Is it just about children?

I am a female scientist who does not have children. My “childless” status is unrelated to being a scientist. Although perhaps I am still a scientist because I do not have to care for any offspring. Regardless, I am affected by gender inequalities in science all the same. So here is my claim: it is not just about children.

Gender inequalities come in many forms and shapes. Female scientists are less likely to be cited, be first or senior authors, get a high salary, or be invited as keynote speakers in scientific conferences to name a few (1). These are the facts. And they affect me, directly. For example, I am the only female with a PhD in my (not that small) research group (although there is a good number of female students), and there are very few female scientists in top positions at my current institution (aka, few role models). On the job interviews I had, I was the only female candidate (although I did get an offer after my last one!). I see few female scientists giving keynote presentations at the conferences I attend, even though I do see plenty female attendees. I also don’t publish (or get cited) as often as I would like, but it would (probably) be unfair to blame my XX chromosomes for that…

Luckily, we are all(?) aware of these issues, and excitingly, people are looking for solutions to address the inequality. My concern is that recently the solutions I have heard most about only focus on the issue of family vs. work. The premise is that children take time, science takes time, and so women that have children are less likely to pursue a research career. The solution is then clear: facilitate that women take care of their children and do science (2). This solution hits two nerves for me. First, the feminist in me wants to scream: children are not the sole responsibility of women! We must encourage equal share of family responsibilities, and then allow people (men and women) to balance work and personal life. Of course, those without children also have personal lives that need balancing, so this is not an issue for parents only either! Please, do not get me wrong, I fully support making it easier for scientists that have children to be able to pursue research careers. The point I am trying to make is that allowing mothers to bring their babies to work or take more days off is NOT the sole path to equality.

The second nerve this “females as mothers” approach hits is more self-centered. If the problem is that females are mothers, and I am not a mother, then I should not have a problem. Yet, I feel like I do. We need to promote a system that allows everyone to have a balanced life, whether they choose to have children, take care of their elderly parents, have pets, or take up windsurfing. Schedule flexibility, part-time options, accepting (adapted) work environments are all well-known possibilities to achieve that goal. In addition, I think as individuals we also need to take responsibility for our choices; acknowledge that we, often, set our own priorities, and accept that equal opportunity does not mean that you get the same chance as everyone else regardless of your choices (and their outcomes).

So, What am I trying to say? Focusing on the family issue when discussing gender inequalities in science can have a “dark” side. Of course, having more females leave the academic/research path can lead to fewer females doing science (i.e., fewer females in top positions), but this does not explain the fewer citations, the lower pays, or the diminishing comments (4). There are ingrained biases in our perceptions of gender differences that go beyond parenting and those should not be ignored (5). Otherwise those childless female out there may feel like it is their own damn fault when they fail in their pursuit of a scientific career. I say, chicas, it is not!

An update to create a link to this nice opinion piece and this one

(1) http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/30/the-guardian-view-on-the-tim-hunt-affair-an-explosive-combination-of-science-sexism-and-social-media
(2) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6236/830.full
(3) http://www.nature.com/news/practical-policies-can-combat-gender-inequality-1.17856
(4) http://www.nature.com/news/bibliometrics-global-gender-disparities-in-science-1.14321, http://www.nature.com/news/inequality-quantified-mind-the-gender-gap-1.12550
(5) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6219/234.full, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/349/6249/671.full?utm_campaign=email-sci-toc&utm_src=email

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