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The Elusive Househusband

My advisor here at MIT is white, male, and close to seventy. He’s one of the top geochemists in his field and has a great amount of knowledge to share with me and his other grad student, a seventh year (male, Chinese) student who will be graduating this year. In all likelihood, I’ll be my advisor’s last PhD student.

At first, I was a little nervous about having an advisor who is close to emeritus status and is definitely from the last generation of MIT scientists– a group that is very white and very male. However, my advisor impressed me when I was interviewing with him back in March. Towards the end of the interview, after I had either passed or failed the “put you on the spot about all sorts of petrology and isotope stuff that you should remember” section of the interview, we ended up chatting some about the advantages and disadvantages of being female in science.

In many ways, there are advantages to being female in science. There are certainly opportunities and grants that are easier to get if you are female or which you can only get if you are female. These days, there are many more female grad students, at least in Earth Science. Yet, there are still relatively few female professors. Perhaps the numbers of female professors will rise greatly in the next ten to fifteen years, but I’m not so sure.

I don’t know the actual statistics, but offhand I’d say that there seems to be a disconnect between the number of women receiving PhDs and the number of female tenured professors. These days, it seems easier for a female to obtain a PhD in science, but it is still very challenging for a woman to obtain a tenured faculty position.

A partial explanation? Biology. The years in which tenure-track females are needing to accomplish outstanding research by slaving away in the lab 24-7 are the same years in which they need to have kids, if they want them. Having a first child at 45 is very reasonable for a male professor, but it won’t cut it for a female professor. Most of the tenured female professors I know are: 1. not married or 2. are married, but don’t have kids.

My advisor and I were chatting about this very subject, and he told me that he thinks that the expectations for female, tenure-track professors should be more flexible than for male professors. There should be a “baby clause” or something.

I have a different solution: a househusband. I’m not the stay-at-home Martha Stewart type, but I do like children and may have one or two of the little ones someday. So, I think I’ll start advertising for a househusband position starting oh, say, five years from now. You have to be attractive, naturally, and know enough about science so that dinner conversations are interesting. In exchange for full financial support, you have to take care of the little ones while I’m off studying the rocks of the world or making lots of money for an oil company or something. Of course, you can be a stay-at-home writer or a middle school soccer coach or throw tupperware parties or whatever, but the little ones can’t be neglected!

I suppose I could always just adopt kids and hire a Nanny, but a househusband sounds like so much more fun. Firemen especially encouraged to apply.

Okay, so I’m not really accepting applications for a househusband nor promoting that idea as a general solution for every career-oriented woman. But, seriously, what’s a girl with a scientific career to do if she also wants a family? Maybe househusbands aren’t the answer (well, at least not in every case), but in some way social structures both at home and in the workplace need to be more flexible.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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18 Comments

  1. I remember coming across a podacast article (point of inquiry? scientific american?) that talked about how for one person to really succeed academically, they really need to be supported by the other people looking after the more prosaic matters of life. (And this was more important that the gender, although, yes, there are more men academically being supported than women…)

    But looking around my own place, if you want someone to husband the house, you might want to play stereotypes and get a gay guy. :)

  2. I am one of those female scientist who have a ph.d. and 3 years of post.doc positions but quit science. For me it wasn't about having kids (although I want kids, ofcourse) but the fact that you have to live so far away from home. I am Danish and I got my ph.d. here, but for post.doc positions you have to go abroad somewhere. I went to the US, and by the end of 3 years I'd had it with living there. It's a nice enough place, I guess, but it is not home. Now I live in the same town as my mom and we eat dinner together several times a week. I see my brother at least once a week and my dad on a regular basis. I have people to go to the movies with. I have a great challenging job in the IT industry where I make a ton of money. I still love science, but living that far away from my family and my home just wasn't worth it, to me.

    Good luck with the house-husband idea, but personally, when I have kids I want to spend as much time with them as possible.

  3. Honestly, I'm not sure that I'll remain in academia either. There are so many other things to do as well and funding in volcanology these days is somewhat sparse. I think I'm lucky just to be paid to do graduate work in the field!

    Astrogirl, I understand your wanting to spend time with your kids. I have many friends, including many here at MIT, that feel the same way. I always get annoyed when people say, "but you're going to have a degree from MIT and just stay home with the kids???" or something along that line. Honestly, we need more mothers in the world who are scientists!

    Personally, I know I'd go crazy if I took off more than a year or two from my work in geology. I love it so much. Maybe I'll feel different after four-and-a-half more years of graduate work, but right now I can't imagine not working in some field at least remotely related to geology. If I ever have kids, I'll certainly make more time for them, but I know that I'd be one grumpy, unhappy momma if I didn't also have my rocks. Knowing that my love of rocks might lead me to neglect the little ones somewhat, I guess I should marry a writer :-).

  4. Evelyn

    I know that many things are different in the US. In Denmark we get one year of paid maternity leave, and once you're pregnant you can't get fired. After a year, you get your old job back and your kid is guranteed a spot in daycare.

