Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science writes about prizes for women:
2008 is the tenth year of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards to remarkable female scientists from around the world. Indeed, our sister-site, ScienceBlogs.de, covered this year’s award ceremony and is celebrating women in science more generally with a For Women in Science blog. (It, like the rest of ScienceBlogs.de, is in German. Just so you know.)
In addition to the global contest, three further scholarships are given to women scientists in Germany. But, the only women eligible for these awards are women with kids…On the one hand, children are labor-intensive (as is science), so help caring for children is a good thing. But in theory at least, this would also be an issue for male scientists with kids.
It’s possible to interpret scholarships like this as saying that no woman, remarkable scientist or not, could be completely fulfilled if she is not also a mother. Is this a social pressure that really needs to be reinforced with cash prizes?
On the other hand, it is still not uncommon for women in science to feel like having kids will be taken as definitive evidence that they weren’t really serious about being great scientists — because if they were, they would never sacrifice the time and energy children require, but would devote all of that to their research…
…[W]hat kind of message does an award like this send to you? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction, or does it entrench assumptions that ought to be abandoned?
Here are my thoughts in response.
I have no patience with those who would constrain the value of women’s lives to their reproductive capacity. But neither do I worry about a few tiny bits of funding going to women researchers with kids. It isn’t a few scholarships that support the notion that women ought to have kids. In fact you could argue the opposite, that a scholarship for a woman with kids undermines the notion that the only thing a woman ought to be doing is have kids. We need to value the choices of women who want to have kids AND a career. We might well argue that working to establish affordable, accessible daycare for all parents would be a more effective way to achieve this than to provide individual solutions for a few elite women but that’s another story.
The fact is that the way things are now, women still have primary responsibility for childcare, and academic science still operates in a way to disadvantage people (mostly women) who have to devote large amounts of time to childcare. The L’Oreal awards are an attempt to mitigate these circumstances. It might be cool if the award was revised to allow support for women involved in any major family care situation – elder care, say, as well as child care. But complaining about the awards is aiming our wrath at the wrong target. The proper target is the structural inequalities that leave women mostly responsible for raising the next generation and caring for the sick and elderly, without that labor being recognized and/or valued.
On the one hand, we have massive societal pressure on women to have kids and to obtain their complete identity through motherhood, while on the other hand we have massive societal denial that the work of motherhood is in any way an important societal function. It is seen as a purely individual choice and private matter and therefore society has no obligation to help those who are having kids. The problem, as I see it, with something like the L’Oreal scholarships is that they are just a band-aid. They are an acknowledgment of a widespread culture that sees child-rearing, or indeed any life event requiring one’s time and attention, as an undesirable infringement upon work. They don’t challenge or change this norm; they merely offer a coping strategy for a few lucky individual women. Band-aids aren’t bad, but they aren’t transformational change, either.
Yes, it needs to be okay for women not to be mothers. But it also needs to be okay for women to be mothers AND have careers. Or, to be only mothers and have that work seen as an important part of contributing to society. All three choices need to be equally valid, equally valued, equally viable. No one of them can be truly a choice for any woman until and unless all three are really truly a choice. No matter what we do it isn’t valued and we end up vilified by someone. Vilified by conservatives if we choose career and motherhood for supposedly harming the kids; vilified by some feminists if we choose only motherhood, for being retrograde and setting back the cause of women; vilified if we choose not to have children in favor of a career as somehow being unnatural women who can never really be fulfilled. There is no choice a woman can make that is neutral, or positive. Criticizing some initiative that attempts to help a subset of women navigate the impossible set of “choices” before them misses the wider problem, which is the system that sets up the impossible choices to begin with.
We absolutely have to fight for our freedom not to have kids if we don’t want to, and not to be defined solely by our ability to bear children. But our antagonists in that fight are not women who chose to have children, or some foundation that throws some money their way. There isn’t just one way to win this fight. Over here we battle for the right of mothers to have careers. Over there we battle for the right of women not to be defined by childbearing. Multiple strategies, multiple fronts, multiple fights going on all the time. It’s a false dichotomy to think that you have to be opposed to support for working mothers if you are also for support for women not to be defined by reproductive biology.
I will say this, however. I do think that the somewhat excessive focus on childcare issues in the gender-and-science arena is not a good thing. The implication sometimes is almost as if the ONLY issue facing women in science is childcare. This completely ignores all the problems faced by women who do not have children, and all the problems women with children face that have nothing to do with them having children. It also produces the nagging feeling that if those darn women would just stop insisting upon having kids and a demanding science career, there wouldn’t be an issue. You know, everything in science is good, except we have to make special accommodations for those demanding baby mamas, who don’t realize they really ought to go home and stop bothering all the rest of us who’ve devoted our lives to science. It makes it seem like the problem is those darn reproducing women, not the structure of science, or the misplaced values of society.
In this regard it’s good to see the way that some of the NSF ADVANCE programs deal with this issue. For example, the University of Washington ADVANCE program has a Transitional Support Program that is available to women and men, and that posits childcare as just one of an array of life issues for which a faculty member might need some extra help. Rather than the extremes of either ignoring or singling out childcare, it normalizes childcare as just one of many parts of life that people have to deal with while managing their careers. By being open to women and men, the program also makes clear that it does not view responsibility for such life issues as solely belonging to women. That’s a good start.