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.)
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%.
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.