Fatherhood and Academia

Via a whole bunch of people on social media, there's a new study of gender roles in academia, which the Washington Post headlines "Study: Male scientists want to be involved dads, but few are". This is not inaccurate. Some quotes that jumped out at me:

“Academic science doesn’t just have a gender problem, but a family problem,” said Sarah Damaske, a sociology professor at Penn State and one of the report’s authors. “We came to see that men or women, if they want to have families, are likely to face significant challenges.”

The study, Damaske said, showed there was potential for change, in the majority of men who wanted to take on a more active role at home as fathers. But there was also resistance to change from those in power at the institutions.

“We came to realize that it really benefits your career to have someone at home, making sacrifices for your career,” Damaske said. “The majority of men we spoke to see that. But they’re not happy about it.”

And for the men who have put family first, they talked of feeling isolated from their colleagues and that they’d made career concessions others hadn’t. “I am not nearly as productive as I used to be,” one associate biology professor said. “No academic institution is particularly – that I know of – is particularly great for family … the people that do best in academica, sadly, often are those who don’t’ have [the responsibility] of child care.”

This sort of thing is something I have written about many times. I don't have the time right now to spend crafting detailed responses to this particular study that wouldn't be potentially problematic. But two quick other notes:

-- This is nothing new-- scientists with families have been dealing with inconvenient arrangements for roughly as long as there have been scientists with families. And they've been getting through mostly through the active support of family. The current study is mostly just a redistribution of the problem due to changing norms and expectations.

-- This is not unique to academic science. SteelyKid has started playing outdoor soccer through the community recreation program. Their first practice was last night, at 5:30, and I took her (thus the photo at the top of this post). I was the only father there who wasn't coaching a team. A couple of other dads showed up by the time things wrapped up, but it was almost entirely moms, who either stay home, or arrange their work schedules so they're free in time to do early-evening kid soccer. I suspect a few of those late-arriving fathers would've been happy to be there earlier, but didn't feel free to leave work early to do that. And as I always point out when I write about this, we live in a very affluent suburb full of people with good white-collar jobs-- these problems are immeasurably worse for people who have to punch a clock. Who mostly aren't at these kinds of kid-oriented events for just that reason.

Anyway, while I can't comment in much detail, I didn't want to let this study pass without any comment. It's mostly just nailing down stuff anybody who's close to the situation already knew, but it's a slightly different angle on the problem than has been seen before, and valuable for that.

More like this

Like so many sociology studies that simply measure what any intelligent person can see around them, this is utterly obvious.
1. Human beings have finite time and energy. If a person puts more time and effort into one aspect of life, he or she has less available for others.
2. Many worthwhile aspects of life reward 12 hours of effort more than 6, and 6 more than 4, and 4 more than 2. Whether its an hourly wage, additonal customer contacts, extra research, building a stronger relationship with your spouse, or investing more effort into your children's education, those who put more time in it often accrue greater rewards than those who put less time into it.
3. Effective human teams usually have uneven distributions of talents and tasks. In an academic division some people do more teaching and others do more research, or some do more research and others do more patient care. In human marriages throughout history and across cultures, one spouse usually does a disproportionate amount of hunting, or earning, or food preparation, or building social ties, or raising children, or defending the community.

It's preposterous to pretend that we can limit the rewards of extra effort or extra skill, or extra hours. It would be preposterous to insist that the only ethical family structure requires both spouses to do the same amount of each task. It would be ridiculous to try to require an employer to refrain from rewarding those who can put in more effort or hours or talent because it's "unfair" to those who cannot or choose not.

What a perfect example of a "first world problem"(in the worst, most ethnocentric sense) this concept is.

By John Smith (not verified) on 12 Sep 2014 #permalink

What a perfect example of a “first world problem”(in the worst, most ethnocentric sense) this concept is.

While this particular instance of this issue may be a First World Problem, the issue as a whole is not.

