Monday, March 4, 2013


Navigating conversations about family and work is complicated.

When on the job market, I am uncomfortable bringing up my family life to a hiring committee. The semi-legal advice in the US is that "they can't ask, so don't tell them."

When interacting with graduate students and research oriented undergrads, I am more than a subject matter expert. I need to be a model of a woman with a child in my field. If it comes up, I talk about it.

At conferences, I know the common wisdom is to not bring up family, but when the guys are talking about their kids, or when my partner is in town with Epsilon, common wisdom finds its way to the dustbin.

In general, I feel that if I am not willing to talk about my family, then it is unfair of me to complain that this is an uncomfortable issue for women to talk about. ... So I out myself. ... Within limits.

What I try not to do outside of friends circles and pseudoanonymous settings is talk about how hard it is. I expect to be rated on the same scale as colleagues without kids or two body problems. This means that I often expect not to be successful. I fear that sympathy may fall too close to pity. I don't want the baggage that comes with being seen as an affirmative action hire.

Which is hilarious. I believe strongly in the need for hiring under-represented groups. It is good for the students we teach and mentor, and it is good for science. Leave aside any arguments about fairness  and diversity for the moment. As a first level approximation, if we broaden the pool of people who we encourage to do good science, then we have more people trying to do good science, and we get more good science.

But of course, the world is what it is. I don't get cut a break for a difficult pregnancy and a new born. My partner doesn't get cut a break for multiple stints of single parenting because everyone assumes that Epsilon lives with me. We can be bitter, or move on.

So why is it, now that I am faced with a system that legally requires me to be judged differently for my family,  that I still feel uncomfortable participating?

Part of my discomfort comes from the fact that I know men on hiring committees (I've only had this discussion with men) who feel uncomfortable when a female candidate brings up her family in her cover letter, even in a country where I've been encouraged to mention my family when applying to jobs. Part of my discomfort comes from years of habit and advice, some of it from seeing how devastating other people's uninformed best intentions have been for me.

Whatever the reason, I now find myself feeling trapped between the possibility of being judged by standards that are stricter than legally required, or revealing personal information that makes me feel exposed. It is a perverse world where an attempt at legislating fairness elicits a feeling of being trapped.

1 comment:

  1. You know what I think: when in Rome, do as the Romans do...

    Of course, just make sure that you know what the Romans do! (Some rules in some circumstances are not meant to be followed.)