Soon after I started my PhD program, I had coffee with one of my cohort-mates. While my graduate group shows a 1:1 ratio of men to women, in my cohort, we were the only two women. As we sat outside on one of the slowly rotting picnic tables set below a large oak tree, I asked her why she had chosen this particular program.
She rattled off the laundry list of reasons to pick this school, the ones we had all memorized prior to our interviews: “Oh the research facilities are great,” “I appreciate the breadth and depth of the introductory course,” “Nowhere else can I study this specific question about stinkbugs.” Then she paused for a moment and told me what had finally swayed her: our graduate program makes an effort to be accommodating towards and sensitive to the needs of women with families.
Academia in general is not a friendly place for women who want to have families. A recent article at the Chronicles of Higher Education by Mary Ann Mason, a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic, and Family Security discusses the disparity in how men and women with families are treated in the sciences:
Discrimination against job candidates who are pregnant or have children is a very real part of gender discrimination. Some scientists may believe that women who have families cannot be serious scientists because academic science demands exclusive attention to research. But they do not hold the same beliefs about male scientists with kids. In fact, research shows that male scientists are far more likely to have children than female scientists; two years after their Ph.D.s, nearly 50 percent of men, but only 30 percent of women, had children”¦
Women who do pursue careers in academic science pay a high price for playing the game. Nationally, “married with children” is the academic-success formula for men, but the opposite is true for women, for whom there is a serious “baby gap.” Among scientists who achieved tenure, 72 percent of the men are married with children as opposed to only 50 percent of women. Is that gender equity?
The expectations for men and women on how to balance their work and personal lives are vastly different. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a male colleague. We were working on applications for a grant due in about a month’s time and I had unintentionally and in passing reminded him of a deadline we had coming up. His response was to tell me with a completely straight face that he needed to marry a woman who would be willing to be his secretary and keep track of things like that for him. I can’t imagine that response coming from a woman. I should have told him to invest in a calendar, but instead I opted just to look at him with a mixture of shock and disbelief.
It’s not that women can’t make having a family and working in academia work out for them, but there are real differences in what can be expected of men and women in academia, formed in large part by stereotypical and backwards thinking that places women at a distinct disadvantage. Even as someone who isn’t entirely sold on the whole idea of having babies herself, it makes my blood boil that at some point in their careers, and often that point comes around in graduate school, many women have to make the choice between having a family and having a career, a choice that men simply do not have to make.
Ultimately, this isn’t about babies or families, and personal preference on either side isn’t what’s in play here: the big problem always comes down to men and women making the same choices but being treated differently for those choices. By punishing women for having families, while being neutral towards, or even sometimes rewarding of, men who make the same choice, academia sets itself up to perpetuate a system of sexism.