Friday, August 09, 2013

Imported Talent

The topic of a recent email to me involved a male science professor who wanted to find a female science professor to talk to his female students "about being a woman in the sciences and work/life balance". The MSP did not write to me; the woman he asked for help wrote to me. She was not having much luck finding a local FSP who would participate in this, so this institution was willing to pay to bring someone in. This is all very well-meaning etc. etc. but I would like to make the unoriginal, non-radical suggestion that women should not be singled out to talk about work/life balance, either as givers or receivers of information on Family Issues, even by well-intentioned men.

I hasten to say that I am quite supportive of groups of women who voluntarily get together to discuss issues related to being a woman in science and I don't mind (too much) being asked to talk about these things at "pizza lunches" with female students, postdocs, and others (although I would like to see these become less common and necessary). I also hasten to say that I know very little about the particular situation described in the recent email; maybe the women students specifically asked the male professor to organize something involving FSPs and he asked around to see if some colleagues could help. OK, fine. It is good to meet possible role models, especially if few are available locally.

What would be a bit troubling (and may or may not be relevant to the specific situation that inspired this post) is if the MSP didn't think that men would be useful participants in a discussion of work/life balance, either as givers or receivers of information.

Whatever the case: what to do? Because these topics are so complex and vary so much from person to person, it might be useful to have a panel discussion involving FSPs and MSPs, and open to all students. Another option would be to find out what the questions and concerns of the students are, and then compile information from online resources (blogs etc.), or whatever else might be relevant. Certainly many blogs, including this one, welcome questions and comments, so there could even be some interactive discussion. Or maybe this blog is not the best candidate for this, as my opinions of work/life balance as a discussion topic are summarized here.

Anyway, maybe male and female students have some different questions and concerns, but I think both would likely benefit from having an integrated discussion with people who have had different work/life paths and who view these issues in different ways. 




25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I not so long ago did a panel on dealing with transitions (issues of moving around, adjusting to new environments, etc. with an eye to the disruptions this causes in one's family life) at a conference specifically for women in my field (why this exists.. well.. that's a different topic). Anyway, a bunch of "supportive male colleagues" consisting of students, postdocs and professors attended and remarked to me afterwards that it was so very useful, and why didn't guys talk about this stuff.

A combined panel seems like a totally brilliant idea. My PhD advisor was a great example of a prof with good work-family balance. HE left early quite frequently to pick up his kids and shuttle them to various activities making up the time late in the evening via email. I think the guys are just too shy to talk about these things most of the time..

a physicist said...

I once was in a situation where there was going to be a work-life balance discussion, and I (male professor) volunteered to be on the panel. The women (professors) organizing the panel said that the intention was for a women-only event, because they felt that the female students would be more willing to speak up if there weren't men in the room. I think there was also a suggestion that some of the issues women face are different, which certainly makes sense. If I recall correctly, in that situation we found a good compromise in that we had a second work-life discussion on another day that was open to all, and I participated in that one. It was fun, I had a lot to say. Several things I had to say were inspired by ideas I had gotten from this blog and the comments, over the years. Bottom line is, it seemed like a reasonable rationale for a women-only event. But I was glad to have a chance to demonstrate that work-life balance is important to men as well.

Anonymous said...

When I was a new phd student, my (male) advisor took another grad student and I (both female) out to lunch and shared pointers about being a woman in science/academia that he had learned from his wife (he also shared some of his own experience as a man doing the work-family thing).

It was wonderful, for a number of reasons. First, it was his way of letting us know that he was a man in the field who cared and thought about these things. Second, it was a way of opening up a dialogue about these issues that lasted for years. And finally, his wife was a total superstar in her own field and she had some very good advice which I still think about many years later.

So, I think it's perhaps semi-enlightened of the MSP to seek out women to talk to his students, but also kind of lame that he's not willing to just take a crack at it himself.

Anonymous said...

My wife had a similar seminar in her field, law. There are very few female partners, particularly in IP, and they brought in a "successful female partner" to talk about these sorts of issues.

Her advice boiled down to that of C.M. Burns "I'll keep it short and sweet. Family, religion, friendship ... these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business."

Gee, thanks.

Anonymous said...

They don't ask men to do this sort of thing because they fear he will turn out like that investor guy and his advice to ambitious women:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/paul-tudor-jones-female-traders_n_3328293.html

Cloud said...

In all my years of being involved in science (I'm almost 15 years post PhD), I have seen exactly one panel on work-life issues that included men. It was at a local AWIS conference, and they got dual career couples to come talk about how they arranged things. It was awesome.

