Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Mommy and/or Professor?

This is part of a comment on yesterday's post:

.. doesn't hauling a child around your workplace just reinforce the stereotypes of you as a mommy and not a professor?

Short answer: No

In fact, I spend much more time trying to convince younger women (and some men) that they can be a parent and a science professor at a research university and have a happy family life and career.

Over the years, I have had trouble being taken seriously by certain colleagues, but in most cases I don't think it is because I am a mother.

I recently wrote about being a "mother figure" to students and how this hasn't always been a good thing for me. At the time of the anecdote that I used to explain my initial thoughts on this as a young FSP, I was a childless 2o-something recent PhD. In that case, the students were in fact stereotyping me (female = mommy but not professor), but I don't think that the reality of my reproductive history would have erased or reinforced their view.

Rather than hiding the fact that I am a mother, I want to show students that women are mothers and professors. Or are professors and not mothers. Whatever. Just like real people not in academia.

Furthermore, I think that others in academia (faculty, administrators, postdocs, and students) should be more, not less, aware of the issues faced by faculty with young children, particularly those faculty without a stay-at-home partner.

And further furthermore, I never have to "haul" my child around my workplace. She loves coming to the office with her dad and/or me, and she is particularly fascinated by our graduate students. We keep a low profile, but we also don't slink through the halls hoping to be invisible.

35 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

When I was an undergraduate at a SLAC, my favorite professor (and one with whom I took as many classes as I possibly could) had to bring her two year-old daughter to work with her because her husband had a doctor's appointment that could not be rescheduled. The daughter scribbled on a remote corner of a chalkboard, sat quietly coloring under the table that professor/mom's lectern sat on, and occasionally piped up with observations like "I burped!" Professor/mom lectured and led discussion, getting juice boxes and the like without breaking her stride.

The daughter's presence was a little distracting in its cuteness, but I found myself respecting the professor in question more, rather than less.

Amanda said...

I think that visibility like you're doing is good-- I've known a lot of young women who have been conflicted about going into science, particularly academia, because of fears of balancing a family and being respected by male colleagues. Anything to show women that yes, they can have both is good!

LMH said...

Your daughter did say she wanted to study people, right? And graduate students have enough quirks to fascinate a budding anthropologist or psychologist.I have long thought that someone should study us - there is a whole other level of paranoia and craziness that manifests itself in graduate school.

Also, as a young woman about to finish graduate school and move on, I like to see how people go about being scientists and still people. I like that you do good science and have a kid - and that your husband also spends time with the kid at work.

Anonymous said...

I seem to be in minority in terms of not wanting children in work places. The fact that some academics can do it because their children are not disruptive is one of the quirks of being an academic. But who is to say what is disruptive and what is not? Parents are not always the best judges.

Alyssa said...

I too agree that showing your family-life side to students is incredibly important. Like Amanda said, too many women decide not to pursue academia because it looks too hard to be able to balance life (especially with children) and work. Any time a professor can show how "normal" there life is, and how they can have the best of both worlds, is fantastic.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that, at this point in our history, it is even more valuable for future scientists to see male faculty taking time out for their families and sharing the joys and traumas of child-rearing, including bringing their kids to wrk as well as leaving early or in mid-day to attend to needed tasks. In the end, the only way to even the playing field is to have a society where one can balance family and job and where both parents play an equal role.

Mark P

Anne said...

I'm immensely curious to know what your daughter thinks of us graduate students...Guest post? :)

Janice said...

Mommy and professor for the win, FSP! I've only once brought one of my children to a university activity. Our younger child is on the autism spectrum and had a major meltdown at school one day. With a phone call coming just 30 minutes before class was scheduled, I had few choices: either class and disappoint students plus special guests or to pick up said child and tuck her quietly in the corner while I taught.

I did the latter because I felt it better not to cancel the class entirely. She was blessedly well-behaved for the eighty minute period and everything went fine.

If I worked in a "normal job" I wouldn't be bringing my kid in to work. On the other hand, I could either find a replacement or just use a sick day when problems happened while catching up on my duties another day. When you're scheduled to be in the classroom or the like, you can't just hand off your responsibilities (literally there is no one in my department who has the background to cover my classes, especially not on half an hour's notice). At that point, what's more professional: to carry on with a kid on the sidelines or to cancel entirely?

L-Siz said...

Why should a woman have to hide the fact that she is a mother to be taken seriously? What is wrong with having children around as long as they aren't being destructive and distracting?

