Thursday, July 21, 2011

When a man talks about work family balance: What they perceived

This is the third part in a story about my partner being asked to give a talk about work family balance at a summer school he was helping to organize. For the first 2 parts, see here and here.

The demographics of my partner's audience was completely male, even though the conference attendees were about 1/3 female, only males came to his talk. Some of them had children. Some of them had 2 body problems. Some of them were single but hoped that this would be an issue that would affect them in the future.

Given this audience, my partner took the opportunity to emphasize the point that if the goal is to further both careers, then one needs to take into account the difference in perception that our colleagues put on a male taking care of a child versus a female. Thus, it probably makes sense for the male to do
more than half of the child care, especially things which require missing work.

The point that faced the most resistance, to his surprise, was the statement that "you will have a lot of money in a dual academic household. Use that money to buy time when you are in a tough 2-body problem, or have a newborn." For some reason, the meme of the "poor academic" was stronger than any comparison to household income percentiles in the US.

The demographics of his audience concerned him. Did women not feel comfortable coming to the talk? In our experience, men our generation in dual academic situations gripe about the difficulties as much as women do, but the discussion tends to take place in more gendered settings. This may be driven by the fact that women don't want to expose this part of their life in front of (possibly senior) men. Or it may be driven by something else.

Did the women feel like a male speaker may not have as much to offer on advice as a female speaker does? I know that I would be biased against going to hear a male speaker on this issue because of a fear of inexperience or latent sexism in the talk.

Given the relatively small sample size, did the talk happen to be more irrelevant for the female attendees than the males?

It turned out that the first case was true for at least two women, who privately sought my partner out for questioning later.

On the whole, the experience was enlightening for my partner, and probably for the audience. From where I stand, it raises to mind the question of the need for women's spaces in academia. It would be great if men could come to "women's events" to get the great advice given there on career advancement, asking for letters of recommendation, grant writing, etc. But it only takes one person denying the existence of the gendered problems that are also discussed at these forums to turn it into a hostile environment. I've seen successful attempts at discussing gender issues to a general audience in non-academic settings, but those have usually involved a trained mediator running the discussion. I don't trust any of my untrained colleagues to be able to undertake such a task. On the other hand, historically, in other arenas, having a "minority only" space has run the risk of further marginalizing the issues that the minority only group is trying to address. I don't know how to proceed.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that women didn't show up for his talk. For me, the fact that the talk was delivered by a man would have been a motivation to go, if only because of curiosity. It's always refreshing to hear the "other side" of the two-body problem. I have many male colleagues who are totally insensitive to this.

    As for the argument, "you have two incomes, use them to buy time", well, it depends on the context.

    If the two people in the couple live appart, this is not so realistic, because these two people have to maintain two households and commute to see each other from time to time. In fact, maybe you can add some comments to how you do it, I never done the long distance since after Toddler was born.

    If everybody lives under the same roof, this is more possible, but still depends. In Canada professor salaries are low and pay a lot of taxes, so that doesn't apply to us: we can afford the regular daycare, but we can't afford a nanny, for instance.