    I think the problem with the US system is that daycare is so expensive there that a mother staying home is a viable economic option.

    I see no reason why women can't do both, i.e. being a mother and a scientist. Who says scientists should work an insane amout of hours a week? Who said that it had to be so competitive?

  5. The problem with that becomes the freedom of the employer to run their company. To tell the truth this would make me not want to hire any woman (not for sexual reasons) but that I would not want to have the possibility of having to pay for a year of maternity leave while getting nothing back as far as employment is concerened. So it might cut back the other way.

  6. N.R. Miller, the year of maternity leave isn't actually paid for by the company, because the company gets reimbursed by the government. Social security (i.e. taxes) takes care of that.

    The biggest problem the company has is having to do without a (probably valuable, experienced) employee for a year, and once they've trained a temporary replacement (which they usually have to hire full time after a 6 month trial period) figure out what to do with the previously pregnant woman in question when she returns to work to find someone else at her desk.

    And Evelyn, what if the applicant in question isn't a writer, but meets all the other requirements? 8)

  7. Well, let's see, let me get my application together… oh wait, I'm married already.

    Nuts.

    Seriously, your comment about PhD-to-tenure attrition in on the right track. There has been a lot of research on this in astronomy, and it's been found that there is considerable attrition from getting a degree in astronomy (undergrad) to even the PhD level. I think the numbers are getting better, but they are still very low. You might be interested in this page, which has links at the bottom about this: http://www.astrosociety.org/education/resources/w

  8. As someone who is married to a fellow (THAT sounds weird!) scientist, I can say that is is indded a great pleasure to be able to talk about the geeky stuff at the dinner table. Who else is going to laugh at that oh-so-clever joke about wave/particle duality that you just came up with?! We even managed to be joint inventors on a patent stemming from a dinner conversation!

    Since the girls were born, though, we mostly just talk about them. Watching a human brain develop is more fascinating than ANY other experiment with which I have ever been involved! Just trying to figure out the logical thought process behind some of their actions can twist your brain into a pretzel! Sometimes it's hard to recognize it as logic, but in their self-contained universe, everything really does make sense.

    As for the academia-as-a-mother problem, YIKES! We avoided the whole issue by going into industry. That is MUCH easier. I absolutely agree with the need for more female professors, though, so you have my best wishes to succeed on that path. I frankly don't see how ANYONE can pull that off and still have a family life, men OR women.

  9. I think you comments apply not only to science but to any career field. There aren't a lot of Women CEO's either.

    I actually do know somebody who is a househuband. His wife is a doctor and he manages the kids. He loves the "job" so they do exist.

    Also look for somebody who can telecommute.

  10. NR Miller : You are not allowed to discriminate against women because the might get pregnant while they work for you. You are not even allowed to ask questions about it in a job interview. Women are required to disclose if they are pregnant, but the company cannot ask.

    That said, ofcourse there is discrimination, but it's hard to prove. I think that we, as a society, recognize that babies need to spend time with their parrents in order to grow up to be productive citizens. Plus in the current job market, nobody can afford to be picky.

  11. For this issue there are many sides, I happen to fall more on a libritarian side of personal and buissness freedom, but it's not the only side with merrit. I'm sure if I was a woman and wanted children and a career I would feel need for compensation based on the fact that I'd be doing what is only natrual and not at all in the minority of society.

    So… yeah.

  12. "in some way social structures both at home and in the workplace need to be more flexible."

    Back to 1970.

    This is *exactly* what Betty Friedan was on about when she kicked off the women's movement and NOW. Where did we lose track??

  13. This is a very good point, and as has been mentioned it's not just academia that faces this problem. In most professions it hurts your career if you take a year or two off between finishing college and retiring. So since most of us feel that spending lots of time with our kids is important, especially in their first couple of years of life, then probably somebody is going to have to take some time off when the baby is born.

    So who is it going to be? The woman, of course, and that's the problem. Surely he won't take time off? This is her job, isn't it? Most of her friends expect it. Her parents expect it. It's an image we are bombarded with from day one so of course it is hard to fight.

    A "house-husband" is a nice idea (if we didn't need both incomes, I might even consider it). However, a slightly more reasonable expectation in our society is a husband who is as willing and able to take time off as you are. This is the sort of thing you need to be very clear about before you make a long-term commitment to someone: if he wants a family, he's got to take part of the responsibility for raising that family, even if it means giving up 6 months or year in his career. Change the dynamic so that he is the one getting the family leave time and dealing with what to do when he gets back to work. Don't just assume that you are the one who has to do it.

    This isn't always easy, since what you're trying to do is break a social convention. However, trying to be supermom (works in a rewarding professional career while also being primary caregiver to kids) is probably worse.

    I know none of what I'm saying here is very original. Linda Hirshman's book "Get to Work" is just one example (with supporting statistics) that is worth reading on this subject.

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