Why Should She Do it All?

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.

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6 Responses to Why Should She Do it All?

  1. I really appreciate your critique of the materialist ethos as context for the balancing act required to juggle an academic science career with motherhood. I’ve only seen the trailer of the Sarah Jessica Parker movie (more than enough), but share your distress about HER distressing of the pies. (If the movie makes clear the shallow waste of time this is, that’s some consolation.) My own goal is to encourage women — in STEMs fields and elsewhere — to speak up themselves more often to counter Hollywood portrayals and other sources of unfortunate stereotypes that reinforce the messages some young women get about where they belong or what pursuits will accommodate their desires to have a career and parent children, too. (See http://www.guelphmercury.com/print/article/595336 for an analysis of this). The more women abdicate public discourse to our male counterparts, the harder it will be to make the cultural changes necessary.

  2. Spacemom says:

    Movies fit formulaic themes. That is what sells, but do women really take their cues from movies?

    I have found that as my children have grown older, I am more interested in spending time with my children. This would be less time with work. I also know that I cannot live without astronomy. When I started looking for solutions to this issue, I started working part time. This has lead me to simply work the same amount of time, more at nights and weekends for less pay. I have finally gotten to a point where I am trying to start a new way for people to continue in science part time. I know what I want to do (part time research), but nobody has a method to do this. So, I invite yet more stress on myself by building a system to allow myself, and others, to do what I want to balance life and science.


  3. lilacCourt says:

    Happy children and exciting research can definitely be done. Happy children, exciting research, a full teaching load, commuting, managing the household and having any time left for myself or my husband is proving a bit more of a challenge! We both work in academia and we share our responsibilities equally, but no doubt it is tough. I think one issue is that many academics do large amounts of research writing out of normal working hours, i.e. evenings and weekends, because teaching, admin and student contact hours are ever increasing (and set to get worse). This option is not really open to me at the moment and is one reason that a reduction in the REF submission requirement would be a welcome easing of the external pressure (though I fully intend to meet the full submission). It would also be much needed recognition that the challenges of combining career and family do not end once maternity leave is over. That aside, I manage my career anxiety by taking the “longer view”. I’m an older mum but still have about 30 years left of my academic career. My daughter will only be three for the next year. That means that this year I might submit two, rather than three papers, and that I might just run the grant I have rather than trying to pull in more funding. This may result in fewer outputs than males or childless colleagues, but over the course of my entire career I doubt anyone will really notice. Can I have it all? Most definitely, but maybe not all at once.

  4. Parietal says:

    A nice post. I also wish more young people at a career choosing stage knew that actually academia, with flexible hours and the ability to work from home in the evenings, is a lot more compatible with a family than some of the jobs my undergraduate contemporaries have – lawyer for a big city firm, management consultancy, finance etc. They have either quit work or delegate almost all childcare to a nanny. Being a scientist and an engaged parent may not be easy, but it is possible.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Great blog, Athene! I share your optimism (and agree that I doubt scientists generally fall into the “materialistic appearances” game you describe from the book/film. Sounds like an awful book/film, and I’ll be sure to give it a miss.

    In my humble opinion, the answer to the problem will eventually come from “grass roots.” In other words, the effort that you and others are putting in today to change the way women/girls allow themselves to be perceived and categorized from an early age–will eventually shatter the defeatism that RT and others are projecting.

    I look forward to that day.

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