I was reading a blog post about academic panels focused on women in science, and how they often largely focus on balancing being a woman in science with being a mother. I think this is a great question, especially in light of a recent report that suggests that three quarters of all women who leave engineering do not leave because of this. I have long wondered whether part of the answer to this question is a potential discomfort in talking about the issues that might face the other three quarters so we over focus on discussing that one quarter. I’ve wondered about this because my own experience of women’s forums tends to mirror the situation described by the blogger. But looking at the 4 questions the panelists chose to answer, and the 100 or so questions that the organizer of the panel that would result received I have changed my mind, somewhat.
I now realize that there are a whole set of questions that I don’t think should be hard to talk about, but do not get quite the same air time. And I now understand that’s because of the importance to so many people of having children. That came out in one of the answers that led me to this blog post in the first place.
But, I think it might be useful for all of us to keep an eye on the balance of conversation. Because looking at those 100 or so other questions there are some really important issues in there. And some of them might be harder to talk about. Take the one about broader impacts, the person notes that on a grant they are a broader impact as well as a PI and then asks whether that reinforces patterns of assuming that women are present based on their gender rather than accomplishment. This is something I’ve wondered too, and I find it hard to talk about because I do not want to admit in front of my colleagues, particularly while being in system where promotion turns on accomplishment rather than gender (or other demographic characteristics). Then there are likely questions that are just hard to discuss, harassment and discrimination for example.
So I now think that we discuss children because they are a profound experience for so many. And that the passion and wonder that they create leads to this focus. I do though think its important to keep an eye on the balance and I would like to create a space for both other and harder conversations that we ought to have.
And I also think it might be useful to have forums for parents, where men and women can come together and discuss lives balancing science and parenthood (I am not aware of any). I say this motivated in part by listening to some men recently describe their own anxieties and even sorrows about how they balanced their career with being a parent. And perhaps it would make more space for these other conversations.