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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:

ScienceMama from the
Mother of All
sent me a link to this
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:

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

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.


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

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:

9 comments on “Women, Men, Housework, and Science”

  1. Jim, my discussion of the article from Science Careers wasn’t uncharitable at all. In the selection you quoted I said that the advice your writer gave was generally very good. ScienceMama agreed that the article was well-intentioned. There is absolutely no need for you to outline your accomplishments because I am sure that you are interested in helping individuals advance their careers.
    That all said, as a woman in science, it is sometimes disheartening to almost never hear an article suggest that a woman in science discuss household duties with her partner and split them evenly. The author of your article makes the statement that women bear the burden of household labor, but until scientists begin to tell other scientists that this isn’t right, women are going to continue to leave academic science for fear of not being able to “balance” work and family.
    You can be right and be practical at the same time. These need not be mutually exclusive. I also think that you need not choose between achieving tenure and advocating for social justice. And, until you stop choosing, the pipeline is going to continue to leak like a sieve.

  2. James Austin says:

    Isis, Sorry, but I don’t consider “well-intentioned” a compliment. Vijee’s article was far more than well-intentioned; it was correct.
    Of course splitting household responsibilities equally is the right thing to do. An honest, impartial reading of the article could not fail to conclude that that message is implicit, if not explicit. The question the article addresses is, what should be done about the fact that it rarely works out that way? “It should” is a pretty crappy answer, when we all know it doesn’t.
    I’m surprised to hear you say that “you can be right and practical at the same time.” If this has been true for you consistently, then you have led a charmed scientific life. Almost every scientist, male or female, has to shut up sometimes when something needs saying, to lose battles in order to win the war. Compromise exactly as much as necessary and no more, then get tenure and change the system.
    There’s another factor here I think is equally important. I respect our readers too much to presume to tell them what they should do in their personal lives. Should I demand, or even suggest, that a woman stand up to a partner who isn’t carrying his weight? I wouldn’t dream of it. Such decisions are too personal for me — or you — to meddle in. In such circumstances there usually are few easy choices. Our article suggested a practical alternative that — though this was unstated — might allow a marriage and a career to be salvaged. (I think we ought to assume that one’s marriage is also important, and not just one’s career.)
    What I believe, honestly, is that the reference to the Science Careers article was a not-particularly-well-thought-out aside, not up to your usual high standard. You must admit that the connection to test scores, Tierney, and Summers is tenuous. That it was an honest and relatively harmless mistake, the kind of thing an editor probably would have caught and removed.
    Let me close by saying that I know we’re on the same side, I appreciate your excellent work, and I wish you all the best.
    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers

  3. I suppose we’re going to have to agree to disagree here. However, my discussion of the bias in the article I linked to was no mistake. I suppose it’s fortunate that I don’t have an editor to adulterate my thoughts. You know. By mistake.
    All the best,
    Isis the Scientist

  4. Cloud says:

    First let me say I have not read the original article. I’m squeezing this in between my two kids’ bedtimes, and I already have the household chores situation in my life reasonably under control, so it is not a priority.
    That means that this comment is exclusively on your post here, and not on your writer’s article.
    I think you and Dr. Isis are on the same side. But I think you don’t really understand how utterly, thoroughly, completely tired I am of the assumption that it is somehow harder for me to balance my career and my home life than it is for my husband.
    I also try to give practical advice to young women who ask me about this problem. I tell them to choose their partner carefully.

  5. Zuska says:

    Here’s an idea: why not write an article whose explicit theme is “Feeling clueless over not understanding how a d00d’s traditional privilege operates? Get over it! Read The Gender Knot, read some feminist blogs, stop talking for five minutes and listen for gawd’s sake! And do more than what you think is your fair share of the housework, because I assure you, what you imagine is your fair share is surely less than half. If enough of you d00ds sack up and do this, we won’t have to have so dang many articles suggesting that ‘if women want to succeed in science, they need to pay some other (poorer, browner) woman to do unmanly labor that d00ds just can’t do, because everyone knows the man-with-a-wife-at-home is the only acceptable way to do science’.”
    Oh, and here’s a cookie for you, for having done housework. Now stop worrying about what you ought or ought not be telling women about standing up to their partners, and start thinking about why it doesn’t occur to you to speak to your brethren about how to be better partners and supporters of women in science in general. The ladeez don’t need fixin’.

  6. James Austin says:

    Please understand that I make no assumptions at all about what your life is like. Which, really, is the point I’m making. Neither I nor anyone who does not know you and your circumstances very, very well can tell you how to manage your personal life. And I would never presume to do so.
    Be Well,
    Jim Austin

  7. Anon says:

    I read a lot of blogs by women in science. Discussions of balancing their jobs with kids and household responsibilities come up all the time. Given that there is a clear interest in this topic, and a community exchanging advice on it, it doesn’t seem outrageous for a careers site to offer advice on the topic, especially if the articles are written by or in consultation with female scientists. Some of that advice may very well be more practical than idealistic, as I have seen blog comment sections on female scientist blogs turn into discussions of diapers.
    So, you aren’t doing anything wrong there.
    What you are doing wrong is playing the Isis/Zuska game. The way it works is that they see somebody comment on issues related to diversity, and they go after the person. If your advice focuses on coping with the status quo, they say that you are accepting the system of oppression. If your advice focuses on moving past the status quo or challenging it, they say that you are too privileged to understand the daily struggles of those in under-privileged positions who need to survive because they lack the power/standing/voice to challenge it. If you’re a white male, this is easy for them to do. But even if the person writing is a non-white woman who doesn’t pay
    proper homage to them, they might still go after her.
    Sometimes they even up the game a bit by never actually accusing the target of being sexist, but making it sound like they are. As soon as the target protests “I’m not sexist!” it becomes “We never said that! You are so self-obsessed that you made it all about you! Examine your privilege and shut up!”
    Basically, if they want to go after somebody then they go after him or her or hir.
    The best thing you can do is ignore them. Every time you comment and argue with them, you dig the hole deeper. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

  8. CW says:

    “Men, on average, don’t need help with the housekeeping.” Claiming that this is simply ‘telling it how it is’ is not just incredibly patronizing but also clearly false.
    Men, on average, do need help with the housekeeping, because houses don’t keep themselves, and many men have jobs that limit the time they could spend housekeeping, not to mention other interests they’d like to pursue outside their job. Many women are in the same situation.
    One solution to this problem is to co-habit with someone who will help with the housekeeping. Another solution, as discussed in the article, is to employ someone to help.
    I have read the original article and see no reason at all it could not have been presented as more gender neutral advice – if you, or you plus your partner (with whom you have chosen to cohabit for reasons that probably have nothing to do with housekeeping) find it difficult to stay on top of housework, it may be sensible to employ someone to help; here are a few stories from people in science who have done so and found it helpful for their career and their lifestyle.
    It would be reasonable in this context to discuss the fact that women tend to feel more residual guilt about their failure to keep on top of housework. But as written, it really reinforces the perspective that keeping house is a women’s problem.

  9. United we stand, divided we fall,

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