Now that I am somewhat senior in my field and have two kids, I get asked about "how I make it all work" all the freaking time. By younger scientists, by colleagues, even by my boss (who has a stay at home wife and is perpetually disorganized so seems to think I am practicing some sort of black magic to make my life work). I don't really mind, per se, particularly not the questions from younger scientists. But since my answer is that both my husband and I have agreed to take some career risks and scale back on the "extras" a bit while our kids are young, I do think it is instructive that my husband has never been asked this question. Not even once.

I don't mind the questions because I know it is something that really worries people. I've received emails from young women scientists who seem genuinely stressed about how they can have kids and a career, because everyone is telling them they can't. And then they stumble across my blog and here I am, with kids, a career, and time to write about it. I actually posted the nitty gritty details of our weekly schedule in response to one such email. I thought it was the most boring post I have ever written (and the competition on that is tough....) but it was hugely popular and even sparked a blog carnival. Shows what I know.

Here is a link to a post about the blog carnival, if anyone is curious:
http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2012/03/blog-carnival-on-work-life-logistics.html

Anonymous said...

I agree that work-life issues are important for men as well as women. However, while work-life issues may be important for men, they don't seem to be a cause of attrition, or leakage from pipelines, or opting-out, or leaning out, or whatever metaphor one prefers. Women, OTOH, frequently cite work-life issues as reasons for leaving science, leaking from pipelines, not leaning in, or however one wants to describe it. As long as work-life balance is a matter of professional survival for women but not men, and a driver of inequity for women but not men, I suspect that a lot of well-intentioned people will, rightly or wrongly, seek to build these discussions around women. And, as long as these issues drive inequity for one gender but not the other, maybe it's right to build these discussions around that gender?

BugDoc said...

The Career Center at my university organized a panel on Academic careers and invited both MSP and FSP(of which I was one) to participate. Inevitably, questions were asked about work-life balance and my colleague (generally a good guy and dedicated dad) shrugged somewhat shamefacedly and said, "my wife chose to stay at home with the kids, so I'm not sure I have any good advice to offer". Among my male colleagues in general (again, a very collegial and supportive group as a whole), most have wives that either stayed at home or took a part-time job to take care of things, so there I think there just aren't as many MSPs to ask.

Anonymous said...

This from Physicist: "[T]he intention was for a women-only event, because they felt that the female students would be more willing to speak up if there weren't men in the room." I just don't get why the (alleged) hesitation of (some) women to speak in front of men is met with the removal of men from the conversation. These are adults talking about work-life balance, not 12 year olds learning about menstruation.

Anonymous said...

Without knowing the background of the request, it's really hard to identify the intentions of the MSP in this case. Perhaps the female students requested a FSP specifically? I agree that both MSP and FSP have a lot to contribute to being successful in a field as well as to the topic of work/life balance. If I had been the one asked, I'd approach this in two ways. First, I'd ask ahead of time if there were questions from the students. They can be anonymous, so that way nobody has to be nervous about asking in person. Second, I'd offer a two-part panel. One part for females only (if that is desired by the students at the requesting program) and then a second session where males are invited too.

Anonymous said...

The best talk on work life balance I've ever heard was by a senior man (a very established type person who is the Chair/President/Editor of really top tier things). As one example, he talked about how when his kids were little he was under a lot of pressure to travel around giving a lot of talks getting his name out there, and he decided it wasn't the right time and he was going to wait. The whole thing was just really refreshing and made a nice change of pace, and I appreciated that he felt like it was important enough to him to talk about.

Of course, at the same (very male dominated) conference the following year they had a work-life panel in which finally someone from the audience raised their hand and asked how many of the panel members actually had spouses with a job- none of them did. Then they asked the audience the same question, and almost everyone did. The panel kind of fizzled after that one!

DrDoyenne said...

A symposium I co-organized and sponsored by a "women in science" group invited speakers to talk about various issues influencing success in science. The person who spoke about "work-life balance" was male. He did a fantastic job. He described his experiences as a new father and how he and his wife (also a professor) shared maternity leave from their university jobs. It was a great example of why the work-life balance discussion should include both male and female points of view.

Anonymous said...

One reason why men's and women's work-life concerns (as academic scientists and presumably in other professions) are different: most men are able to find partners who will provide at least a partial support structure for them on the home front, particularly if there are children. Many women are not able to find that (some do, and more power to them!). This significantly differentially affects men's and women's career and life options. Unfortunately, no number of panel discussions is likely to change that fact. Generational change has not made as much difference as one would have hoped, either.

Phillip Helbig said...

"However, while work-life issues may be important for men, they don't seem to be a cause of attrition, or leakage from pipelines, or opting-out, or leaning out, or whatever metaphor one prefers."

Of course they are all of these things for men as well. Many, many men leave academia for family reasons. It's just that, as long as there are fewer women in a field (for whatever reason, not necessarily family-related), people tend not to notice this.

Generic Scientist said...

