Women in Academia: Michelle Obama, the National Science Foundation, and the Question of Perpetuating Gender Roles

Last week, the White House announced new policies and initiatives aimed at making the lives of people with families in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields a little bit easier. While the policies focus on balancing family and work, women’s issues are explicitly mentioned ““ and I find myself a little torn on that.

The policies, as presented, are gender-neutral. Among other things, people who’ve received grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) can postpone grants for up to a year for childbirth/adoption, allow grant suspension for parental leave, and receive supplements to cover research technicians that would run the research and labs while the grant recipients take family leave. All of these are important steps forward that will allow many more people to pursue careers in research and academia.

However, the justification for these policy changes, at least how it’s reported in the press release, come down heavily on the side of making these careers more accessible to women. And honestly, when faced with the facts that 41% of doctoral graduate students in STEM fields are women but only 28% of tenure-track faculty are, one has to wonder about the causes for the drop-off and work to change it. Changing the culture around families and children is incredibly important and valuable, but it is only one of the many steps we need to take to see more gender equality in academia.

And this is where I run into an issue: when I write about “women in academia” and family planning or people create new policy with “women in academia” in mind that focuses on the family, are we tacitly upholding the bullshit status quo that dictates that women must run the family, or are we responding the reality of our situation? Are we creating safe spaces, or are we reinforcing the very issues that make those safe spaces feel valuable? I completely support the new National Science Foundation policies and the initiatives run through the White House to encourage a more family-friendly academia, but I sometimes worry about the context of the discussion.

Anyway, I don’t have an answer for that, but I welcome any and all comments on the subject.

2 replies on “Women in Academia: Michelle Obama, the National Science Foundation, and the Question of Perpetuating Gender Roles”

Thanks for writing about this!
I agree it’s a problem (or indicative of a problem) that discussions about balancing family & work are still aimed at women. I think it reflects lingering social perceptions that women should run the home, or simply care more about maintaining family relationships and child-rearing. But in reflecting that reality, it also reinforces those ideas.

Aiming the work/life balance discussion at women does a couple detrimental things. Like I said, I think it does reinforce some gender roles to the detriment of women’s careers. And those on-going perceptions can, consciously or not, affecting hiring decisions and other aspects of career advancement. The way work/life balance is approached also pretty seriously discredits men. It can feed the notion that women “must” do the work of maintaining home/children/relationships because men either incapable or lackadaisical in those areas. I don’t think that sort of men VS women setup is helpful to either gender. In addition, the discussion leaves out men who want a work/life balance. The implication is that men either don’t want to balance home and work because they are immersed in work, or that men will somehow find this balance without any of the difficulty it presents to women.

Personally, I don’t want children, so I would like to see the work/life discussion expanded a bit more beyond pregnancy/parental leave. But the gender-neutral policies are an excellent step forward. The discussion just hasn’t caught up with the policy.

Yes, there are ingrained perceptions about the role of women in child rearing and homemaking.  However, the reality is that many, many women must be the primary care providers for their children, families and homes not (only) because they choose to, but because they must.  There is also a serious impact on the lifelong earning and growth potential for women who become mothers.  The easy answer is to say that those women who want to grow or earn shouldn’t pro-create, but really…..not so realistic.  Having a child is one of the single greatest indicators of future poverty for a woman in the United States.  American culture does not actively support work/life balance.  A woman with a child has fewer opportunities for higher paying/advancing jobs because of the liability of child related sick leave, maternity leave, and childcare issues.  Women with children face even greater pay disparities compared to men than women without children, and women with children are less likely to be chosen for promotions or advancement.  A woman with a child has less access to further education or training because of, again, the liabilities of leave time and childcare.  Less access to education and training further hampers a woman’s ability to achieve economic growth and independence.   Ideally every woman with a child would have some personal support system or partner to equally share the burden of childcare and housekeeping.  But that just isn’t the case.  Many mother’s do not have partners and many of those with partners do not live with a “Mr. Mom”.  I agree that setting up a men v. women situation would be detrimental, so both men and women, with children and without, should be included in any work/life balance system.  But to say that work/life balance initiatives are harmful because they reinforce negative stereotypes diminishes the very real need many women have for such initiatives.  I whole heartedly agree that the idea of “woman as child rearer, the keeper of hearth and home” is a perception that must be changed for the growth of our society, but failing to empower those women who are tied to hearth and home would be the greater tragedy .–publications/single-mothers-poverty-higher-us.pdf

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