The X-Gals on Motherhood and ChildCare

The latest installment in the X-Gals series is out: Life As A Mother-Scientist. Subtitle: The X-Gals, a group of nine female biologists, see a direct correlation between their productivity and their child care.
Note that last phrase: the link is not between productivity and having children. It’s between productivity and child care. Access to it, quality of available child care, sudden unpredictable collapse of previously arranged child care, difficulty of obtaining child care for very young infants or sick children, and so on. When good child care arrangements are in place, productivity is not a problem.


Despite all the problems Lucille Louis (a pseudonym) chronicles in this article, she notes the following:

We X-Gal mothers have 10 children among us, but witness our achievements: Jana earned a Ph.D. despite the open hostility of her adviser and has since won nearly $4-million in grants for her university. While writing at home with an infant, I singlehandedly brought in six figures’ worth of grant overhead to my university, in addition to covering my own salary and research costs. Meg and Tess both continue to teach and publish as lecturers. Karen took on a commuter marriage with two elementary-school children to pursue her Ph.D., which she will defend next semester. Greta was awarded a prestigious international postdoc and now holds a permanent research position. We achieved all of that largely on our own. Imagine what we could do with a little institutional support.

Indeed. Just imagine the contributions to society that have been lost because we, as a society, don’t think it is worth our bother to provide adequate child care for people with children. As long as we insist on seeing the raising of children as an individual problem that individual people bring upon themselves by their individual choices, rather than a necessary societal function, we will continue to pay the cost, as a society, in lost contributions. Not to mention the impact on the people doing the parenting and the children themselves.
Louis calls on universities to provide quality day care on campus and to pay fair wages. She notes:

The American Association of University Professors recently reported that female assistant professors at doctoral institutions are still paid an average of $6,000 less each year than their male peers. Child care is expensive — ranging from $600 a month or more for a preschooler to significantly more for an infant — so it’s no wonder mothers leave academe in droves.
As it is, most of us X-Gals spend the bulk of our salaries just for the privilege of working. We are passionate about our work or we wouldn’t be doing it, and those of us with children all have spouses who are able (and willing!) to subsidize our passions by providing the majority of our household incomes. However, science should not be a pursuit that women with children can only explore if they are hitched to professional men.

This is an often-overlooked side effect of the salary discrimination against women. It harms them over and over again.
Louis discusses several other important issues in the article, including one of my pet issues: Choose your partner carefully. Women in science can’t afford to fall in love with just anybody. You’d better have the highest of high standards for your life partner. (Actually, this is true of women in general. Standars are way too low.)
Read the article; it’s great. I take exception to only one part of it. I wish Louis had not felt compelled to add this:

Our intent here is not to whine about how hard it is to be mothers in academic science. It is hard, but we chose our careers, and we accept full responsibility for our choices. Rather, we hope to promote a discussion on the barriers to women with children in science and in academe in general.

Well, presumably any Careers column in the Chronicle is intended to promote a discussion on whatever topic it is about. Nobody else who writes columns for the Chronicle feels compelled to put in disclaimers like this. It’s only when you write about things like gender, race, or homophobia that you see the arm go up to deflect the blows you know are coming. I wish Louis had had the guts to just write her column and say f*ck you to her potential critics (who will criticize her whether she explains her intentions or not). I see this little bit at the end as not too far off from saying “now, we don’t mean to upset you all, we are good women, we know we have brought up these distressing topics, and we don’t really mean to distress you and all, but we are just sort of hoping that maybe you all would like to sit and talk with us a little bit about some of this stuff.”
It’s a partial silencing of herself and I just wish she had had the courage to say what she had to say and put it out there as it is and let people deal with it, no explanations or qualifications attached. Audre Lorde told us “Your silence will not protect you” and this qualifying statement will not keep those so inclined to view women who address gender issues in science as whiners from calling Louis a whiner. It just dilutes the impact of everything that came before it.
But this is a minor quibble with what is otherwise a very powerful piece. Do give it a read.

  1. December 6, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for the link. These issues are what seem to consume me every day. As a mother of a almost 5 and 3 year old, I took a part time faculty position to allow my husband to take on the job of a lifetime. I still want to maintain my research so I work more than part time for a part time salary, and my husband thinks part of my “job” is to handle all of the morning drop offs, afternoon pick ups, feedings, laundry, playtime and countless other things. He does the bath every other night and reads to the kids, when they’ll let him. I’m underappreciated by my department chairman and my husband.
    I can completely relate to the X-gals and will enjoy reading their columns. I agree we have to stop apologizing for expressing our opinions and frustrations. We need to be “movers and shakers”. I plan on being successful despite my current situation.

  2. December 6, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    I love the X-Gals. They combine realism about the (scary) problems here and now with a lot of fire for change.

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