As Chad says, he and Kate have it better than people who have to punch a clock, and cannot easily rearrange their schedules to accommodate time with the kids. But there is another group of people who have it even worse than the clock-punchers: people who travel long distances--often across international borders--to find work, so that they can send money to families these workers have left behind. It's hard to be less involved in your child's life than when you and the child are not normally in the same country. Many of the people working the gas fields of North Dakota are a long way from families (part of it is because adequate family housing in the fracking boomtowns is not available at any price). Many construction workers and day laborers in the US are Latinos who have come here (legally or otherwise) because they can't find work in their home countries. In some countries (most notoriously the United Arab Emirates), foreign workers outnumber citizens. Other countries, such as the Philippines, send so many workers abroad that the government has established agencies to help those workers and their families. Just last night I spoke with a man from India who had recently moved to the United States and was trying to bring his wife and (high school age) son over.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Sep 2014 #permalink

I have never really understood how this "quit yer bitchin', it could be worse" deployment of "first world problem" is supposed to work. I mean, is this really an argument that's supposed to make me more sympathetic to whatever you're after? Is the fact that somebody else has it worse supposed to magically induce Zen calm about aspects of my life that I find stressful and frustrating?

It's also puzzling given that semantically identical arguments made in the opposite direction (that is, saying "it could be worse" toward people who use "first world problem" in this sense) are often treated as just about the most offensive thing you can say without resorting to actual slurs.

But the most puzzling thing is its use in response to a post that very explicitly acknowledges that we're much better off than a lot of other people. I mean, in the absence of that, I suppose you might think you're telling me something I don't already know, but with that statement already in the original post...

Anyway, unconvincing, and downright baffling.

OK, call me a curmugeon, but how is this different from the disappointment and regret that any intelligent person reaches when he or she recognizes that one cannot pursue all the attractive options in life? If you take one path you pass up another. If you try to do 6 things you will likely find that someone who focuses on just one of those things has achieved more. What bothered me enough to elicit the cranky response was the apparent implication that it was a special academic problem that the universities should be solving, in the way we expect them on moral grounds to pay equally for equal work. It's life-- a milder version of the same dilemma that most adults face as they prioritize the demands and ambitions of life-- just as Eric Lund points out. Life isnt fair.

By John Smith (not verified) on 12 Sep 2014 #permalink

There are several issues which intersect here. One is a system that assumes one parent (usually the mother, though stay-at-home dads are sometimes tolerated) stays home with the kids. That has always been a reasonable assumption for the elites (who, when it's not true, can afford to pay a nanny to fill that role), but has never been true among the poor. There was a period of about three decades when Americans of average means could indulge this assumption--immortalized in several famous TV shows from this era, such as "Leave It to Beaver"--but not anymore. Couple that with political rhetoric which talks about the family, but with a not-so-hidden message that your family should be like the Cleavers (the only variations allowed are the number and genders of offspring) or it isn't a "real" family. The issue for academics in particular is that they include some of the people who know best (because they do research on the topic for a living) that these trends are corrosive to families as they actually exist in the US. And they could, but frequently don't, do anything about it. That's the biggest difference between US academics on the one hand, and the family in Dhaka that depends on the money Daddy sends from Dubai on the other. For that family, Daddy's job may be what prevents the rest of the family from starving, so he gets his passport and heads to the UAE.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Sep 2014 #permalink

My university had a direction, state name and town name in its title, some would say the worst possible combination. As a professor there I had a lot of control of how I spent my time. One of my virtues is that I a lazy, so I do considerable planning as to how to accomplish things in an efficent and successful manner. As my father, who cowboyed all his life, used to say, "Use your head or you will just make it hard on your ass."

No one cannot have it all. I am an obsessive model airplane builder and flier, but when I started my PhD I gave it up and did not take it up again until my oldest son expressed interest some ten years later.