We have to get away from the dogma that you can't be a serious scientist and have an outside life.

Fortunately, I did my PhD in a department where almost all the faculty were very active outside of their science. One did ski patrol in the winter. Another was an avid kayaker. Another went to some foreign exotic country for a couple of weeks every year. Work-life balance is important and makes for happier scientists. Happy scientists are more productive than depressed scientists.

MommyProf said...

I am fortunate that some of my field involves children. At least once a year, I bring Offspring in as a guest speaker, and let the students ask her questions for a child's eye view of the phenomena we are studying. I think the students like it...

Cloud said...

Thank you for writing this, FSP. I was just lamenting a few days ago that I almost never see posts from female academic scientists about how they combine career and motherhood. I got enough comments and email questions that I finally wrote some posts about how I do it. Those posts are now among the most commonly hit on my site by search engines. But I'm in industry, on a career path that many young scientists would probably view as "non-traditional" and not scientific enough (although I love what I do and made the move from academia to industry at a time when I thought I wouldn't have kids)- so while some may find what I wrote encouraging or useful, I'm sure plenty more don't find what they are looking for.

Mark P- I agree that it would be great to see more obviously involved working dads. However, my husband and I have made similar accommodations at work to allow us to be a happy working parent couple. We are genuinely equal parents working in related fields. My husband has never once been asked by anyone how he balances work and fatherhood. I am asked about this topic constantly. Draw whatever conclusions you want from that.

John V said...

I like to see kids at work, and mine is seen there often, but I think it is going overboard to claim they create a better work environment.

Sure grad students can help with their homework, they can give guest lectures in classes, give us the appearance of more rounded and appealing lifestyles, show our fabulous abilities to multitask Matlab and juice boxes, etc..

However, they preclude long, focused discussions, take attention away from the research at hand, dissuade colleagues from dropping in for technical chats (at least my kid hates them and will tell us so), and generally take non-zero amounts of time to supervise and entertain.

The point to me is to accommodate the presence of kids to the extent it makes science a profession we willingly undertake, not to sell science as a career to our kids, and not to sell science as a family-friendly career to our students.

IMO, these points apply to both mommies and poppies.

Amy said...

In response to Cloud and Mark P., perhaps there would be fewer questions about how to balance science and motherhood if more men (and women) were open about the challenges and strategies. I know that I appreciate my male colleagues who talk about their kids and bring them to the office occasionally.

Although I bring my kids to the office to visit every so often, I've only HAD to bring my daughter to class once. In a perfect storm of coincidence the nanny had to leave the country on short notice to be with her dying father, my husband had an important meeting that he couldn't reschedule and I had a class to teach. Fortunately I had already planned to have the students work through some practice test problems that day, so my daughter sat in her stroller eating snacks while the students took turns at the board. I think it really made an impression on some in the class - I still get comments about it years later.

Anonymous said...

[Child] loves coming to the office with her dad and/or me, and she is particularly fascinated by our graduate students.

That's because grad students and postdocs are a specialized class of high performance toy.

Just ask my last bosses son.

OTOH, I had permission to discipline him if necessary, so he respected the limits set for him.

zed said...

I am having a good laugh thinking what it would be like if I brought my twin boys, 2.5, to class. They would probably be naked, running down the halls and using the chalk in inappropriate ways within seconds.

PUI prof said...

Zed, that's funny.

Where I work is a very kid-friendly place, in fact the faculty introduce themselves at the beginning of the year and describe their kids, so the students know which kid belongs to which faculty.

However, I do get wigged out that the chemistry faculty feel freer than I would in bringing their offspring in with them as they set up chem labs.

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergraduate at an R1, I worked in a lab that had two PIs with complementary research. They just happened to be married to each other and their elementary aged children came into the lab every day after school. The kids had a dedicated place in the lab where they did their homework and worked on computers. The kids were never disruptive and were a genuine part of our "lab family". Honestly, this situation was a major factor influencing me to consider an academic career as it showed me how it could be done while still maintaining a life.

L-Siz said...

IMO, more women will go into academia when it is shown that it is possible, common even, to have a healthy work/life balance. As anonymous 2:21 said, she saw that it was possible and so was more interested. When I speak to PhD students at my university and others and they realize that I have a life outside of my science, it seems to make them reconsider the prospect of an academic position.

Sarah K said...

I'm a new postdoc in biology and I'll be giving my first department seminar while 5 months pregnant. (At that point I'll finally be looking pregnant, not just like I've been eating too many donuts.) There are woefully few women faculty in my department and I bet there's never been a pregnant seminar speaker.

