PI status, so many of them will still be at postdoc level. I think we need to encourage men to think harder about this and not take the easy way out of saying, this doesn’t solve everything so let’s not do anything.

      I think an interesting sector to compare academia with is law, or possibly medicine. Superficially, they’ve both cracked the problem. Lots of young women enter the profession, but they still aren’t making it through to the top. Probably for some of the same reasons as academia, despite the fact they are seen as attractive jobs at entry grade. But anyone with any seniority/influence in academia or its professional bodies should keep pushing back on extant practice, encouraging departments to engage with Athena Swan, monitoring statistics and doing all they can to soften the attitude that the only way to success is single-minded obsession with work and a 24/7 working week.

      • The parental leave arrangements seem different at my university compared to the UK. All salaries are paid for at the department level (i.e., the department’s budget), but all leave is funded centrally from the university. Therefore, the department is quite happy (from a financial point of view) for staff to go on leave because paid leave is covered centrally; there is a direct saving to the departmental budget when people go on leave. This helps to ease any possible stigma among co-workers that might be associated with taking leave.

        Another difference: the leave is paid at the level of the person taking the leave, so there is no financial penalty to the couple if the partner has a higher salary than the mother.

        One thing seems common; there is no “return to work bonus” for the partner, while there is for the mother. I agree with previous comments that equalizing such incentives would also help matters.

        And in response to other comments about sharing domestic duties, it seems fair enough that each couple can negotiate this themselves. But I am surprised that these tasks are not shared more equitably.

        Finally, a hearty thanks to Athene for the post and everyone who has contributed to the comments. I’m running a discussion about women in science for a graduate student class in a couple of weeks – this provides good material to consider.

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  24. BB says:

    I realise that you (and I) are most disturbed by the assumptions being made in couples that are of essentially equal age, but when you broaden the scope of this discussion out to the general academic community isn’t this simply a problem brought on by that fact that it is several time more likely (around 4 from eyeballing some random Norweigan marriage information from 2002) that the man is older than the woman than the other way around in a long term relationship?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t set out to address that inequality also, but it seems an enormous task and I have no idea where one would start?

  25. Ex-scientist says:

    I’m on the far side of this debate. Sorry things haven’t changed much in 25 years since I had my first child, but for what it’s worth….academic culture, particularly academic science, is simply not available to both parents. In our family, I was the one to drop out, although I have always worked full-time as an academic – just not as a high-achieving one with the possibility of a chair. I’m stuck at Reader, and have only managed that by changing discipline out of science. We now have three adult children and I don’t have regrets about how much time I spent with them. My partner, however, does have those regrets. There were many missed parents’ evening, sports days, days out and even birthdays and booked holidays, due to the pressures of work and more particularly the lab. You may also be surprised to know that I don’t regret the career part either (or the possibility of it – who knows whether I would have cut it or not?). I have a responsible and well-paid job and I have the opportunity to mentor and support a wide variety of colleagues. It’s really interesting. My partner has more status than me, but with the cynicism of age we don’t hold that in particular esteem!

    Those of you commenting who are in charge of a research group, look around at your research students and post-docs. Do you resent them leaving work early to pick up their kids from school, even if they make up the time later? What do you do to change the culture? I think that’s what we should be talking about, now that we know from this research project just how little things have changed in the last quarter century!

  26. Elaine Leung says:

    Sometimes I feel time hasn’t moved on. Women are still looking for ‘rich’ husband in order to fulfill their aspirations. In this case, in order to manage clinical, academic and family life, many medics I know limit themselves to look for men in professions (e.g. finance, business) that would provide for the very real needs of full-time child care.

    More in my blog post at: But in general, among my own family and friends, partners of female academics/doctors could be divided into 3 main categories:- 1. Met at work or university, 2. childhood (pre-university) sweetheart, 3. high-earning non-academics.

    How many choices in life are truly free?

  27. Kate Jeffery says:

    This conversation has taken a bit of a negative turn and I worry that a young woman reading it while considering a career in science could think that the whole thing is hopeless and doomed from the start. So let me inject a positive note.

