Monday, 16 March 2015

Well this is depressing......

Over at Daily Nous there is a discussion taking place about the ethics and etiquette of using parenting duties as an excuse to duck out of certain academic duties,
such as out-of-hours entertaining of seminar guests.  Children and the flexibility of the job was initially started by an anonymous female professor who notes that while raising her own, now secondary school aged children, she has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid shirking any of her academic obligations, including evening and weekend activities. She has some colleagues
"who regularly use their childcare responsibilities as an excuse to not attend departmental events—even events that take place during the standard work day". 

She goes on to say, "This strikes me as an abuse of the flexibility of the job. I am curious if my views about this are unusual or off. I would also be curious to hear suggestions about how to approach this subject institutionally".

It's a fairly measured question, although its tempting to think that here is another example of a senior female academic 'pulling the ladder up' - using her own survival of negative experiences to justify imposition of the same experiences on younger women. But it seems reasonable to start a conversation about what are the rules, formal or otherwise, concerning the juggling of our academic and personal lives. In a career with no well-defined working hours, flexibility is a highly prized counterbalance to what can be a hugely demanding and stressful occupation. Most graduate students and academics will easily recognise that in what looks to non-academics like an easy life, because nobody knows or cares what time you get to your desk, the reality is that working hours for most academics are simply all the hours. Noone tells you when to start, but noone tells you when to stop, either.

But then along come children, for some of us at least. I used to view weekends as the time when the real work gets done, without the interruptions of seminars, meetings, talks and so on (ditto the holidays). Bedtime reading was always academic, working hours depended on work load (I'd finish at 7pm on a typical day, 3am the day before a talk or deadline). Foreign holidays were when I got all my reading done. The last time I had an actual, real holiday where i didn't do any work while I was there was....before I started at University. Its true that I have always done my grocery shopping/dentist appointments etc during the work day (God help people who have to shop when the shops are full of other people shopping!) but on the other hand, time taken out for such things, as well as illness, I would always make up later. In 'normal' jobs sick days can be difficult because you get a limited number and have to provide evidence....but you don't usually have to spend all weekend in the office to make the time up.

Since I became a mother things have changed. I didn't have maternity leave the way other people do......every conceivable moment between feeds, during naps, before unconsciousness found me at my laptop, refereeing papers, revising publications, trying to keep my hand in, prevent the emails building up, and generally carrying on working. But now that I'm back at work full time things have not and will never return to how they were. I get up much earlier now, but spend around two hours working at parenting before I begin academic work. I get home in time to sitwith my son while he has dinner, give him a bath and put him to bed. Then I take care of grocery shopping and other domestic tasks until my brain shuts down and I go to sleep ready for my next early start. Work now has to happen between 9 and five, and it cannot happen at any other times. Bath and bed time, 7-8, are sacred hours when I have to be home to see my son before his day ends, so I dont go to college dinners (7.30) any more. Weekends are sacred because there is such a huge list of things to fit into them (family time, marriage time, chores). so I really do only work between 9 and 5 now.......apart from during those periods when some special reason exists for working more. and actually there have been quite a few of meetings on five saturdays per year. Evening dinners to host a visiting speaker. Evenings and weekend days spent at the office desperately finishing a talk/job application/paper for a deadline. Evenings and weekends spent away at a conference or giving a talk far from home. I'm so used to doing these things that I tend to forget about them and think of myself as working less than I am. But its obvious that these things take a heavy toll when they happen. I get sick, My husband gets sick from all the extra work it implies for him, my son goes through a clingy miserable patch because he has seen too little of me and there has been an air of stress about the house. The guilt induced by all of this this is crushing. We all, as a family, suffer when I'm obligated to work outside of 9-5.

And so it is crushing all the more to read the comments made, mostly under cover of anonymity, by some non-parents in the Daily Nous discussion thread.

'Responding' says that parenting is a lifestyle choice comparable to her enjoyment of yoga and that parity should be accorded to all such lifestyle choices in the apportioning of academic obligations. She expresses angry resentment at having to go to dinners because some of her colleagues selfishly want to go home to put their children to bed instead.

There are some intellectual dimensions that a conversation like this could explore: Whose rights should be considered in such contexts- do those of the children affected count? What is the overarching value that we want to maximise in designing rules to govern such situations - is it fairness? Fairness across faculty members or across careers? Or across genders? Or are we better concerned with thinking pragmatically about what sort of people we want to attract to the profession?

I'm happy to admit that there are powerful evolutionary incentives for women to prioritise their children at the expense of, well everything else. But academics are already subject to sufficient measures of output and progress that very few are free riding on their professorial salaries. I don't know a single female who comes close to fitting that description.

But I can't help thinking that a more appropriate response to the thread on Dail Nous is emotional.

It is really depressing and disheartening that there is so little generosity and compassion in our profession. If you're unhappy about how much time you have for yoga how about fighting for a better work-life balance for everyone, rather than picking on those who, trust me, are already struggling more than you can imagine.

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