Academic women should stop blaming their kids

Prof. Pettigrew: Children are a choice after all.

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As a progressive man, I see the value in diversity in the academic workforce. I also understand that reasonable employers should take reasonable steps to accommodate the particular needs of those employees. And sometimes that means taking a person’s family situation into account. But more and more, women in academia have lost sight of what’s reasonable when it comes to those kinds of allowances.

A recent article in University Affairs, for instance, reports on a study by Shelley Adamo who argues that women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they “are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. ‘That sort of handicaps them,’” according to Dr. Adamo.

First, as a married man I resent the claim that a husband or other life partner inevitably “handicaps” the career of a female academic. If your special someone doesn’t think your career is important, then find someone who does. And what about the life partners who support their academic spouses by paying the bills while their partner is burning the midnight oil?

As for children, there are, to some extent, biological realities that would put extra strain on any woman trying to get to the forefront of her field. Still, feminists have been hammering the point home for over a generation now: women control their own bodies and should be able to choose whether or not to have children. But if that’s the case, then women can’t blame children for lack of academic success. If it’s a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers.

For these reasons, I cannot agree with Melonie Fullick* who has made a similar claim to Adamo’s recently in The Globe and Mail about graduate studies more generally.

Fullick, arguing for a more flexible grad student system, writes:

there are plenty of ways a student can get derailed. Some get caught up in other commitments like politics or activism, a job that takes time away from research, or a supervisor’s project that doesn’t relate to the dissertation. Sometimes a supervisor “disappears” for long periods, or decides not to continue working with the student. Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child, or illness or a death in the family. Many students struggle with financial issues that compound other problems.

Of course, personal difficulties certainly can impede one’s progress in graduate school. But no one is immune from personal strife and everyone has to deal with illnesses and family problems. Such things would impact anyone in any endeavour. Indeed, the graduate student, with her flexible deadlines and independent work environment, is probably better able to deal with such things than most.

But what gets me is the way Fullick slips children into the mix of things that just happen to unsuspecting candidates: “Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child.” By the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms around pregnancy. Forgive me, then, but the birth of a child does not intervene.  If you choose to have a baby while a graduate student, that’s your choice. When I was a graduate student, my partner and I discussed it seriously and decided against it. No child intervened. And we didn’t get lucky. We decided.

If you do want a child, and it makes your life more difficult—and from what I can tell, it will make your life a lot more difficult—well, that’s the deal. If you regret your choice, you have my sympathies. But don’t choose a difficult path and then rail about how the world has made things difficult for you.

In the end, I have a feeling that most of the women studied are not as upset about this as the writers mentioned. I suspect that they know that they have made their choices, and they are living with them. We should all respect that.

*As pointed out in the comment section, Ms. Fullick’s name was incorrectly spelled.




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Academic women should stop blaming their kids

  1. As a young, female graduate student, I have a confession to make: I do not want children. Ever. And yet I fear the birth of a child will likely extend my studies – and I am, in fact, afraid, because that is the kind of extension that can derail a career.

    Yes, I do know the mechanics of how babies are made, but this is the other thing: I have a partner. Dr Pettigrew might take offence to being called a handicap, but I have yet to date a single person who didn’t want children. The majority of my friends want children. And though I don’t, part of having a life partner is the making of decisions jointly.

    Babies are a point of contention in my relationship – the debate nearly ended it. The reality is that I will probably have children – though not soon enough for my partner, who would prefer I got pregnant right now. This whole reproduction thing impacts women more than men – even women who have partners who parent equally. Trust me, had I been in charge of human biology, men would be able to give birth. So long as they can’t, though, and they keep wanting the rest of us to breed, they have to take some responsibility.

    Dr Pettigrew might not think babies should be his responsibility, since he and his partner decided not to have them. But his sex, as a class, keep reproducing – and to do so, they need women. Some of them pressure their partners, but most men who want children just expect that women will be willing to breed. Stereotypes of “biological clock” and of baby-crazy women make it easy for them to keep being able to expect children, and the perpetuation of the species, and so forth. But for many women babies are a choice that is made jointly, and sometimes with significant pressure from significant others. It’s lovely that these female stereotypes keep preventing men from asking the hard questions about why humans reproduce, but I will tell Dr Pettigrew this: I want a career. A PhD, and an academic career. And I would appreciate it if men stopped structuring society to be so unequal towards women, and putting demands on women that make our careers so much more likely to be derailed.

    Congratulations on not having children, Todd. I kind of envy you. But now do us a favour, and write a column exhorting all of your male colleagues to start changing diapers, and, if they want babies, to put their partners’ careers first.

