Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Local Mom Effect

We can look at the data for the % of science professors who are Female Science Professors and wonder to what extent the low numbers (relative to the % of women who acquire PhDs in some science fields) can be ascribed to the difficulties of being a mom and an FSP, and we can look at the data for how many FSPs have kids vs. those who don't (or pick any academic discipline in which women are underrepresented, not just Science). That's been done and those data could surely use more scrutiny and discussion, but that's not what I want to do here today.

Instead, I am intrigued by the possibilities of what might be learned from a rigor-challenged exploration of whether the % of FSPs (with/without children) in one's immediate professional surroundings has an influence on an individual's outlook, choices, opinions. That is, if you are in a department or some other sort of academic subunit in which there are many FSPs with kids, is your opinion (and possibly your life) profoundly different as a result, no matter what the statistics say about the overall low % of FSP-moms in your field? And if you are in a unit in which few/no FSPs have kids, are you less likely to have kids or even to pursue a career as an FSP?

At some universities in the US, there are departments in my field with no FSPs, and there are departments that have some FSPs but none of them have children. What are the effects of these places on the outlook of women students and postdocs re. careers and children? (Note that I am not critizicing anyone's choices to have/not have kids; that's a personal decision that no one else can judge.) And if someone has a pessimistic outlook based on their observations of people in their department (thinking: "These FSPs don't have kids, so it must be impossible/difficult to be an FSP and a mom"), can this be changed through other interactions beyond the department?

Alternatively, if you are in a department in which all or most female professors have kids, and these women seem to be doing just fine with life and careers, does this counteract some of the anxiety or pessimism that might result from seeing the grim statistics for that field as a whole?

I don't know, and that's why it seems like a good topic for a blog post, so that readers can send comments on how they think their experiences and opinions have been shaped by their immediate academic environment.

I remember sitting in a small meeting of women students, postdocs, and faculty once (many years ago), and the topic came up about the difficulty of being an FSP and a mom. One grad student said that she was concerned about this because there were "no role models". The other women faculty and I exchanged puzzled glances -- every single one of us in the room had one or more kids. Everyone in the room knew each other, so there was no way this student didn't know we all had kids. We were also representative of this unit of the university; there was one FSP absent, but she also had kids.

So I said "We all have kids, so I am confused about what you are looking for in a role model". The student said that because most FSPs don't have kids, there aren't enough role models. Yes, well, "not enough" is not quite the same as "no". Is there such thing as a critical mass of role models, and below that number, the exceptions are not significant? Maybe, but at the time, I thought that was an unnecessarily negative and cautious way to look at things.

And that certainly wasn't my approach. At about the time my daughter was born, I didn't know many FSPs in my field, but I did know a few, and some (2) of those at neighboring institutions had kids and were very happy. I didn't actually give it a lot of thought, and certainly never gazed at statistics to make any decisions. In that sense, I was not affected much, if at all, by my immediate academic environment or by the larger academic community (perhaps contradicting the central question of this post).

Even so, that is still a useful result to the general question of whether we are affected (or not) by our immediate (or larger) professional communities when making major life decisions.

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