Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mommy Wars

The fourth and final type of gender bias is known as "Gender Wars" in which women find themselves in conflict with other women....either directly or indirectly...regarding how to behave as a scientist or in life/work balance choices. 

Possibly the most common conflict is related to philosophical differences.  Those women who have chosen to "fit in" with their male colleagues have adopted masculine ways of thinking and working (ambitious, long hours, etc.) and may have foregone a family to ensure career success.  Many women of my generation have invested a tremendous amount of time and effort and made sacrifices to gain recognition for ourselves and for female scientists as a group.  We've succeeded during a period when we were actively discouraged from seeking careers in science, engineering, and math...mainly by sticking to a rigorous and professional work ethic.  We had to work many times harder (and smarter) than male counterparts to gain grudging acceptance by our peers and to be considered by superiors for positions mostly held by men.

Things are different now.  It's not unusual for a woman to hold a professorial or other high-level science position, and in many countries there are laws preventing outright discrimination.  Gender bias is still there, but is not as blatant as it once was.  However, women who had to work hard to gain a foothold in science are often critical of other women who are choosing more "feminine" approaches to science, i.e., not adopting the traditional male work ethic, putting family before career, or just working fewer hours.  Younger women who choose a different path (from that of my generation) are often shocked and upset when an older female mentor is critical of their choices.  Those choices may involve having children or not (or when to have children), spending more leisure time with family or in non-science pursuits, or selecting alternative career paths in science (as opposed to the academic or research path).

This can be a touchy subject, but one that needs to be explored so that we (women in science) do not end up hurting the progress we've made over the past decades.  I've often had conversations with female colleagues (as well as male) about the apparent change in work ethic and sense of entitlement adopted by those now entering science fields (I'm talking about general trends; specifics vary from place to place and with the individual, of course)  We worry about how this change will affect the success rate of women in science, if for example, long hours and high productivity are expected to gain tenure or permanent status in some workplaces, and a woman decides she doesn't have to meet this expectation.  In the past, men had better options than women in terms of balancing work and family; they still have an advantage over women, on whom childcare and housework more often fall.  The bias we've been discussing in this series may also come into play if a woman takes time off to have a baby, stops the tenure clock, or decides to work part-time for a period.  She may be judged to be less serious about a science career than male colleagues.

This concern usually comes to a head when a young female scientist decides to start a family and seeks advice or encouragement from an older, established female. In many universities and science organizations, a high percentage of female scientists are childless (and also unmarried). This is the case where I work.  Some of these women are highly critical of younger female scientists who decide to have a family at an early stage in their career.  The reasons for this reaction are varied and not always rational ("I gave up having a family to have a career, so why shouldn't they?").  Others are concerned that women who ask for special treatment (e.g., stopping the tenure clock) will promote the stereotype that women can't succeed in science unless they are "helped".

These so-called "mommy wars" are harmful and unnecessary.  The decision to have children is highly personal, and what worked for you may not work for someone else.  My response to a request for advice from a young scientist would be to mainly ask questions to help them clarify what they really want and what is possible, given their circumstances.  My only advice for a woman who wishes to maintain a career in science and to have children is to choose your spouse very carefully.  Even if you don't have children, having a supportive spouse can make all the difference when you encounter obstacles during your career.  That is certainly what sustained me (in addition to my drive, persistence, and self-confidence, of course!).

The Gender Bias Learning Project describes all four patterns of bias that I've covered in this series, and there are videos that illustrate each type of bias.


Anonymous said...

Different situations for working women are allowed and propagated by the men. The men allow for *certain* women to succeed in *certain* positions because the success of the particular woman benefits/serves the group of mostly men. For example, the men hire a woman onto an R1 tenure track for a particular position that calls for teaching most of the large intro sections (a position that it deemed horrible by the men's standards. A colleague once told me he would rather "take out the trash" than teach intro). The expectations for the woman hired mostly to teach (and keep her research ambitions low and certainly dimmer than the spotlight on the research of the men) is very different than the expectations of another woman hired into a primarily research position (which is desirable to the men) in the same dept. The R1 research woman needs to be far better at research to prove herself, to prove that she was worth taking a position away from the poor poor men who didn't get hired for that position. The dept men hold the two women to different standards depending on the power of the position. The bar is always being raised and lowered depending on the insecurities of the men in the dept. A R1 research prof woman might be *their* chair someday, particularly if she succeeds far beyond the expectations of her dept (global rep, good rep with admins, etc). The R1 woman who mostly teaches is more lower level servant status, and she can always be replaced by adjuncts. In the minds of the men, there is always a cost-benefit analyses of hiring a woman to their group. ALWAYS.

The women who "fit in" with the whims of the male colleagues are going along with the male agenda for that group of males. The women who break the mold and get ahead by working harder and fighting smarter will always be resented by those striving to fit, in whatever benefit-the-men mold they got themselves into (teaching or research). Because of this, I do not think it is so much "mommy wars" as it is different standards being applied to different women by the same group of men, and those attitudes being adopted as an alternative way of women for "fitting in." If you can't beat him, join him in oppression of other women.

My advice is not only to choose your partner very carefully, but choose your workplace very carefully!!!! Do not choose a group of men to work for or with that do not value the work of women. If you see this breakdown of women into primarily service activities (and teaching large intro classes is absolutely service to the men!!), no women dept chairs in a college, a token woman on a search comm or in a dept, then run away. I would also suggest if you want/have family, then ask women in other depts how they make it work and what the school does for them (daycare, maternity leave, etc). Don't isolate yourself. Don't limit yourself to your dept. The men want to keep you under their ... thumbs. Actively seek out good people in other areas, you'll need their support as much as they'll need yours.

FrauTech said...

Interesting post. I haven't seen this from the mommy angle as there aren't a whole lot of women here period, and all of them are pretty young. (I'm not sure what that says about whether a woman can really last here or what).

The problem with having so few women is that when one woman does something that fits into a man's stereotype (spending more time with her kids, etc) that man continues to expect that from all of us. I've been frustrated when a high profile woman who was a rising star left for a more fulfilling career in another field. I don't think I resent her for it, but I feel like for every woman that "drops out" it means my male management just expects ME to drop out. I don't intend to have kids and it's hard to dispel the math that I'm not just a mom waiting to happen rather than an engineer.