    • Just because you can’t stand up to your partner and assert your desire to be childfree doesn’t mean that everyone should bend over backwards to accommodate your lifestyle. You have no one to blame if a baby derails your career than yourself for being spineless enough to be bullied and manipulated into parenthood. I feel bad for your future kids that won’t be wanted.

      • That’s so unfair it’s ridiculous. To call a woman spineless for agreeing to the wants/desires/needs of her significant other is absolutely callous and unfair. Compromises have to be make in a relationship. I feel bad for whatever paramour you have that apparently doesn’t get an opinion if its something you feel strongly about. Also, accidents happen. So yes, babies do “just happen,” and I don’t think a female should be punished for her biological responsibility of carrying a child.

    • Hear hear! I absolutely agree with your analysis, as a female biologist and soon-to-be graduate student. Pettigrew completely ignores Adamo’s data in her study, but also dismisses the reality of women’s inequality – which in this case, is being exposed in academia, supposedly one of the most progressive areas of paid work. The answer most definitely lies in men taking responsibility – if they did, perhaps we would not be underrepresented in biology in the first place.

      • @Jess

        No, babies do NOT “just happen” if you have access to birth control and abortion. You are making a choice to have them. You feel bad for me that I won’t let my partner bully and manipulate me into parenthood against my will? Compromises on children do NOT have to be made in a relationship, you can easily find people who do not want kids. And yes, I think that if you let your partner strong arm you into parenthood then you are spineless.

  2. The author is Melonie A. Fullick, not Melanie Fullick. A progressive man might care about correct attribution for a fellow scholar.

  3. Articles like this one make me very angry. Demanding that anyone, male or female, choose between a career and a family is unconscionable. And make no mistake, that is exactly what this article advocates. Grad school students are adults; we can’t simply put off starting our lives.

    Graduate programs should be more flexible for everyone, for a lot of reasons. Arguing that some people are less deserving of flexibility because they chose their circumstances is cruel. And arguing that women with children are less deserving of flexibility because children are a choice sounds…well, the OPPOSITE of progressive.

    Also, I can’t help but notice that you’re spelling Melonie Fullick’s name wrong.

  4. Alex makes an excellent point – how would you frame this argument in the case of the academic woman who does not want the child and the non academic partner who does want the child? Taking the case of academics aside, other careers are even more demanding – the academy is generally more forgiving when it comes to things like maternity leave and day care. What about the woman who wishes to rise to the level of CEO? Or surgeon? These careers often require unforgiving hours for which few allowances are made for women with children, or men with children for that matter. Society needs to take a hard look at itself and re-evaluate its treatment of parents.

    That being said, I appreciate your point concerning spousal support…. If your partner can’t support you in the pursuit of your dreams, find yourself a new partner. Otherwise you may be in for a long life of resenting each other for how much you’ve given up to be together.

  5. Prof. Pettigrew,

    I was wondering how a “progressive man” like you jumped to the conclusion that Melonie Fullick was referring only to women when she wrote that lifecycle events, like the birth of a child, can slow down a graduate student’s momentum.

    Then I wondered whether an associate professor of English would tolerate such sloppy textual interpretation. I suspect that a teacher who can’t be bothered to correctly spell the name of an author he’s criticizing would probably let that kind of gender bias slide.

    And then I started to wonder (I’ve been wondering a lot lately, I guess) whether we shouldn’t be expected to hold two somewhat opposing but not contradictory thoughts in our heads, such as: (1) women are, ultimately if not totally, responsible for the decision to have children and all that it entails, and (2) the fact that (due to the “biological realities” you reference but also due to societal gender norms and public policy) women bear much of the burden of (especially very young) child-rearing, it will necessarily affect their careers, whether they are in academia or elsewhere. The evidence supporting both these statements is so overwhelming as to be fairly obvious, even to an unfrozen caveman lawyer.

    (I also watch Saturday Night Live reruns occasionally, usually when I am done wondering.)

    Anyhow, Prof. Pettigrew, I also noticed that you didn’t really challenge Shelley Adamo’s point (the only one you quoted) – that the nuts and bolts of child-rearing make it harder for women than for men to become biologists. Some friendly advice, from a fellow progressive man who loves him some English: add a little empathy, it’ll make a world of difference.

  6. Prof. Pettigrew,
    This is a very disappointing article from such a “progressive man”. Please let me know when your “progressive(ness)” allows you to give birth and then perhaps we can have another discussion on “difficult paths”.

