Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Time to Hire a Housekeeper? Really?

I've been meaning for awhile to write about that much talked-about piece in Science Careers on women in academia and housework. This has been covered by many other bloggers, most notably in the discussion between Dr. Isis and the Science Careers editor Jim Austin, but in the interest of blogging about things I spend time thinking about, I'm going to write a bit about it as well.
I recommend following the link to read the original article yourself, but I think a reasonable summary is this: If you want to be a successful woman scientist, it is impractical to expect yourself to take care of your own home and family (and besides, none of you really want to).
If you think I've read it all wrong, please feel free to correct me (hopefully with more tact than profanity) in the comments. Like ScienceMama, I was not sure at first why I was so offended by this article, but I knew that I was! I think I've nailed it down to three main points: 1) Some of us really do want to take care of our own home and family; 2) Under the heading of Solutions, I'd rather talk about raising our sons to be husbands that do housework; and 3) Maybe science should be more amenable to having a Life.
I feel like this article assumes that keeping up with housework is something that we all hate, we all feel obligated to do, and there are no advantages to fulfilling that obligation. Maybe I'm all alone in this, but I don't hate housework. Don't get me wrong, I don't love it, but having an empty sink and all the laundry put up sure does feel good. There is something rewarding about taking care of your own home and cleaning up your own messes. I feel like once we start farming out our housework because we can afford to (collective "we" - I certainly can't afford to!), where does that slippery slope lead? I should hire someone to take care of my kids and take care of the yard and do the grocery shopping and decide what's for dinner, then cook it! If we could just pay people to sleep for us, we may never have to leave work! I realize I'm being hyperbolic, but I think the argument is reasonable - should we pay people to do our "life maintenance" for us just because we can afford to? I think there are inherent benefits to doing it for ourselves. I want my kid to make her bed and learn how to cook and clean up after herself because it builds character. It teaches her discipline, it encourages her to take care of what she has and be respectful of herself and the people around her.
That being said, I don't think it's a cop-out to hire help. It's a choice everyone has to make and I don't think everyone with a housekeeper is a workaholic, or undisciplined, or lazy. I simply resent the suggestion that chores hold no benefit, that they are just a necessary nuisance to being alive.
Although it may not have been appropriate for Science Careers, I would have been more interested to read an article about raising men that will split the housework. I don't have a lot to say on this subject besides that: if you have sons, teach them to be good husbands and fathers! It's not quite as quick a solution as a maid, but the next generation of wives will thank you.
Lastly is the issue of whether or not it's the discipline that should change, not the home life. Should careers in academia be less demanding? I realize this is a ginormous can of worms. For the record, I'm undecided. On one hand, good science takes dedication and one helluva work ethic. When Jonah Lehrer wrote about working as a technician in a neuroscience lab in his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, he put it well: "The truth seemed to slowly accumulate, like dust." To willingly participate in this accumulation of truth every day takes dedication. But should this dedication be so overwhelming that it preempts mopping your own floors and cooking for your own family? Is it unreasonable to expect people to work as hard as most academics do? I honestly don't know. I believe it when people say that so-and-so left academia because they wanted to spend more time with their family, because they ultimately found them incompatible (although I don't know any myself, and it seems like many of them left academia to "do science" in a less demanding career). I also know academics that seem to work 80-hour weeks and have a great family/personal life at the same time. I'm tempted to say that if this individual variation in response to academia exists, maybe the system is selecting for the right people? When I say selecting for the "right" people, I don't mean the best scientists; I'm sure there are plenty of solid scientists that left academia because of the hours, and that sucks. But the unfortunate truth, it seems, is that being "successful" in academia is not just about being a solid scientist. It is about juggling teaching, research, mentorship, administrative bull-shit (as my PI lovingly refers to it), getting funding, publishing, collaborating, networking, reading, hiring, firing... these are time-consuming. There are people who do nothing but one of those as a career, and PIs are expected to do them all. So what I am suggesting is that maybe it's all necessary, and maybe it has to take 80 hours a week. And if you can't work the hours, don't take the job? That seems like a reasonable enough statement outside of the furor surrounding this topic... why does it suddenly become unreasonable when we're talking about women in science? I think med students in residency get it... I think officers on nuclear submarines get it... should we accept it? Or push for change?

While I'm going to prepare myself for a frenzy of unmitigated Internet hatred in the comments, I'm secretly hoping you'll all be reasonable.

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