Well, Phillip Helbig, that may be, but it is a demonstrated fact that having babies is a huge disadvantage for academic women, but actually an advantage for academic men. (Also see this Slate article by the author of the book discussed in the IHE article.)
That's why it does make perfectly good sense to have work-family-balance discussions especially by and for women, although it would certainly be good to have mixed-gender ones too.

EliRabett said...

So the dog that did not bark is that they could not find anyone local who was female and a science professor to talk. There are more troubles there than life balance

DrugMonkey said...

One of the bravest things I've ever seen was a husband/wife pair of scientists on the same panel for a women-in-science roundtable. I think it went over fairly well.

Anonymous said...

Many men and women still believe that childreariing and house chores are to be done primarily by the female half of the couple. This of course means that when people marry and start a family, the husband gains additional time for his career pursuits while the wife loses. Many women also pressure other women to become stay at home moms by guilt tripping them for not spending every waking minute of their lives with their kids.

As long as women continue to adhere to these beliefs and /or marry men who adhere to them, women whether married or not, with kids or not, will always be disadvantaged in the workplace. I don't think these panel discussions on work life balance will help much if people don't change their attitudes on how to structure their personal relationships.

Art Winter said...

This post hit home for me, since I am working on developing a collection of interviews with female scientists online. See here: http://winter.public.iastate.edu/chefs-initiative/ A difference is that the purpose of these video interviews is more to provide personal role models for aspiring female scientists considering academic careers than an explicit discussion of work/life balance, although that issue does come up in the interviews. The simple fact is that most science departments do not have many women (including our own) and so there are very few role models for our graduate students. The hope is to show to graduate students that such a career, while challenging, is indeed a feasible and rewarding choice for women.

standrewslynx said...

This week in class one MSP brought his baby daughter to a department presentation and balanced her in one hand whilst talking about his research. I didn't find out if he was taking care of her the whole day...but thought the feat rather impressive.

On the other hand, if a FSP brought her baby daughter with her when she gave a presentation, I suspect people would view it very differently...

Anonymous said...

Just found this blog via link from Nature. Looking forward to catching up!

This post has made me think a little bit about an invite that I sent recently to an Important Female Scientist (IFS - must keep up with the style). I'm a Junior Male Scientist (JMS) of little importance. My department is very lacking in female PIs for whatever reason, and I admitted in my invitation that part of my motivation for the invite was to hear specifically from an IFS. Despite a couple attempts, I never did hear back from her. While I didn't say anything about talking about work-life balance (we want to hear about her science), I wonder if by even mentioning that her gender was a consideration at all triggered the same sort of negative reaction, resulting in my invitation ending up in the trash bin?

Anonymous said...

To standrewslynx:

You got that right!!!

Anonymous said...

Queries to either gender demonstrate the differences in work life balance.


a) If you have children, who is looking after them today?

b) Who washes your clothes?



Anonymous said...

I find rather tiring the endless discussions of work-life balance and specifically when those discussions are geared towards women. it always seems to be to be the same issues, the same conclusions.

what I would prefer to see more discussion of, is alternative academic research careers within the university besides the tenure track. Not everyone who gets a PhD in a science and is a gung ho and talented researcher, also wants or can teach classes and organize committees and other 'synergistic' activities that make up the job o a TT professor. Such researchers, if they want to stay in academic research rather than go into industry, find themselves as permanent postdocs (permadocs) who have little or no job security, low pay (since it is almost always paid entirely from grant money), no benefits, and no chance of a raise. But, 10 or more years on, these permanent postdocs have such extensive experience and knoweldge not just scientifically (often exceeding that of the PI they work for) but also keep the lab running and PIs rely heavily on them to train their grad students and new postdocs and generate the data to churn out more grants to keep the whole research/grant machine going.

Surely there should be a way for these senior non-tenure track academic scientists (both men and women) to have some semblance of fair compensation and career advancement within the academic system? Most of them eventually are forced to leave research and go to companies because there is no stable place for them in the university. But shouldn't there be? This is a discussion I would find far more interesting and relevant than the endless "women's work life balance" that is already talked to death about yet nothing changes. I am a female scientist, by the way, who also juggles work and home commitments but I just don't find that an interesting topic of discussion.

Anonymous said...

Have to say that I'm irritated by two things about the 'work-life balance' seminars I've seen:
(1) They're directed nearly exclusively at women, as though men don't/shouldn't ever have to deal with such issues, and
(2) They revolve around child-rearing, as though there is nothing else to the 'life' side of that equation.

Yes, different issues arise for women and men in STEM, and yes there is still a call for women-centred discussions (yes, in part because of the "(alleged) hesitation of (some) women to speak in front of men", with a great big "Bugger Off" to clever Anonymous up there, who obviously knows just what it's like to live with daily reminders in their daily and professional life of how they're seen as something other than "human").

Ahem. TLDR: more of the women-centred + open-to-all combo offerings, please!