Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Things I wish I could stop discussing at conferences

I am the kind of person who is usually happy to give advice (obviously, or I wouldn't be blogging!) However, there are many things I wish I didn't have to continue to talk about in 2016. Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, I had hopes that the people who followed me would have a better experience, because after all things were getting better, right?. I am more pessimistic now. Here are questions I am often asked as a recently tenured professor when one-on-one with younger women scientists at meetings:

1.  When you interviewed, did you mention ProdigalSpouse? When did you bring it up?

Really? People still feel the need to hide the fact they have families? I am not surprised, just disappointed. I used to think that many of the prejudices that blight our society would be solved by funerals, but unfortunately, I now know that this is not the case. There are plenty of young bigots to go around. I guess it is a sign of progress of some kind that I recently was asked this by a man for the first time.

2.  Do you think it is better to have children pre-tenure or wait until after?

I've never been asked this by a man. I've never seen any sign that men consider this question, actually (including my friends and colleagues).  I always tell people the same thing: "There is no good time to have kids, so have them when you are ready. Your life will change in unpredictable ways if you become a parent--there is no way to plan for everything." Your life is not your job, and it shouldn't have to be. There are always other jobs if work/life balance can't balance where you are.

3.  How did you ask for parental leave?

This question makes me sad. Short answer: I didn't. At National Lab, I told my supervisor I was pregnant, when I was due, and the tentative dates that I would be out. At ProdigalU, I told my Chair that I was pregnant and when I was due. Without batting an eyelash, my Chair started discussing my planned teaching in the projected timeframe, and how it could be covered. You shouldn't have to ask for leave (i.e. it should be assumed you will take some), but if you do, just be matter of fact. Show up with some understanding of your institution's rules in case you need this knowledge.

3b.  Did ProdigalSpouse take parental leave?


4.  Do you take your kids with you when you travel?

This is actually a good question, since folks considering having children need to think about things like this ahead of time. Short answer: usually no. It is easier to make childcare arrangements in Prodigal City, where I know people and have contacts than someplace I am traveling to. When I do professional travel, I am working, often for very long hours. My kids would be a large distraction, and I wouldn't see them much anyway. Sometimes, if I am traveling someplace we would like to spend time in as a family, ProdigalSpouse will come with the kids (either with me, or later) and we spend some vacation time together after I am done. Vice versa for ProdigalSpouse's professional travel.

5.  What happens when your kids are home from school?

When I am asked this, I always wonder if anyone asks this question to male professors. After all, an academic schedule is considerably more flexible than most other jobs, and would therefore suggest that this should come up for academic fathers as well. In my case, ProdigalSpouse and I trade off staying home, depending on our schedules. If there is no other way (like we both have things we can't get out of), I've taken the ProdigalKids to meetings/classes, but stick them someplace out of the way with something quiet to do and instructions to only interrupt if they are bleeding or on fire.

You'll notice that all of these questions are about family life. I am sad that this is still primarily an issue for academic women. I suppose that younger men might ask these questions of male academics, but I never really overhear this sort of conversation between men, while it is common for one or more other women to join this sort of conversation once underway.  I am also asked about TT job searches, setting up a lab, my sabbatical, and other professional issues, but women tend to ask about life balance first. I would much rather discuss the work part of work/life balance.

When I was a child, I was told I could do anything, that I could be successful just by working hard and doing a good job. When I found out that wasn't exactly true, I felt betrayed. Now I am just resigned. I know that there is no such thing as a true meritocracy, and that things really are (SLOOOOWLY) getting better for many people with respect to bias, but we are not as close as I hoped we would be by now.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I loved the no-nonsense, straightforward responses you gave.

As a male scientist/postdoc with two kids, these questions resonate. I am lucky enough to be at an institution with favorable family policies for postdocs (up to 8 weeks paternity leave).

In response to your comment about men not talking about this, we do. My experiences have been, however, that we discuss this much less frequently than women and that we are less likely to bring this up with established male scientists. We are much more likely to hide that from them and to talk about it among peers. Again, my observations.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comment! I am glad someone finds my musings useful.

I am also glad to hear that men do discuss these issues amongst themselves. I was a postdoc at National Lab, where the culture surrounding work/life balance and families was very different. Once back in academia, none of my male friends or Assistant Professor colleagues ever discussed this stuff while I was around. It is good hear confirmation that men worry about these things too.

Anonymous said...

Im a father of four kids btw 6 months and 9 yrs old from a European country where things are usually quite family-friendly. I have been on a TT position for 2 years.

Despite the family-friendly society here, I sometimes have to battle to avoid meetings after 5PM b/c I want to go back home and give a hand to my wife (she's a primary school teacher, so it solves the problems for after-school time).

I also organize my working schedule in function of the family. Sometimes I have to go back early to take care of the kids. Sometimes I can stay at work later. Flexibility in academia is a big advantage when you have to take care of kids but you need to be careful because it is a double-edge sword.

Having kids has been one of the best thing that has happened to my life and also for my professional life. It helps me to think of something else after work. It forces me to be as efficient as possible cause I can't do longer days. It helps me go over rejection (big grant was rejected one day after the birth of my last one. I did not care). So, life is always a risky adventure and if you decide to wait for the perfect time to have kids, you will never have them. It is always the time if you want kids.

I realize that my position is easier because I am a man and not a woman. Social networks/blogs have made me realized this and I now pay more attention to things that can facilitate the life of women/mothers in academia. Blog post such as this reminds me how important this is. Thanks for sharing this.