    I disagree that things are not changing. 20 years is a short time in social evolution (as the saying goes, attitudes change “one funeral at a time”) but even in my time I have seen a big change in the position of women in science. Only a few years ago an older male colleague, complimenting me on a talk, said that he was musing on the subject of women in science while I was talking and had concluded with some amazement that “they are just like we are!” He meant it kindly and I took it that way, but such a comment would be almost unthinkable now. Men are no longer amazed to find that women are imbued with the same sense of curiosity and inquisitive drive as they are.

    As to the feasibility of forging a career in science and also having a family, I think things look pretty positive. In my (psychology) department there are many women professors, most with children, and with varied household arrangements. Some have partners in higher paying jobs and can afford nannies etc, but several are married to other academics – one academic couple a little older than me had four children and both had very successful careers. A couple of professors are single parents. To cap it all, we have been comparing male and female productivity and find that women are just as good as men at getting grants, and their publication and citation rates are almost identical. So it looks pretty good for female success in science.

    All these people, of course, work very hard – kids and a career isn’t a walk in the park. Not everybody wants to work that hard. It’s also getting harder for young couples as housing and childcare costs rise. But the rewards are huge, which is partly why pay is so low – there is no shortage of applicants for jobs because it is such a wonderful job, being paid to explore the mysteries of the universe and (mostly) be your own boss. Yes you miss a few sports days, but two parents can usually, between them, find *one* person to get to most things.

    I think there are two really critical factors that allow for women to be successful in science. One is not to have an obstructive partner – one who expects you to do all the work of child- and home-care while *also* trying to have a career. The other is not giving up due to lack of confidence. Women tend to be more cautious and less confident than men and I suspect that a lot of the female fallout early on in science careers is due to lack of self-belief. I think that we as institutions should be targeting both those things – making sure young female scientists know that (a) if they want a family, their choice of life partner will be critical for their career success, and (b) that they should have confidence in their own ability. We also need to target men and make sure they play their part in making this happen.

    As for that guilt thing – well I think it’s important to trade off the guilt of not tending to the family’s every tiny need against the guilt of not using an excellent brain for the good of humanity!

  28. Tom Schuller says:

    The choice issue is fundamental, and not easy to pin down, philosophically, politically or practically. We can ignore the more extreme versions of preference theory, but there will always be questions about how far choices are freely made. I’m struck by the high levels of occupational gender segregation in the Scandinavian countries, which most of us would think rank highly in the levels of choice/freedom they afford to women; what does this tell us?
    Women’s increasingly superior educatiohnal performance, in almost every subject (apart from physics and maths…) and at every level (sole exception: doctoral study at Russell Group universities), is not reflected in career trajectories. It’s what I call the Paula Principle – women tend to stick at a level below that of their competence (the mirror image of the Peter Principle, for those who recall that). But it does raise the question of how we think about careers. Part-time careers must be a main part of the answer, but should we always think of careers in terms of vertical pathways? I’ve had some interesting conversations about that.

  29. I have always tried to make it plain in my posts that I don’t think reaching 50:50 in all disciplines and all types of position is a realistic/desirable/necessary goal. But I hear too many women tell me that they couldn’t progress because of childcare issues (or how they imagined these would impinge when they get there). I think ex-scientist has an excellent point about the small things PI’s could do by not raising eyebrows about child-collection etc – many would encourage this sort of behaviour, but still many would not. But above all I think we need to have open debates about the challenges, what it takes to change our societal expectations as well as locally what can be done to facilitate progression. What horrified me about the original story that prompted this blog was the casual assumptions that too many married men seemed to be making – that is where things still are stuck and we need to make sure such men ‘hear’ the debate too.

  30. Andy Parnell says:

    Dear Athene,
    I was fortunate enough to have self-employed parents (their business was right next door to our home) when I was a youngster, as such many of the ups and downs of childcare management went unnoticed to me.
    So I think more than ever we should all be able to work in much smarter ways and be more flexible with the advances in communication technology. Academics and postdocs should therefore adopt this self-employed attitude to manage their work around family life, the days of waiting for the end of day bell should be consigned to the last century. If people raise their eyebrows, let them, they can only raise them for so long.

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