  7. there is nothing progressive about refusing to recognise the realities that structure our workplaces and work lives, almost all of which are derived from earlier eras when men were primary breadwinners and women did not labour in the workplace. for example, the tenure system which gives a strict deadline to application, whose completion is often slowed by having children for women (who, the biological realities being apparent) must alter their labour to engage in social reproduction rather than academic production.
    might i note that social reproduction and reproductive labour – almost exclusively carried out by women still – is highly valuable to the capitalist economic system that dr pettigrew implicitly supports and hence to suggest that the university has no responsibility to adapt to this reality but rather that women should make their choice regarding having a family (ie., don’t be an academic) is simply contradictory to rational thought.

  8. oh, i was angry when i first read this. fortunately his ideas will have no impact on anyone ever.

  9. Prof. Pettigrew, you do realize that almost no form of contraception, short of sterilization, is 100% effective? Even then, I know of one couple where the husband had had a vasectomy, but it didn’t “take” 100%, and so the wife became pregnant (yes, it was the husband’s child.)

    So children can be “accidents” even when both partners are fully committed to contraception. Or should a married couple, for example, entirely refrain from sex while one of them is in graduate school, just on the off chance that their contraceptive method fails once?

    • No child is an “accident”. *Pregnancies* can be accidental, but no child is born by accident. You have to CHOOSE to continue a pregnancy.

  10. An interesting set of comments; but typical of our myopic, self inflated culture. re parenthood, can anyone doubt that having and raising a child to adulthood costs BOTH parents a great deal? the cost can be stated in terms of 2013 $$- say, $400,000- or hours lost from the pursuit of self fulfilling activity- say, an average of 4 hours a day for 18 years, over 30,000 hours-can anyone doubt that both parents contribute one way or another? can anyone doubt that child rearing changes the nature of a relationship or partnership, often leading to breakup? I submit that the dogmatic and carping commentary on whether men or women are the more guilty, the more abused, more handicapped, (challenged? Ha!) is to be dominated by a dead truth; by the past. It is to fiddle while Rome burns – though some say that to burn Rome was a good thing, so it could be rebuilt- i doubt we should follow that line of thought.

    Where an academic career is concerned, i suggest we wear 18th or 19th century blinders: so by age 40 if you haven’t accomplished- whatever- you have failed. Yet most people now live active and functional lives long enough to take part in the whole of living including- if desired-devoting a big slice of it, a big slice of self, to others: like but not limited to children. There should be no reason to limit ourselves to ‘either/or’. With reasonable luck life is Both.

    A related situation is seen outside academia. The evidence is in our jails, our well fed but uninspired, uncivil, multivariate poor- ( I’d include government except they are not poor!) Can anyone doubt that in the US today the ability to procreate is far too often out of sync with the ability or will to parent?

    Can any one doubt that parents should not have the right to imprison a child within a non functional ‘partnership’ of one sort or another? Can anyone doubt there is a sickness in our culture revealed by TV shows like Judge Judy, Caso Cerrado, Jerry Springer, or the Bachelor? Laugh or weep, I submit these are the proper measure of the US today.

    The question remains, will the ‘healthy’ part of our country, which includes the arts, commerce, and academia, remain untouched? To judge by these comments from the ‘most privileged among us’ – sorry- That seems unlikely.

  11. Oh, this made me laugh in the way that only a full-professor-mother with three children (two of them special-needs) can laugh: HEARTILY and with great disdain. I love it when people without kids (especially men) say, “I don’t want to hear you complain because you chose to have kids.” Well, Mr. Pettigrew, you chose to be employed rather than unemployed–but that’s not stopping you from complaining about your colleagues, is it?

  12. So, women are supposed to make the decision between having a career or having children, and if they picks both, they better not complain (!!), but men rarely (if ever) have to make such decisions?

    Progressive? What a joke.

  13. “I can’t get ahead because I have kids” said NO WOMAN EVER.

    “I can’t compete equally in a workplace with so little onsite daycare. I cannot get equal access to equal opportunity because the workplace and vurtually all institutions are still structured as if all breadwinners have spouse/parents at home taking care of everything. When really, still, either the woman ends of doing most of the work, esp. in the first years of a kid’s life, or parents have to do tag-team parenting, which cuts into BOTH workers’ time.”

    “This is the most family-unfriendly country in the industrialized world,” said many ACTUAL progressives. “IT’S A STRUCTURAL PROBLEM.”

    I don’t know you this “DR” is, but he seems to live on some other planet.

  14. Here we go– the mommies in the audience are starting to howl. Oh, it makes me laugh in the way that only a woman who uses her brain more often than her uterus can laugh.

    Having children *IS* a choice. I opted to be childfree, and yes, it cost me at least one near-marriage and several “friend”ships. It was worth the loss of such people; like misfortune, such an unconventional life choice shows you who your real friends are.

