The Intersection


My post yesterday on women in the academic workforce not only sparked some great comments, but also several interesting emails. One in particular got me thinking and with the author’s permission, I have decided to pose his concern to readers:


Your piece this morning is closely related to my current situation and I’m not sure how to navigate these waters. I am a 3rd year PhD student in fisheries science at a public university in New England, the lone male in our cohort and very sensitive to the challenges facing women in academia through the awesome women sharing my office. None of us can come up with the right way to approach a sensitive issue:

I hired a field assistant to work here while I have to be away a few weeks. After interviewing many candidates by phone, a young woman seemed the most interested in the project. She’s considering a PhD in fisheries and her role will be to work with fishermen and take measurements on boats in my absence. So far so good.

A few days ago she emailed she has no one to watch her six month old, asking if it’s alright to bring the baby to campus for our first meeting. Until then, I didn’t know she’s a new mother. Trouble is some of the fishermen are challenging to work with and old fashioned on the roles of women. But through my female peers, I’ve also seen many tough ladies show the guys a thing or too, maybe change perspectives. When I mentioned this to her in the interview, she seemed cool.

But if she ever shows up at the dock with a baby, she won’t be allowed onboard. They’ll call it a liability and it may strain my relationship with them working on the project. It’s not fair or PC, but it’s a rough industry. How do I speak to her about this without sounding like a jerk? I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable and do want to be supportive. It’s awkward but necessary, and none of my female colleagues have an answer. Do you?


I’m just not sure, but I do applaud that you’re sensitive to the situation and asking your female colleagues was a good start given they know the fishermen involved. The question sparks larger considerations as well for academic advisors everywhere: For example, when interviewing potential graduate students, would a 24 year old single male be–consciously or not–a more attractive candidate than a 29 yr old engaged female? These are not things we’re supposed to discuss during the selection process, but they also don’t go unnoticed.

So with that, I turn CodKeeper’s question to Intersection readers…


  1. #1 Philip H.
    January 22, 2009

    Miss Sheril,
    Having been in many encounters with commercial fishermen over the years, I have to wonder. In New England (as well as the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf Coast) there are many female skippers and crew. They work just as hard as the men, and often become leading advocates for sensible fishing regulations. So while Codkeeper may well have encountered some hostile male captains, he may not be accurately reading the situation in the entire fleet he is sampling.

    I would also observe that, in traditional fishing communities, objections to the presence of women on the boat is often a front for deeper issues, especially where observers are concerned. Codkeeper and his field staff really need to look for those underlying issues – they may actually be easy to address.

    Finally, I think Codkeeper needs to be honest with his new colleague about his observations. He needs to be upfront about what he has seen and heard, but he also needs to back her up to the captains in question. Doing so will help her do her job, and it will show them she is a person to be reckoned with. Heck, it may open some doors as well.

  2. #2 Ashutosh
    January 22, 2009

    You are not a jerk if you speak the truth; as Donald Sutherland said, fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. CodKeeper needs to honestly apprise her about the situation.
    Also, yes, many people may instinctively and unfortunately go for a 24 year old single male compared to a 29 year old engaged female. It should not have to be so, but we haven’t really grown up yet.

  3. #3 Arikia
    January 22, 2009

    For my undergrad thesis in political psychology, I referenced an study that showed the hiring preferences of major companies based on gender and familial status. The study found that the companies were most likely to hire a married man, followed by an unmarried man, followed by an unmarried woman, followed by a married woman.

  4. #4 Miriam
    January 22, 2009

    It’s not sexist to ask her not to bring her baby to the docks! While a dock is a wonderful place for a woman interested in fisheries who happens to be a mother, it is NOT an appropriate place for the actual little baby, particularly when the mother is going to be concentrating on her work. At my institution, we’re not allowed to have any minors at all on board.

    Just tell her (if this is the truth) that while you don’t mind having the baby around the lab/office, she’s going to need to arrange childcare for the fieldwork. If she can’t do that, you’re within your rights to hire someone else, though it would be honorable to find her another, related position where she could have her baby around, like crunching data or working in the lab.

  5. #5 literarydeadkittens
    January 22, 2009

    I agree with Miriam. You don’t take your kids to work whether you’re a woman or a man. That part isn’t a gender issue at all. I have children, and I would never consider bringing them along on fieldwork at that age.

    Yes, arranging childcare is a pain in the neck, and there’s no reason he can’t give her some help there by seeing if there’s a local creche, or funding available to help her expenses, but I would have thought health and safety considerations would have drawn a line under this issue whether he wanted to compromise or not.

  6. #6 Mark F.
    January 22, 2009

    My comment is not so much to do with how Codkeeper should or should not address this issue with the applicant (although I am in strong agreement with Miriam’s comment). My comment (really a question) is why is it a 3rd year grad student’s responsibility to be making this kind of a decision? Where’s the PI of the lab in all of this? I work as a staff biomedical researcher at a Big 10 university. This is something that would be handled by the PI. Not me or a post-doc or a lab tech. Just curious

  7. #8 Lindsay
    January 22, 2009

    Mark F. –

    I am a 3rd year grad student in an ecology/evolution focused biology department. My department (and many others) are structured very differently than a lot of biomedical/molecular bio/cell bio departments in that grad students often work on very different projects than their advisers. So different that a lot of us have to fund our own research through the department, small grants, or fellowships. And when you fund yourself, you get to make all the decisions! (Usually with copious advice.)

    I don’t know if that is Codkeeper’s situation or not, but a lot of grad students do. I am currently funding my own research. It’s a harder way to go in a lot of respects, but worth it if you aren’t necessarily interested in what your adviser is funded for.

  8. #9 Mark F.
    January 22, 2009

    Lindsay – Thanks for your explanation. Your situation has definitely not been my experinence in biomedical research. It could be that what you describe is Codkeeper’s situation as well, but I guess he would be the one to clarify that.

  9. #10 Martin R
    January 23, 2009

    I agree with previous speakers. It’s not a gender issue. In Sweden, where I live, dads often take several months of paternity leave. A parent of any sex who is the main care-giver of an infant should not take the kid with them in a fishing boat on the high seas. The boat trip should be put off until the child is old enough for daycare or the other parent assumes the duties of parental leave.

    If, on the other hand, the fishermen in question aren’t willing to allow women in general on board, then they badly need to learn something about living in the 21st century.

  10. #11 Kevin Zelnio
    January 29, 2009

    I’m confused. Are we reading into this too much? All he said was

    “A few days ago she emailed she has no one to watch her six month old, asking if it’s alright to bring the baby to campus for our first meeting.”

    Is this a meeting on the dock? Could she note get childcare at all or just the day they needed to meet? As already been said, she just can’t bring the baby to work at the dock or on a boat. Its a liability/legal issue not a discrimination one. She has to abide by that pure and simple.

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