Friday, August 26, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Lets Just Get On With It Edition

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.

8 comments:

  1. We still try to educate, you know, as a public good. We've gotten quite a few people to read Why So Slow? by Virginia Valian. I'd be really interested in an update of Failing at Fairness-- we used to recommend that book up and down, but statistics have changed since 1995 and it would be interesting to see some qualitative work as to WHY. Teachers still do need to check how they treat outbursts and misbehavior differently between different demographic groups, so maybe it is still worth recommending.

    Not saying that everybody has to try to preach the good word, so to speak, but as long as one doesn't get emotionally involved (other than a *sigh* and eyeroll), a little bit of educmacation can be a good thing. Yes, it may have kept me from getting some crappy jobs on the job market, but the folks I know who got those jobs were miserable and left right away. I still landed on my feet and in a better place.

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  2. The milliner5:21 AM

    This is brilliant and a very astute observation:

    "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."

    I must admit that I don't feel any overt sexism in my daily work, but I do know that there is subtle sexism at play overall in our company. Very few of the senior execs are women. There's a reason for that.

    I think often about how being a mother affects my work, and how that compares to how being a father affects DH's work. The only thing I've come up with so far is that I will pretty much always not sacrifice my kid's needs (ie. the big & important ones...I'm not talking about every little want or desire) for my work/career needs. At least not now while DS is very young. I was surprised as anyone that my focus shifted this way after having DS. I am the girl after all, whose father's first words upon learning she was pregnant was 'But I thought you were married to your career!' (Yet more proof of it being viewed as an either/or option).

    Now I think part of that shift is just my personality. But part of it, I'm sure is the way I've been conditioned to be as a girl/woman. Has my interest in moving my career forward waned? No. But now there is this whole other great force competing with it. Hence the challenge of trying to balance it all out within the hours we have each day.

    And I just don't see DH facing this in the same way. I think the reason for that is that he's been conditioned more as a boy/man to put himself/work demands first. I imagine that he has his own conflict going on, but in a different regard.

    Anyhow, all this to say that for the most part I'm trying to take the Tina Fey approach (though admittedly, it is hard...especially when you feel the overwhelming responsibility to your kid to not jeopardize your income stability). But I'm also trying in my daily work interactions to dispel the notion that career success and motherhood are incompatible, while offering up solutions or different ways of looking at things when people get stuck in the 'your motherhood responsibilities are getting iin the way of work' dogma.

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  3. Amen.

    Glad that someone is finally dismantling the whole motherhood/career incompatibility myth and showing it for what it is: perniciously subtle sexism.

    Never could've articulated it so well myself... well done!

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  4. I think you raise a great point, but I also think there are aspects of teaching, nursing, and a few other careers (some sorts of lawyering) that make them compatible with mothering in a way that many others are not. First, they are as close to infinitely relocatable as we get, so if you need to pick up roots so that your DH, the (assumed) breadwinner, can take a different or better job, you can (probably) do so, with little damage to your career trajectory. Two, teaching lacks flexibility, but most of the teacher moms I know rave about how it otherwise lines up with their kids' schedules -- at least once those kids are school-aged. More varied school calendars, etc., may be reducing this, but nonetheless. And there are aspects of teachers' jobs (course prep, grading) that offer vast flexibility. Nursing, at least around me, not so much in terms of the actual work day, but considerable in terms of scheduling alternatives (e.g. night shifts that often come with higher pay and/or reduced total hours), so, again, not to downplay the downsides, but there are upsides to this career that are lacking from many others (and most of the nurses I know seem to "swap out" shifts with colleagues with reasonable ease as needed to accommodate family and other commitments). Last but not least, my general sense is that many teachers and nurses are able to take one or more years of leave out of the workforce without long-, or even much short-term damage to their career trajectories. The economic downturn may have altered this (at least for teachers), but ... even if the model is to combine career and family so that both are pursued at (exactly) the same time, these conventionally "female" careers do offer some features that lend themselves to that (geographic mobility and some aspects of their scheduling), and if the model includes some years out of the workforce (without giving up a career), they are probably unusually well-suited to the goal.

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  5. So well said! And it's definitely time to show that the differences in how certain fields are viewed are really just sexist and not based in facts.

    One of my major points of contention is that by saying motherhood isn't compatible with certain fields, we are letting those fields (and the men in them) off the hook from the changes they should be making to account for today's paradigm of two working parents. And it's mostly just sexist BS that both genders get frustrated by.

    But yes, sometimes it isn't worth the fight if you know you're not going to change anything. And in those cases, we should definitely just keep making our way and proving our points by our actions.

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  6. Anonymous11:29 AM

    "Last but not least, my general sense is that many teachers and nurses are able to take one or more years of leave out of the workforce without long-, or even much short-term damage to their career trajectories."

    This is a big deal. Although I agree with many of the broader points in your post, as a female postdoc in my mid-30s, I don't feel like I have anywhere near the flexibility that my female peers in more 'classic' professions do. I can take off time when I need it... but it's like the old joke, I can work whatever 60 h per week I want. And I do not have the money at this point to buy time! Financially, I'm actually far behind my friends in teaching, real estate, and so on. And there's a decent chance that that "raise" will never come if I don't get a TT position. I realize that having a family is a different experience once someone has tenure or even a TT job, but before then, academia is pretty crappy (unless you have a rich sig other).

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  7. Amen, @Cloud to all of it - I do sometimes want an explanation as to why the friggin' patriarchy is so entrenched.

    I think the best guide I've found to navigating Tina Fey's recommended path of "ignore it and move on" is "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" by Dr. Lois P. Frankel. Shitty title but very empowering.

    I love what @the milliner said: "But part of it, I'm sure is the way I've been conditioned to be as a girl/woman... And I just don't see DH facing this in the same way. I think the reason for that is that he's been conditioned more as a boy/man to put himself/work demands first."

    Yes, Socialization, Socialization, Socialization. I was reminded of this immediately when flipping through mens vs womens magazines this am- the mens mag says "Become a company leader" the womens mag says "You're not too young for botox."

    Amen @Caramama: "One of my major points of contention is that by saying motherhood isn't compatible with certain fields, we are letting those fields (and the men in them) off the hook from the changes they should be making to account for today's paradigm of two working parents."

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