I'm debating adding a picture from my ultrasound under my list of future projects. It seems silly to ignore my physical state when it will be obvious to everyone there (and its something I'm proud of!).

Anonymous said...

Echoing what has been said... Seeing professors (men and women!) bring their kids around the lab, leave early to make games or performances, and generally acknowledge and embrace their personal lives has encouraged me enormously. Bring those kids around!

Anonymous said...

The dean of my women's SLAC told my husband when he lectured one day with our infant son draped over his shoulder (he had an ear infection) that that was the most powerful message he could send about work-life balance to the (all female) math majors.

Anonymous said...







she is particularly fascinated by our graduate students

Sounds like a trip to zoo...

What I really don't want is to be judged by boss' kid while doing my work.






Anonymous said...

"When I was an undergraduate at an R1, I worked in a lab that had two PIs with complementary research. They just happened to be married to each other and their elementary aged children came into the lab every day after school. The kids had a dedicated place in the lab where they did their homework and worked on computers. The kids were never disruptive and were a genuine part of our "lab family"."

Ironically, where you see this as a plus, I see this as inappropriate and unprofessional.

quasarpulse said...

I think it would be better for just about everyone if we could get over feeling squicky about kids in adult spaces. We've defined so many spaces as "adult" that kids are practically under 24-hour age-based segregation, only seen in transit from one kid-safe area to another. I don't think that's good. How can kids learn to be well-behaved and nondisruptive in adult-dominated environments if they never spend any time there?

My mother was a nontrad student and a single mother. Any time she had school and I didn't, I was in her classes with her. I sat quietly and either read or listened to the lecture. Any kid who can do that - any kid who can conform to the expected behaviour norm for students - should be perfectly acceptable in the college environment, and most kids probably can. There's only about a four-year age range where it's unreasonable to expect 50 minutes of quiet from a kid, and in that range "nondisruptive" gets a little more subjective.

amy said...

Anonymous at 1:48: Part of what's being questioned here is our society's definition of "professional." The concept of professional behavior has been built around the model of a married man with a stay at home wife, who keeps his personal and work lives completely separate, except for the occasional inviting of the boss home for a wife-cooked meal. Anything that hints of a blending of private and public life is seen as unprofessional, including working one's schedule around family activities, spending considerable time with the family instead of 80 hours a week working, and even shedding tears in the workplace (see previous FSP posts on crying students). We should question all of this. What is professional space for? It's a place where people can concentrate and get serious work done. Bringing children (or tears!) into that space is not problematic per se. It's only a problem if it interferes with the work that needs to be done. How could it be an interference if kids have their own work space where they do their homework?

John V said...

Amy ends with

"How could it be an interference if kids have their own work space where they do their homework?"

In my experience administering a couple of minor units, the uncontested most contentious issue in academia is the battle for space.

Even if the kids only temporarily use otherwise empty space, it can be a red flag to the Deans who patrol the halls desperately prowling the halls to find some square feet for the new hires, the disgruntled old hires, the demands of expanding neighboring depts, to promise for pending proposals, etc..

Distracting properties of kids aside, and aside from perhaps the inhibiting effect of training them to try not to be noticed while their parents mostly ignore them for hours, the issue of space looms.

Bringing kids to work is definitely a compromise to make life work, not where the kids most naturally fit or where most prefer to be.

Hope said...

amy says: Bringing children (or tears!) into that space is not problematic per se. It's only a problem if it interferes with the work that needs to be done.

I wonder if amy has kids. This is exactly why institutions adopt blanket policies that can seem overly harsh (e.g., no kids allowed) – so that they don’t have to sort out my definition of “problematic” or “interference” vs. yours.

My opinion is best summed up by John V: I like to see kids at work … but I think it is going overboard to claim they create a better work environment. The point to me is to accommodate the presence of kids to the extent it makes science a profession we willingly undertake, not to sell science as a career to our kids, and not to sell science as a family-friendly career to our students.

amy said...

