The Hermitage organized a panel of bloggers to answer questions about being a woman in academia, without any questions about having kids (because apparently all the women in academia events she goes to devolve into discussions about work-life balance and the like). I read some of the posts, even though I am not in academia and I clearly have kids, because I like the bloggers she had on the panel and I figured they'd probably have some smart and interesting things to say. They did. All of the posts are worth reading. But I was particularly struck by GMP's answer to the question about how to handle women who deny the existence of sexism:
"It is a fact that over the course of your career you will most likely get some (or quite a bit of?) friction under your professional wheels because you are a woman. Life is definitely too short to try to convert naysayers. If you suspect that someone is biased against you professionally, don't waste time going around looking for validation; assume they are indeed biased and try to minimize their influence on your career (I am talking about unconscious bias and the virtually imperceptible inequalities it creates; egregious violations of your rights to a safe work environment or sexual harassment should always be reported). Focus on surrounding yourself with supportive people of both genders and keep looking and going ahead."
It reminded me of one of the quotes I highlighted in Bossypants, by Tina Fey:
"So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: "Is this person in between me and what I want to do?" If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you're in charge, don't hire the people who were jerky to you."
Good advice from both GMP and Tina Fey, but of course, hard to follow.
I've been thinking about why it is so hard to follow, and I think it is related to the whole "motherhood is incompatible with a career in X" meme that our culture seems so enamored with these days. (I'm not part of the panel, so I can talk about babies.) Bear with me on this... maybe you'll see the connection, too.
When the career you've worked really hard for is not as awesome as you think it should be, particularly when things seem so much easier for other people (who all happen to be men), or when you're trying to understand why you can't get the career success you think you deserve, particularly when other people (who all happen to be men) are getting that success... well, you want an explanation. And if you manage to rule out the "I'm just not good enough" explanation that a lot of us women default to, the next obvious thing to consider is sexism.
But these days, the sexism you've run into is almost always subtle, and hard to identify, let alone prove, so you look to other people to agree with your diagnosis about what's going on- to help convince yourself that you really are good enough. However, most people hate conflict, and the men you suspect of sexism are probably nice guys and no one wants to believe they are sexist. So they point you at the fact that you have a family and a working spouse, while the men who are getting ahead instead of you have stay at home spouses, and they say maybe its just that the demands of your career are incompatible with the demands of your family, and of course something has to give and you're a good mom, so it is no wonder that you compromised your career in favor of your family. Or maybe, you've just been told so many times that there is no sexism anymore, it is just women opting out to raise families, or "downshifting" to focus more on their family or whatnot, that you think of this explanation before sexism.
I've written a lot about how I don't think motherhood and a demanding career are incompatible- maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but not incompatible. But lately, I've been thinking that the whole discussion is predicated on a false assumption- i.e., that the careers that have lots of women in them, and therefore presumably lots of mothers, are some how easier to manage with kids. I am not sure this is true. Take teaching, for instance. This is supposed to be such a great job for working mothers, right? But why? The hours are long (every teacher I know brings work home- I would guess they are working at least as many hours as I do, probably more), the pay isn't all that great, making it harder to buy time. There is very little flexibility in the work schedule- whereas I can duck out for an hour or so to take care of a doctor's appointment and make up the hours at night, teachers generally have to take a sick day for that sort of thing. And they certainly can't work from home while watching a sick kid! So how is this easier than my job, exactly?
I think similar arguments can be made about nursing, and even a lot of the lower level "pink collar" office jobs- if our receptionist wants to go run an errand in the middle of the day, she has to arrange someone to cover the front desk. If I want to go run an errand in the middle of the day, I check my calendar to make sure I have no meetings, and then I just go. My job may be demanding, but with those demands comes a fair amount of autonomy and flexibility. Not to mention the money.
But we never hear about how a career in teaching or nursing is incompatible with motherhood. It is just the traditionally male jobs that are. This makes no sense.
And the data don't support that conclusion. I came across fresh evidence of that this week, in this article about the Forbes Most Powerful Women list - apparently 88% of them are mothers. With an average of two kids.
I don't argue with the statement that it can be hard to balance the demands of a career and the demands of family. I have plenty of examples of the challenges in my own life. But I think we do a disservice to all women when we say that these challenges are unique to male-dominated careers. They aren't. And as Nicoleandmaggie point out- for a lot of women, the alternative of being a stay at home mom is just not appealing, even if they don't admit it, because our society judges that a bit harshly (see, for instance, the old "if you don't want to stay home with your kids, why did you have them?" canard).
So I say it is time to apply the advice from GMP and Tina Fey, and ignore the people who say there is no problem for women in the traditionally male-dominated careers and their close cousins, the people who say that the problem is just that the demands of these careers are incompatible with motherhood. The data don't support either of these contentions. We need to charge ahead and just keep working. It won't always be easy. Sometimes sexism will get in our way. Sometimes we'll choose to make adjustments to our career because of family (or other non-work) considerations. And yes, sometimes we won't get something we aim for because someone else really is better suited for the job. But sometimes, we'll get the success we want- even if we have kids. We won't know until we try.