Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Research and Teaching careers can be family friendly

In his Carpe Diem blog post, "Research Careers: Not Very Family Friendly", Mark Perry, an economics and finance professor in Michigan, points to a recent report by the AAUW, "Why so few?", about the paucity of women in STEM careers (i.e., engineering and science), and cites a few good quotes from Diane Auer Jones' Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "Are Women Partly to Blame for the Gender Gap in STEM Fields?". In these three articles, one can quickly grasp that there are diverse opinions about the presence of and reasons for the gender imbalance on campus (which appears to be more worrisome in some faculties versus others), and what might, can and should be done to address the "problem" however it is defined.

First, the McSnarky part of me has a simple (but ultimately unsatisfying and surface) answer for the "gender" imbalance: follow the research money - In Canada, there is 9 NSERC dollars invested for every 1 SSHRC dollar - so, Science and Engineering have BIG bucks, and few female faculty, while other faculties / disciplines struggle to get their research funded and have a higher proportion of female scholars.... Seems I have observed this trend in Medicine, too.....

Back to balancing career and family.
Having written about the intersections between academia and motherhood before, I felt moved to comment on Perry's blog: "I am a female professor who has been in academia for 20 years - I am part of a very small minority, male OR female (6 of 80+ faculty), who has small children at home. It is a challenge to juggle research, teaching, service on campus and maintain a healthy home life -- something always has to give. In my life, my children are a priority so I am not a research chair, an associate dean or list hundreds of publications [on my cv]. However, I do have two well balanced children in sports, a happy marriage and some teaching awards, some publications, two modest research grants, and edit a peer reviewed journal. Having a family does slow down a career, but I would argue that my children have made me a better teacher and researcher in that I am a sharper observer, extremely well organized (I have to be) and I have a deep well of empathy that I may have lacked when I was a single graduate student who worked 16 hours a day".

I believe that female faculty CAN and DO make good progress in their non-science academic careers by investing in and enjoying their teaching and graduate supervision, pursuing research that is important and worthwhile, take an active role in collegial governance and service, AND, build strong families and keep things in balance at home for self, partner and children. In my faculty and at my campus, there are many examples of women having it all by doing it all, and making an academic career and family work by working very hard and strategically -- the reasons and explanations are diverse and the stories are inspiring.

Our campus recently celebrated the appointment of a Female President, who happens to have enjoyed a highly productive, well recognized & well decorated career in Engineering (gasp!), moved into leadership in a male dominated field and enjoyed widespread support as a dean of engineering, WHILE raising two children in a two parent family and doing extensive work in the community. Of course, one can argue that this woman is an exception, and of course Elizabeth is an exceptional woman, but based on this and other examples of female professors who enjoy a successful academic career while raising a family, I have to argue that research and teaching careers CAN be family friendly -- often, it is a question of political and social awareness, keeping work and home in balance and making strategic choices about what is important, doing only work that you enjoy and believe is important and worthwhile, and learning to say NO when it makes sense.