There’s been a lot of discussion about why women in academia have fewer children than those in medicine or law. Unfortunately, it seems to be veering dangerously close to the ‘pro-kids, anti-kids’ argument that ultimately breaks out, when instead, I think the problem has less to do with children and more to do with a fundamental problem within academia (and academic science in particular)–we suck at management.
As bad as we supposedly are at defending evolution (if Randy Olsen is to be believed), we really do a piss poor job at managing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time wrote something that really resonated with me (bold original; italics mine):
What I am saying is that all people have personal responsibilities and we should value them all and respect them all equally. I want kids someday, and I hope to work in an environment that accommodates that choice on my part. That said, I do think that if I have kids that it is a choice, and people shouldn’t have to schedule meetings around my kid’s soccer practice. Unless I’d also be willing to schedule meetings around my child-free colleagues’ afternoon pottery class of course. Because guess what? To me, those two things are equal. The problem as I see it is that most people don’t value those things as equal. The kid activity gets viewed as a “responsibility” – and it gets characterized that it’s the child-free person’s ethical duty to support the soccer aspirations of the youth of America by having a meeting late Friday afternoon instead of at 3 PM on a Tuesday – while the grown-up person activity gets viewed as “leisure,” and thus as expendable.
The reality, as I see it, is that this profession fucks with people’s personal lives whether they’ve got kids or not. It threatens to take up all one’s time, sucking out any energy one might have for any “life” beyond the job. It fucks with one’s social networks through the national job market, and it fucks with one’s finances with the low pay and debt from grad school. One thing that this affects is when and whether people have kids. It also affects things like when one can buy a home, when one begins saving for retirement, when one sees family and close friends, etc. Now, there are trade-offs, and I am not moaning about how horrible professors have it. But yes, there are structural facts that make it very difficult for professors – single, married, gay, straight, child-having, child-free, whatever – to have a personal life that is separate from the job and that is valued in terms of material resources by employers.
Let me tell you my reality, as a single person without kids, living in an area that is far from the people to whom I am closest. There is no sharing of household chores or bill-paying. All of that is on me to do. I have to keep a stock of various medicines in my house because if I come down with some sort of ailment, I don’t have anyone who could go to the drugstore for me. I have to schedule all appointments for myself and for the Man-Kitty, and I have to be responsible for making those appointments, transportation, etc. The business of day-to-day living, which I would share if I were in a long-term, cohabiting relationship, is all on me. I’m not saying that those responsibilities or realities are identical to having a kid, but yes, they are responsibilities, and they are, indeed, actually urgent and concrete and meaningful. I am not talking about wanting the job to accommodate my desire to take dance classes or something. And I’ve got to find a way to balance all of that with a job that doesn’t acknowledge that a life of the mind can only take place once material needs are taken care of. So why don’t I have kids? Dude, I don’t have time to get laid, let alone the wherewithal to get myself knocked up right now. It’s all I can do to keep my apartment clean. That’s not a “choice” that is “selfish” on my part, nor do I have this luxurious life because I don’t have kids. The reality is that my personal life blows and this profession makes that possible (at least) and causes a lot of it (at most).
The point is that academia–especially when you have made a lot of moves–can wreck havoc on your personal life, kids or no. While science has moved into the 21st century, the academic professional model is still stuck in the 1950s. Anyway, back to the management issue.
One problem I’ve noticed is that most academics are shitty managers, whether they’re deans, department chairmen, or simply a faculty member coordinating a group project. This makes sense: our entire academic training emphasizes poor time management. After all, when you’re a grad student, if someone else screws up (or you screw up when you could have avoided it), you just work longer. There’s little or no penalty for poor time management–in fact, it’s often hard to tell if poor time management is even taking place. You’re working hard after all, and that’s commendable.
One of the good things about working at a non-profit organization for a couple of years is that it, to a considerable extent, took me off of ‘academic time’ and put me onto ‘business time’: if I emailed someone on Friday at 4:55pm, I didn’t expect a response until Monday (unless it was truly urgent–for the recipient). That didn’t mean that I didn’t work late or weekends on my things, but I didn’t automatically consider that others’ weekends were business hours. What’s worse is that we then encourage this bad behavior by responding (again, this is different if it is a genuine emergency, or a long planned weekend interruption).
The other source of bad management is that too many in academia can’t say the simple word no. Granted, sometimes it’s very hard or impossible to say no, particularly for an untenured faculty member. Even when there isn’t that power imbalance, someone wants to say no, but the concept of collegiality (which is abused ad nauseum) doesn’t permit it. If you do say no, people are often shocked, even if they spring something on you at the last moment. The idea that a collaborator will say, “No, I can’t, you didn’t give me enough lead time” is often novel–and more importantly, avoidable.
For example, I’m currently involved in writing several hundred pages of grants. When a colleague asked if I could get involved in another project, I said the dread word no. So said colleague tried again, and again, no. There is no available Mike for developing a project right now. Period. It’s not personal, but I have to get these grants done. I needed to be told about this months ago, not two weeks before a bunch of deadlines. Some long term planning was necessary, and didn’t happen.
(Note to colleagues: Don’t reward the bad behavior)
Anyway, I’ll sum up this long digression. There are several reasons why academia isn’t often human-friendly, but one of those reasons is self-inflicted. If we did a better managing projects, department, consortia, and so on, much of the stress of academia could be reduced, family or no.