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Friday, January 20, 2006

80-hour BS: A retrospective

It's been a year since Harvard President Lawrence Summers stuck his foot in his mouth regarding women in the sciences. I was so new to blogging, but the venom, the anxst, and the passion on both sides of the debate was exhilerating. So I re-read those 500-word essays that Ben and Vera and others found time to write--even as they were very busy working their 80-hour work weeks. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 80-hour BS

  • MIC: He mentions biological differences and people get outraged and walk out of his lecture. They think the man is insane! He mentions that women and mothers do not want to work 80 hours a week because they have kids and people keep on reading, looking for the next outrage to be revealed. That reluctance to feel anything or to notice that comment for what it is--gender-bias bullshit--is another example of how much society accepts the status quo when it comes to women and work.

    Vera: Harvard and other similar research institutions employ only the creamiest of the cream of the top, which means you have to be extremely driven, extremely hard-working, and extremely smart. If work is your second priority, you're less liking to be in that category. And more women than men make children their first priority. That's why no one who isn't set on finding sexism in every possible statement finds that explanation offensive or controversial in the least.

    Ben: It' *empirical fact* that women are less inclined to work that hard. I don't think anybody, even hardline proponts of the position Summers alluded to, would say that this means women are somehow generally less worthy. But it does mean they are less apt at doing one of the big things that makes you a good academic. Is it sexist to state an empirical truth that empirically relates to success in a given field?

    Geeky Mom: As for working 80 hours a week, I'm offended that anyone would suggest that women cannot work those hours. I work 80 hours all the time, but I only get paid for 40 of them...To me, the whole issue surrounding Summers' comments is not whether women are biologically disposed to do one thing or another or unwilling to work 80 hours a week...but the fact that women's work, if it's not in a typically male field like the sciences, is valued less. Motherhood is not considered work.

  • Struck a nerve

  • MIC: I don't understand why so many people willing to jump to defend people who work 80 hours a week, but don't jump to the defense of women who want to raise their kids and work and still be successful. I doubt that the only way to be successful is to work 80 hours a week...Smart women--smart people--with excellent time-management skills can get things done and still have time to go to the park, to build towers with blocks, and read books with their kids.

    Vera: The point is that some people want to work 80 hour weeks doing scientific research...And there's absolutely nothing wrong with people wanting to devote their lives to that (although I'm glad not everyone in the world does - thank heavens for diversity of interests). I'm really surprised that someone would reduce this kind of passion to scientists slaving away in labs to get tenure, and call it unhealthy.

    Ben: [A]nyone who takes a complete or partial break during those years -- no matter how justifiable that break is -- will be passed by the ambitious racers who don't take the break...You can complain if you like, but it'll be like a marathoner complaining that her menstrual cramps forced her to stop at the 18th mile for half an hour...Perhaps someday feminists will succeed in pushing through public policy initiatives to restructure the academic world to accord more harmoniously with women's needs.

  • This is not a feminist issue

  • MIC: 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...Ben said that [women are] on their own when it comes to making change...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.

    Ben: 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. And the simple truth is: an outstanding part-time scientist is an animal that does not exist.

    Ancarett: It's rather like hazing, as long as we keep finding people who will go along with the horrors for the privilege and even defend these as "necessary" to the job, we'll never see a change for the better. It may have been necessary to do these things to get the job, but are they really a necessary part of the job? That's the better question.

    Hey Norton: 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.


    1. Anonymous5:15 PM

      There's an old saying, "No one ever got to heaven and said that they didn't work enough." I do know people who got to the end of their lives and regretted not spending enough time with family, or riding a bike, or fishing.

      At my age, I no longer want to work 80 hour weeks. I also have serious questions as to whether it was worth it when I did. Did I really accomplish anything worthwhile by such long hours?

      BTW Ben, your sexist comments about a marathoner with cramps demonstrates why we have to have this discussion. We have some great women scientists, some of whom did the family thing too.

      Academe does need to develop more reasonable expectations about hours and egos.

    2. Shiver. Thanks for rehashing. Boy, was I pissed back then. :) The issue hasn't completely gone away, though, has it?

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