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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.

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