Kate had to leave at 7am this morning to go to a “retreat” for her office, so I took the kids to Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast. That got us all out the door at the same time, avoiding the freakout from The Pip if he saw Mommy leave without him. Kate will be late getting home tonight, as well, so I’ve got dinner with the kids as well, and SteelyKid has already declared that she wants to go to the Irish pub downtown for sweet potato fries and fish & chips.
I mention this not because I want to fill the blog with trivial details of my personal life– that’s what Twitter is for– but because it struck me as funny to be doing this today, when there’s discussion all over the science-y Interwebs about this paper showing that women are more likely to decline speaking invitations than men. Specifically, they found:
Although 23% of all initially invited speakers (including those that declined) were women, only 15% of the realized invited speakers were women. This reduction was because 50% of invited women declined talks compared to 26% of invited men.
The fraction of invitations extended to women was not wildly out of line with the fraction of women at the career stages likely to be invited to give talks at major meetings, but the refusal rate difference meant that the actual distribution of speakers skewed heavily male. This has prompted a lot of discussion of why, exactly, this would be; the specific discussion that prompted this post is at Athene Donald’s blog (which in turn links to another post she wrote for the Royal Society’s blogs).
The potential reason for refusal that’s getting the most attention is the issue of child care. Donald puts it pretty well at the Royal Society blog:
For many women, small children may be felt to be a significant barrier to travel. It might be reasonable to query why this is more of a problem for women than for men, but the reality is that the expectation of society (if not of the individual couple) remains that childcare is primarily the mother’s problem. So, while we are waiting for society to catch up, perhaps the conference organisers can be a bit more proactive about finding additional funds to facilitate childcare at the venue or (along the lines of the action I mentioned in an earlier post that my university is already doing) funding travel for some child-minder – relative or employee – to accompany the woman they have invited.
This struck me as interesting in large part because, as I said at the top of this post, I’m currently dealing with a very minor instance of Kate traveling for work. And while we can make that work, it does involve a significant amount of disruption– Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast, and fish & chips for dinner. And I’ll get some strange looks at both places, a mix of the “Awww, how cute” that any man taking care of kids in public gets, plus a bit of “What an asshole.” Skewing more toward “What an asshole” tonight when I take them to a bar for dinner. But, you know, you do what you need to do to make things work.
Today is, as I said, a minor example of Kate traveling for work, not involving an overnight trip. But we’ve done those as well, and it works out, more or less. Due to the nature of our jobs, travel-related solo child-care falls more heavily on Kate– I’m more likely to go away for several days at a stretch to attend a conference or give a talk, while her travel tends to be shorter trips to one court or another for five minutes of oral argument– and I’m acutely aware of that. Especially since I have a gift for scheduling travel on weeks when one or both of the kids come down with something. But we’re very lucky to have family close by who are willing to help out- my parents live about two hours away, are both retired, and are very happy to have the kids come to visit. It could be much, much worse.
Still, it’s a drag on our professional mobility, as it were. I can’t say I’ve turned down any invitations because of the kids, but I’ve certainly been less proactive about trying to arrange invitations. I’ve rotated off the APS committee I was on, and dithered for a long time when I was asked to stand for election to another (I eventually said yes, and lost, which was fine). I went to Science Online for the first time only this year, and will probably be dropping Boskone off my annual appearances in the future, both (in part) because I’m trying to limit my out-of-town travel these days.
As for the proposed solution, like some of the commenters at Donald’s blog, I can’t say I find the thought of dragging kids along to a conference all that attractive. Air travel is annoying enough without adding child-herding to the mix, and if I’m going to go somewhere with the kids, I’d prefer to do something with them, not dump them with day care while I do work. Also, the expense of this is not inconsiderable, particularly when air travel is involved (a somewhat cheaper alternative might be funding to provide for a sitter/ nanny sort of arrangement at the speaker’s home, rather than dragging kids and child care along to a meeting).
Of course, the root problem here is that, as Donald notes, child care expectations fall more heavily on women than men. The real crucial point, from my perspective at least, is made in her comments, by “Th”:
One of the big barriers I think is the imbalance in how childcare/family responsibilities are perceived by employers. Both I and my husband travel a lot for work, but he is never asked by peers or managers what the impact will be on his family. He is assumed to be available for evening meetings, travel abroad etc. If he suggests that this could be incompatible with our family life, eyebrows are raised. When he works short days to cover for me when I’m away, eyebrows have been raised. So it’s not about my partner or my employer, it’s about *his* employers and the attitude of his peers.
This is an important and often overlooked aspect to the problem. The social expectation is that child care is a women’s issue, but this ends up affecting both genders in a way that makes it harder for either. You can’t solve the problem of it being difficult for women to not be constrained by child care without also addressing the problem of it being difficult for men who do want to do child care. Somebody’s got to be taking care of the kids, after all.
And as Th notes, and I’ve said before, attitudes toward men and family are also a problem. While senior faculty and managers are not necessarily as flexible as would be ideal when it comes to cutting women slack for family responsibilities, they at least tend to be grudgingly aware of a legal obligation to not be overtly dickish about it. Men who attempt to step back from work and career to spend time with family get a fair bit of skepticism and are sometimes openly regarded as aberrant.
That doesn’t obviate the need for measures to reduce the burden on women, but it is a significant obstacle to the success of those measures. Again, somebody has to be watching the kids, and that most likely has to be one of the parents. If we want to make it easier for mothers to travel for the promotion of their careers, we need to simultaneously (in some frame of reference, anyway) make it easier and more socially acceptable for fathers to pick up the slack.
Child care isn’t the only issue involved in the paper that kicked this off, of course, just the one that’s most on my mind. I also suspect that it’s the trickiest to solve, though– the other big factors are an Impostor Syndrome-ish problem with women being less likely to put themselves forward, and a problem of the smallish number of prominent women being overburdened with talk requests. The former is a long-standing issue, and something that ought to be addressable in a fairly targeted manner– mentoring, workshops, etc. The latter seems like it ought to be a solved problem– the big-name women who are turning down excess invitations because they’re too busy ought to be passing those on to other, less busy, women– but there may be structural/cultural reasons why this wouldn’t work(*). Addressing the child-care issue requires a much broader change, including change on the part of people who are not themselves being invited to these meetings. That’s the very definition of a Hard Problem.
(* – As a post-doc, I gave two invited talks at meetings in Europe, both of them at conferences that had invited my boss, who disliked conference travel, and sent me in his stead. At one of those, I was a late enough substitution that his name was in the meeting program, not mine. I also gave an invited talk as a grad student at the APS’s Centennial Meeting in Atlanta, where again, they first invited my supervisor, who was invited to give two different talks, and by rule could only accept one, so he passed it on to me. This is not uncommon in (my field of) physics– I see a lot of invited talks at big meetings given by the post-docs and even grad students of prominent people, and as far as I know, the usual procedure is that the big-name PI gets invited, and passes it on to the junior person. The paper that kicked all this off deals with biology, though, and I’m not familiar with the norms there. It might be that conference organizers in that field are more likely to insist on having more senior people as invited speakers, and when they get turned down by one of the handful of overworked women in the field, move on to invite an equally prominent man. Or it may be that the field is more cut-throat, and PI’s are less likely to promote their students and post-docs in this way. Which sounds kind of pathological to me, but maybe biologists are just assholes that way.)