My wife is an academic as well, an organist, but much of her work was part time teaching at the university, a local conservatory, playing recitals, and holding down a church job. So our time available distributions were often different, and different from time to time. All three kids played soccer, and I mostly took them. The two boys did pinewood derby, and the daughter played indoor sock hocky.. When I went to Venezuela on sabbatical, my wife came down for a while and my youngest son, then 16, stayed the whole time.

I was not at a tier I university, but I look back on my research, the accomplisments of my students, etc. and think, "Not too shabby!" I do think I worked back in the good old days.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Sep 2014 #permalink

Of course, the conflict between work and family/child care obligations is a problem for all parents, and it is good to point out that it even affects those in presumably enlightened workplaces as universities.-- There are several aspects to it:
1- Economic: Where i live, the high rents /house prices practically require both spouses to work, that's why stay-at-home spouses are for the independently rich, or 1950ies TV. (And there are no (high-tech) jobs (in my specialty) in cheaper areas.)
2- Schools/Child care: Schools/regular kindergarten/preschool lets out at 3pm, too early for people with regular jobs; after-school care, just for 3 hours, was terribly expensive, if available. Then schools seem to assume that a parent can show up during the work day for teacher conferences, volunteering, helping with field trips....
3- Workplace flexibility: In academia we often are more flexible in schedule than in industrial employment. Nevertheless, frequent absences affect your career.
So what can be done about it, beyond complaining?
1- As the requirement of two working spouses is a result of redistribution of income (a high percentage of productivity increases going to the '1%' not the rest of us), we should advocate for policies giving a larger share of income to workers (e.g. by more labor-union friendly policies). Also improved/longer maternity leaves (In Germany and Scandinavia, they get a year [to be shared among mother and father]! And don't fall for the 'it would ruin our economy' propaganda; it is Northern Europe which has better social policies and a thriving economy, not Greece).
2- Schools should adjust more to having two working parents, and be open later, have conferences in the late afternoon, etc.
This is difficult, teachers have families, too! And it costs tax money (which, ever since Reagan, we think is better given to the richest as lower taxes.)
3- Workplaces should be required, _by law_, to offer more flexibility. In certain companies, employers are more accommodating, and I heard of universities offering an additional year for tenure review. Labor (or faculty) Unions often advocate for such things; unfortunately their influence is limited to certain employers.
* So I think it is important to see these problems as affecting all parents of which academic parents are a small subset.
And the way to make progress is to push for better conditions where ever you are (and when voting). And it is important to try to do something, whenever the opportunity arises (vote for maternity leave/tenure extension in your college, better childcare provisions where you work...), even as a busy parent you seem to have less time for it.

Given the meager resources society is willing to devote to scholarship, in order to maximize the use of those resources, scholars should be forbidden from having a family, just like in the Middle Ages (since only monks, and in rare cases nuns, could be scholars).

I'm only mostly joking.

By quasihumanist (not verified) on 13 Sep 2014 #permalink

I'd say that hourly workers in the old sense had it better in that they worked an 8-hour shift and went home. (Bizarre hours were rare when I was a kid.) I was lucky as a child that my dad's white-color job also had regular start and end times that had him home in the evening for dinner every night and evenings for scouting and weekends for that and other things but that freedom ended when he got promoted to a more executive position in my teens.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 14 Sep 2014 #permalink

Regarding comments #1 and #4, there is a difference between decisions that I have made that had an impact on various aspects of my life and those imposed by institutions, particularly major cultural institutions (both public and private). Many of those seem to think it is 1950 as far as home live is concerned.

I'd frame Chad's issue a slightly different way: how is it in the best long-term interests of our society, including the businesses that operate in our society and institutions of higher learning, to make it difficult for the highest achieving members of that society to reproduce themselves? That is what they are doing when an academic or business leader has zero or one child because of job expectations imposed by their peers within those institutions.

BTW, the assumption that every child has two parents is very much last century in the U.S.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 14 Sep 2014 #permalink