    How did I do it? By being *really* careful (at times lapsing into “boring” territory). I’m coming into the evening of being able to reproduce, and barring the ups and downs of the transition itself, it’ll be a relief.

    My reasons for CHOOSING to be childfree are many. A few are overpopulation, the desire to end my family’s bilateral cycles of abuse (neither Mom nor Dad had us just itching to commence beating on or neglecting us, but it happened!), knowing intimately how “Lord of the Flies” childhood really is, and recognizing that I will only be known after my passing, if at all, by my own works (not vicariously through another individual).

    Yet what “reasons”, if any, are ever given for having kids? The rationales you most often hear start with “I want”: “I want someone to love me.” “I want my child to do the things I couldn’t do.” “I want to be ‘immortal’.”

    I want, I want, I want. Yet the gestalt out there is that women like me are the “selfish” ones for not squeezing out a kid or three or more?! And I will refrain from exploring the attitude of entitlement that oozes from the very pores of mommies everywhere these days.

    Humanity is in no danger of extinction. The offshoot bearing YOUR super-awesome DNA is not going to be the saving grace of this world. I have no sympathy for anyone, male or female, who make this sort of choice and then whine about it. If other people aren’t “allowed” to drink and drive or follow any other lifestyle choice that impacts others, what makes parents think they’re exempt? Oh, yeah… selfishness.

    • I thought this article made me angry, and then I read the comment from Suze. Now, THIS makes me angry.

      The reasons you listed of why people have kids:
      “I want someone to love me.”
      “I want my child to do the things I couldn’t do.”
      “I want to be ‘immortal’.”

      I have NEVER heard anyone with children or anyone who wants children say any of these things or anything similar. Maybe there are selfish people out there who choose to have a child for the wrong reasons, but the fact that you think EVERYONE thinks this way is problematic and INSULTING.

      People have children because it’s a wonderful experience and because they want to start a family with the person they love.

      I think it’s great that you decided not to have children, and it sounds like you gave it a lot of thought, so for you, it was the right decision. I don’t think you’re “selfish” at all. But why do you feel such a need to insult women who DO choose to have children?

      No one is whining. People just want some understanding and empathy, the way you want people to understand your decision to not have children, and the same way you might want a little empathy if you had something going on in your personal life that was taking away from your work life (whether it was a “choice” or not).

    • You sound pretty entitled yourself! I am a female academic who has also made the choice of not having children (not because I think it will impede my career, but because I feel sufficiently fulfilled as it is and also worry about overpopulation), but I would never rant so self-righteously against women who do choose to have children. In the same way that is wrong and ignorant to accuse women who do not want children of being selfish, it is also pretty short-sighted to make assumptions about the reasons why women do want children (like your banal remarks about wanting to be loved or immortal). Just as they may not understand your reasons, you will never understand theirs. I wonder whether it was your lack of sympathy or humility towards those who want different things from you that cost you your near-marriage and friendships, rather than your choice. I myself have lost no friends or partners over my choices.

  15. Ah, yeah, Dr. Pettigrew also ignores the fact that the healthiest, strongest babies are born to younger women, and that MANY women who wait to have babies for the right time find that they are now infertile. This was my own personal experience. I waited. I lost out.

    Pettigrew, I hope at long last when you are being pushed around your nursing home by a young, well-educated, pleasant health-care worker, that you will at last recognize the importance to society of the work that all mothers, academic or otherwise, perform on your behalf.

  16. You can have children, a successful career, or be happy. Choose two.

  17. I realize that I am very late in coming to this discussion, but when I read the article by Pettigrew above I felt marginalized and my impulse to resist overwhelmed me. The main difficulty with Pettigrew’s argument is not whether or not having a child is a choice – obviously, it is – but whether or not having a child is a women’s choice alone and therefore a women’s burden alone. Although a single women can choose to have a child, oftentimes the decision to have children is made jointly by two people, partners, and yet one of those partners often bears the bulk of the burden of child rearing alone. This is not right and to suggest that such is simply ‘the way the cookie has always crumbled’ is ludicrous and as one commenter noted “the opposite of progressive.” I am a female academic with four children, my partner and I chose to have our children jointly and we are willing to bear our responsibility jointly – unfortunately the norms of the workplace (academic or otherwise) make that very difficult. Things, therefore, must change. To Suze, your views are very offensive and poorly informed. You sound like the product of the dysfunctional relationships that you describe. I respect your right to not have children; I expect the same respect in return. Rest assured that people have children for many, diverse reasons none of which you seem to comprehend. I would suggest that your narrow, arrogant and alienating views are the reason that many of your relationships have failed and will continue to fail. Best of luck to you in your journey…

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