Science Careers Blog

June 11, 2010

Women, Men, Housework, and Science

Vijee Venkatraman, who wrote the recent, excellent article Time to Hire a Housekeeper?, wrote to me to point out a not-entirely-positive discussion of the article by Dr. Isis on her blog, On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess.... The discussion is shoe-horned in to a long post on John Tierney's column in Tuesday's Science Times resurrecting the Larry Summers/Women in Science debate. Our housekeeping article gets tag-teamed, two critical bloggers at once, as Isis releays comments sent to her by e-mail, by ScienceMama:
Recently ScienceMama from the Mother of All Scientists sent me a link to this article from Science about how successful academic women learn to outsource daily tasks like housekeeping, childcare, and laundry.  While, I think the advice is generally good, ScienceMama picked up on the underlying social message of the article.  She wrote to me:

I can't exactly put into words why this article bothers me so much.  I understand the general intention of the article, but for some reason the take home message for me seems to be "If you're a female scientist, you need to hire a housekeeper, whereas if you're a male scientist you can just get a wife."

By focusing just on female scientists, it seems like what the article is saying is that domestic chores are a woman's responsibility.  Why shouldn't male scientists also be encouraged to get a housekeeper to cover all the work they are clearly neglecting at home?

Again, I understand that the article was well-intentioned (spend your limited free time with your family or on a hobby instead of mopping your floors), but the fact that it's aimed only at female scientists seems to reinforce the idea that all of the domestic chores are the woman's responsibility.

She's exactly right. 

No, she's not. Why single out women in suggesting a housekeeper? Because men don't seem to have a problem. Men, on average, don't need help with the housekeeping. This is not about should; it's about doing what you have to to make your life -- personal and professional -- work. I don't mean to be patronizing, but this is kind of obvious, isn't it? 

Indeed, the ScienceMama/Dr. Isis account seems to me the result of a careful, selective, and uncharitable reading of what Venkatraman wrote. One of the explicit themes of the article was: Feeling guilt over not meeting a woman's traditional roles? Get over it!

What would they advise instead? Wait until the social norms have changed and THEN go into science? Get a divorce, then (re)marry for domestic skills instead of love? The latter could be a fine choice for some women, but it's deeply personal, and you won't catch me advising it.

I've done my best over the years to make Science Careers a source of practical advice for aspiring scientists. That's a more noble and difficult challenge than being on the right side of some principle. True, since I've been editor, Science Careers articles have consistently made it clear that there's a point where you have to stand on principle, and it's up to each scientist to decide for him or herself where that point is. But, given a choice between moral brownie points and helping someone get tenure, I'll choose the latter every time, and so will the writers who write for Science Careers.

There's one more question I need to take on, the question of standing. I am, after all, a guy. But I think I have standing partly due to the 9 years -- I've just realized that TODAY is the ninth anniversary of my employment at AAAS -- I've worked to advance the interests of younger scientists -- especially (but not exclusively) scientists from under-represented groups. (An aside: These days youth itself is under-represented in science, and I've spent virtually every working moment of the last 9 years working to advance the interests of younger scientists.)

But there's another thing that gives me standing: I can claim a distinction that's rare among men, and I claim it proudly: I gave up a research career (in physics) so that my wife could pursue one (in chemistry). She's now a full professor, finishing up a 4-year stint as department chair.

My wife deserves all the credit for her accomplishments. She earned her success with tireless, excellent work. But I have done my share of housework.

On Twitter: @SciCareerEditor

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