Fair enough about the space issue -- we're always battling about space at my university, too. I don't have kids, but suppose I had a kid and set aside part of my own office for her to do homework in a couple of days a week. Suppose that space had been used for stacking my old file boxes (in other words, I wasn't really using it), and nobody had ever complained about my having "too big" an office. Suppose my kid was quiet and happy to work for an hour or two in my office. Suppose I'm getting my work done at the same speed as usual. Then should my kid being in my office be considered "unprofessional" and should I be considered to be "not dedicated enough" to my career, simply because I've brought a kid into a work space? Only if you have a definition of "professional" that is built up around a strong public/private dichotomy, and *that* is what needs to be questioned. I understand that universities might have other reasons for banning kids in buildings, but what I'm reacting to is the idea that the professional environment ought to be child-free, emotion-free, animal-free, and basically sterile.

Anonymous said...

@ Amy: I'm the anon 1:28.

What I found inappropriate and unprofessional about the situation that was described, is the excessive blending of work and personal lives in the workplace, a workplace that is shared by other co-workers.

First of all in many organizations it is unethical to be married to your co-worker or boss. Conflicts of interest can inevitably arise. I assume that since that couple in question share the same lab, that their departments are OK with it and they are officially avoiding conflicts of interests in their professional duties. But in many organizations this is a very real problem so they are already in muddy waters there.

And then on top of that to be bringing their kids to the lab every single day. That seems excessive. The lab if not a personal after-school program. Even if they claim that the kids are not disturbing anyone (although if they were, would any of the grad students and postdocs dare speak up knowing they are up against not just one but two PIs?) I find that hard to believe that this is always the case if the kids are there every day.

Also if it's acceptable for one person to do it, it has to be acceptable for everyone. What if their grad students and postdocs followed their lead and all brought their kids to the lab every single day? There would be no place to do any work.

I'm a married FSP by the way. I try very hard to keep my work life and personal life separate to prevent conflicts of interest. I don't see an occasional emergency situation where you have to bring your kids along to your workplace as a big deal. But where it is a regular occurrence - i.e. a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity - that's something else.

Anonymous said...

sorry I mean I"m the anon at 1:48, not 1:28

Balancing Act said...

FSP, I read your blog regularly anyway, but today I came across the reference to this post from Professor and Parent post at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Very interesting stuff!

I do think the problem in the either/or scenario and what is appropriate or not is how you fit the situation. Unless I'm mistaken, if you impose on someone else, that is inappropriate.

Bringing children into an office walks the line of disruption. Sometimes kids have to be brought in, but as a mother, I am hyper-sensitive to my children being possibly disruptive. Unfortunately, many parents (and I'm thinking of actual existing people and situations I have personally experienced) do not see their children as disruptive, when, in fact, those children are very disruptive and others could not work productively. That's fine if you are the boss and realize your children being present make productivity go down, but if you don't, then get upset that your students are not as productive as they should be, then you get into problems.

I struggle with how much my kids should be seen. Sometimes they have to come to work, as in those emergency type situations. There are also family-oriented events in my department. But here's the rub, because of the professionalism separate from private life, I feel uncomfortable bringing my children to those events. That is completely wrong.

So, all in all, I dislike that to be professional, I may need to or feel I have to hide my mommyhood and family. The dichotomy is not actually helpful, in the end. But, how to address it?

Roberta said...

I'm a parent too and I don't have a problem with the "no kids in the workplace" policy. What is wrong with having boundaries and being asked to not overstep them in certain situations out of consideration of other people?

What is wrong with asking that EVERYBODY - not singling out people selectively - simply keep their children out of the workplace out of consideration of others (including other people who are parents themselves too!) so there is never any dispute over "my kids were not being disruptive!" versus "oh yes they were!"...Why do people feel such a overwhelming need to bring their personal lives into their place of work? I don't see why this no-kids-in-the-office policy should be met with such a victim-attitude that some people on here seem to have.

Kevin said...

The no-kids-in-the-office rule may make sense at a 40-hour-a-week job.
After over 25 years as a professor, my job is still not down to 40 hours a week (60 is more common). If the profession expects so much of our time, they must allow some overlap with family life.

Separation of family and work life requires putting bounds on work, not just on family.

Yuli said...

There is another aspect, I believe. This is a stressfull, although not necessarily traumatizing experience for a child. Occasionally I brought my younger kids to univesity and was impressed how long they were able to remember such visits. My mom was not a prof but also had a responsible office-many-people-around job. Gosh, I still remember the day she had to take me to that hive: forty-seven years have passed since.

Anonymous said...

The message I get from some of these comments is that you should not forget that some of your colleagues will be some way along the autism spectrum and have no understanding of other people and their lives. Most of the rest of us think that it is important to construct child-friendly ways of working.

(Of course the health debate leads to the inference that some Americans just have hearts of stone.)