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Saturday, January 22, 2005

This is not a feminist issue

The whole idea that women need to work crazy hours in order to be successful, accomplished, or simply considered worthy, is pathetic.

When working women have babies, they are often not given a way to scale back their responsibilities. So they quietly quit their unaccommodating jobs when they have kids. And as long as they leave without a fight and no one else sticks up for them, there will not be any change. As a result, businesses and academic institutions alike will be missing out on the skills of a whole subset of society.

Ben said that this subset is on their own when it comes to making change. "Perhaps someday feminists will succeed in pushing through public policy initiatives to restructure the academic world to accord more harmoniously with women's needs," he said.

How close-minded can you get? This is not just the work of feminists! Men and women (including many accomplished scholars and scientists) have kids. So this effort to find a balance between work and family is not just about women! Until we all demand change, change will not happen. Saying oh well, this is a women's issue is a complete cop out.

"If women are less inclined, on average, to devote their entire life to their work," said Vera, who does not want to have kids, "there will be fewer, on average, women excelling in scientific research."

I'm positive that along the path of Vera's scientific research, she will meet women (who also happen to be mothers) with excellent research skills who lend a hand to the successes of the people around them. Just because those women choose to be home part-time to help raise their kids, it should not preclude them from the lab or the office or wherever else they may want to work. And just because these mothers' research projects or careers progress at a slower pace than those who work 40 or 80 hours a week, does not mean they won't excel in their fields.

I think GM summed it up nicely as to why change for women is going to be a long and grueling struggle:

Women's work, if it's not in a typically male field like the sciences, is valued less. Motherhood is not considered work. Teaching elementary school (a predominantly female field) is considered less difficult than teaching college. Until our culture can appreciate and value the work that everyone does, we will get nowhere. The underlying message in Summers' comments: "We don't value women in our profession; go home and raise the kids and don't bother me until they graduate from college."

But just as women--with the help of their male allies--won the right to vote, mothers need the help of everyone to win the right to have meaningful part-time careers.


  1. Ben, your statements are absolutely ridiculous. I was an academic and my husband is a scientist--who does not work 80 hours a week and is well-recognized in his field--so I can speak for what an academic life is like. First, you make this statement:

    "The reason that there are so few outstanding female scientists is that most women want to be mothers, and hence would have to be part-time scientists."

    Where's your evidence for this? How do you know most women want to be mothers? And it takes two to tango, so usually a decision to have children is not just the woman's but a couple's decision with the man involved. Because usually, as Suzanne points out, women are working before they have children, so lots of shifts are going to have to occur in order to have children. The second problem with this quote is that they do not have to be part-time scientists if they have a supportive spouse at home or good daycare or a combination of both. You can have children and work full-time. I do and it's mostly thanks to a supportive spouse and good childcare.

    Another statement you make is about the way science works and you use this example:

    "A web designer who produces 300 lines of code a day can be just as good as one who produces 1200 a day, just slower."

    In fact, a web designer who produces 300 lines of code is better because the page will be lighter and load faster; they're more efficient in the long run, so this was a bad example and you obviously have no idea how programming works, so you've lost your credibility. I think at times the same could be true of science, depending on the science you practice.

    Suzanne is not necessarily asking for part-time in all careers, but for flexibility in all careers. The definition of worthwhile is subjective, so while your definition of worthwhile might be publishing in Nature, someone else's might be applying that published research in a clinic in rural Arkansas. The person who applies that research might be a female scientist at a state school who has worked out a flexible agreement where she teaches only on Tues./Thurs. mornings, leaving her time to research on M,W,F mornings and afternoons when she can pick up the kids from school and then take them with her to the clinic where they learn how to give back to the world. If her spouse is supportive, she may also be able to work more than that, especially if his work is also flexible, so that some days he is the one meeting the kids instead of her. You have to think outside the box sometimes and academics, for all its liberal thinking, rarely thinks outside the box when it comes to its own working conditions and requirements for tenure. Ben, get out some and talk to people, especially some of the women in your field. Find out what would work for them. In my experience with the female scientists with kids that I know, they accomplish just as much working their 40-50 hours as the single man who "works" 80 hours.

  2. Ben, we're obviously on opposite sides of this issue. Where you believe that productivity is shown by the number of hours one works, I believe that productivity is determined by the results. And while it may be true that most women do want children, you did not provide any evidence for the statement, nor did you recognize that this desire is often in the context of a relationship with a man whose desire is equal to the woman's. Also, I do know plenty of female scientists who do publish and who do not work--consistently--80 hours a week, so my statement is not ridiculous, but it is based on personal experience and not on hard evidence, but neither is yours. If you tell me that of the however many women that have published in the top science journals, a very small percentage of them do not work 80 hours a week, then fine, that's some evidence.

    Now I agree that perhaps, wa oman who is going to be the primary caretaker (assuming she wants children) might not aim for the top research universities, but what's happening in academics is that the lower level universities and colleges are starting to imitate the upper echalons and therefore fewer and fewer places exist for women to practice science with flexibilty. And that's a loss for everyone. I think it's a loss for the Harvard's of the world, too, that these barriers exist, but I'm just going to leave that argument where it is for now.

    You say it's not the academy's job to amend to work load. Well, I absolutely think it is. The government has laws about work weeks that apply to a great many workers, in part because if those laws didn't exist, companies would work everyone as long as they could.

    I think there are a lot of complex issues at work here that apply to lots of institutions that have to do with what we expect men and women to do and what institutions expect of people in terms of work. I really think we should examine why we expect 80 hours of work a week for scientists, upper management, etc. Those people may be making a significant contribution, but at what cost. If they have families, their children are missing out. They miss out on opportunities to contribute to their local community, local politics, participate in art and theater performances, and to really be a full member of society. Is that what we want? I certainly don't, but maybe you do.

