Today I heard an amazing thing. A tenured professor in another department hid the fact that he and his wife had had a baby because he thought that being a father might make him seem less 'hard core' and 'serious' to his graduate students. Ah yes, the dreaded humanizing effect of an infant..
That the professor in question is a tenured male professor and not an early career scientist makes this an unusual case (I think/hope). I know early career scientists (students, postdocs, assistant professors) and, in fact, women of all academic ranks, who worry about being taken less seriously because they have a child. From what I have seen, this concern is entirely justified in some cases.
In this case, however, the professor is someone who (according to his current graduate students) wants to be feared by his students and who worried that students wouldn't fear a dad-like person. According to my student-source, he need not worry about this.
Both men and women academics with young children may be concerned about being taken less seriously be colleagues and others. It will perhaps not surprise my readers when I say that I think it is a more serious problem for women, as I am aware of recent examples in which early career women scientists were discriminated against owing to having a young child, but I recognize that it may be an issue for men as well.
The more rare (?) example described above, however, is likely dominantly a male phenomenon, as it is more difficult for a woman to hide the fact of having a baby. (I am not ignoring the possibility of adoption; I think that would be difficult to 'hide' as well).
I can think of at least two general questions that arise from this anecdote:
Who wants to be feared by their graduate students?
First, I think we need to make a distinction between being feared and being respected, and also between being feared and having the effect of unintentionally intimidating students. What is the point of being feared anyway? To motivate students? -- I hope not, but I am trying and failing to think of reasons why being feared would be useful. To me, being respected seems like a more important (and desirable) element of an advisor-advisee relationship.
While I'm at it, I will also make a distinction between being liked and respected. We advisors don't have to enjoy our students' company immensely and hang out drinking coffee or beer and talking about sports or tropical fish. We just have to be able to work together (and respect each other if at all possible).
What effect does being a mom or dad have on your advisor-advisee relationships?
Logistical effects: When you are an advisor-parent, you can't always be in your office during normal working hours as much as you would be if you did not have a kid. This is a fact, though I will mention (as I have before), that members of my research group who have dogs spend as much time or more during working hours on activities related to their high-maintenance dogs than I do dealing with no-school days or school concerts that are scheduled for the middle of the work day etc. Even when my schedule gets erratic owing to parenting activities, I am almost always accessible by email or phone, and I work non-standard hours during which my students are welcome to stop by my office. So, although there clearly is a logistical effect, I do not think that being a parent has limited my accessibility as an advisor to my students.
Emotional/Intangible effects: If you are a parent, do your students perceive you in a way that is different from how they would if you were not a parent? And if so, does it matter? This is the issue raised by the anecdote discussed today, and it is the effect that is most difficult to assess. I suppose one could also ask of parent-advisors: Do you treat your students in a different way than you would if you weren't a parent?
I don't know -- I need to think about it some more, perhaps collect some data -- but I do think that if you truly value being feared by your students, your fearsomeness will probably not be significantly decreased by your parenthood, even if you start wearing Elmo socks and singing Raffi songs around the department.
7 years ago