Prof. Pettigrew: Children are a choice after all.
As a progressive man, I see the value in diversity in the academic workforce. I also understand that reasonable employers should take reasonable steps to accommodate the particular needs of those employees. And sometimes that means taking a person’s family situation into account. But more and more, women in academia have lost sight of what’s reasonable when it comes to those kinds of allowances.
A recent article in University Affairs, for instance, reports on a study by Shelley Adamo who argues that women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they “are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. ‘That sort of handicaps them,’” according to Dr. Adamo.
First, as a married man I resent the claim that a husband or other life partner inevitably “handicaps” the career of a female academic. If your special someone doesn’t think your career is important, then find someone who does. And what about the life partners who support their academic spouses by paying the bills while their partner is burning the midnight oil?
As for children, there are, to some extent, biological realities that would put extra strain on any woman trying to get to the forefront of her field. Still, feminists have been hammering the point home for over a generation now: women control their own bodies and should be able to choose whether or not to have children. But if that’s the case, then women can’t blame children for lack of academic success. If it’s a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers.
For these reasons, I cannot agree with Melonie Fullick* who has made a similar claim to Adamo’s recently in The Globe and Mail about graduate studies more generally.
Fullick, arguing for a more flexible grad student system, writes:
there are plenty of ways a student can get derailed. Some get caught up in other commitments like politics or activism, a job that takes time away from research, or a supervisor’s project that doesn’t relate to the dissertation. Sometimes a supervisor “disappears” for long periods, or decides not to continue working with the student. Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child, or illness or a death in the family. Many students struggle with financial issues that compound other problems.
Of course, personal difficulties certainly can impede one’s progress in graduate school. But no one is immune from personal strife and everyone has to deal with illnesses and family problems. Such things would impact anyone in any endeavour. Indeed, the graduate student, with her flexible deadlines and independent work environment, is probably better able to deal with such things than most.
But what gets me is the way Fullick slips children into the mix of things that just happen to unsuspecting candidates: “Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child.” By the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms around pregnancy. Forgive me, then, but the birth of a child does not intervene. If you choose to have a baby while a graduate student, that’s your choice. When I was a graduate student, my partner and I discussed it seriously and decided against it. No child intervened. And we didn’t get lucky. We decided.
If you do want a child, and it makes your life more difficult—and from what I can tell, it will make your life a lot more difficult—well, that’s the deal. If you regret your choice, you have my sympathies. But don’t choose a difficult path and then rail about how the world has made things difficult for you.
In the end, I have a feeling that most of the women studied are not as upset about this as the writers mentioned. I suspect that they know that they have made their choices, and they are living with them. We should all respect that.
*As pointed out in the comment section, Ms. Fullick’s name was incorrectly spelled.