  3. I find it humorous that the "we're so damn busy in the lab" contingent seem to miraculously find time for 1,000 word essays about how demanding their jobs are. I'd probably need 80 hours in the office each week if I spent 30 of them boasting about how hard I was working.

    Nevertheless, I welcome the debate and find it refreshing. To Ben, who said "show me someone who, in the last 100 years, has done important scientific work while being the primary caretaker of children" I give you Marie Curie. Curie managed to raise children, win two Nobel prizes and even find time for a scandalous affair with a married man. (I'm not sure how many Nobels the esteemed commenters here have won, but I'll go out on a limb and guess that Curie has at least one more than any of you).

    In any regard, the "show me a mothering woman who's accomplished anything" challenge misses the mark. What about Albert Einstein's mother, who instilled in her son a relentless curiosity? Or Charles Darwin's mother, who first taught him how to identify flowers? Or to reverse gender roles, what about Grace Hopper's father, who encouraged his daughter to disregard society's limitations? Are their accomplishments any less noble than Curie's Nobels? (Ironically Curie's daughter Irene would also win a Nobel Prize).

    It's time society - and in particular achieving men and women - start recognizing the tireless efforts of mothers (and fathers) who've worked so hard and sacrificed so much to raise children. How's that for a "threshold of commitment"?


  4. Anonymous9:09 PM

    This is oomm. I am a working, full time scientist. I am a woman. I know a number of working, full time female scientists, none of them are mothers. I know a few part time scientists who are mothers. They are assistants to the primary investigators on projects, never the primaries because while you can pretend all you want that you can work 20 hours a week on the same project that I work 40+ on and do the same quality work, you cannot. Science doesn't wait for your babysitter to show up or whatever. I've been annoyed for years by moms and dads who try to juggle it all. Either dedicate yourself to your work or to your children, half assing either is what's got us into the position we're in now. I have a venomous attitude toward women (and men, by the way) who have children because it's the thing you do. It isn't. It's full time work, it requires attention to detail and dedication and passion to be done well. It's the most important job out there. I don't want it, I want the job I have, which also requires those things. Man or woman, I say pick a thing, give it your all and stop trying to muck up the work of the dedicated.

  5. quote: "Where you believe that productivity is shown by the number of hours one works, I believe that productivity is determined by the results."

    I'm not Ben, but I'd bet a million dollars his actual opinion is nothing like this. As I've been saying since the beginning, productivity is completely determined by the results. And you get more and better results the more devoted to your work you are.

    quote: "And while it may be true that most women do want children, you did not provide any evidence for the statement, nor did you recognize that this desire is often in the context of a relationship with a man whose desire is equal to the woman's."

    Maybe men and women want children equally. I doubt it but that's irrelevant. Women obviously care more about staying home to raise them though, or men wouldn't be so opposed to doing that. (on average). And why on earth does anyone need to do a study to show that most women want children????? I can't imagine another trait that is more strongly selected for evolutionarily. Evidence enough.

    quote: "You say it's not the academy's job to amend to work load. Well, I absolutely think it is."

    Why is it anyone's job to tell someone who wants to work 80 hours a week that they can't? Scientists aren't paid by the hour. They want to be there.

    quote, from gm's blog: "A commenter there argues all kinds of things about women, like that most want to mothers and are genetically incapable of being scientists. I posted this response to his latest comment. I was so mad, I was shaking."

    See above re women wanting to be mothers. I find it hilarious that anyone would seriously contest this statement. And neither Ben nor I has said anything like "women are genetically incapable of being scientists". I said men and women are good at different types of thinking, on average. Some women are amazing physicists. But there are more men at that level than women. Yes, some women (and some men, in fact a majority of both genders) are incapable of being great mathematicians, just as I am incapable of being a great literary scholar. That certainly doesn't mean all women are.

    Also, as you seem to be concerned with during an earlier blog post, absolutely no one has said or implied that being one kind of scientist is "better" than being another kind, or another profession. Not a single person. I suggest getting a hold of your emotions to stop the shaking and to enable a more literal/accurate interpretation of my/our statements.

    quote: "Want to be a published scientist in most fields? You'd better be independently wealthy to fund the lab you need or be employed as a researcher (scholastically or commercially) where the lab is part of your work environment. Want to get access to that archive or run a field test in the social sciences? You'd better be able to get three letters of reference from known scholars and pray for these to get your foot in the door if you don't have an institutional letterhead on which to pen your request."

    I won't say that all of these barriers are necessary. But many are. Science runs on an honor code. No one comes to your lab to inspect your experiment and make sure you're not fabricating data. Therefore, yeah, trust/reputation is invaluably important. There may be a lot of red tape to get in in the first place, but that allows more freedom to work than in any other occuptation that I can think of (where legitimacy is of such critical importance).

    And by the way what on earth do you mean by you better be wealthy to build your own lab or have a job that provides one to you? Is there something wrong with that? Is there anything in the world that you can get some other way than by buying it yourself or getting it from someone who can buy it for you? Just curious.

    Also I couldn't agree more with the anonymous poster that people who try to do too many things at once are a huge inconvenience to the more devoted people involved. I'm only a student, and my research has been quite solitary for the past couple years, but I'm still endlessly aggravated by those who aren't as devoted as I am. And nothing makes me feel worse than having to drop to part time research during the school year when I'm doing homework more than full time - I'd hate to be in the shoes of the professors that I work for when that happens.

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