What's Wrong With These Scholarships?

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.

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Very well thought out.
My initial reaction is that she is over examining the issue. I don't think it implies anything. It's just a simple offer to help women having to juggle dual responsibilities of career and child rearing. An unfortunate fact of living in this 21st century world trying to escape 20th century mores is that while we are starting to accept the idea of women having careers in the workplace as a norm, how to accommodate women who are pregnant or actively engaged as the sole or major partner in raising their children has yet to be successfully resolved.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

What bothers me in this dicussion is not the motherhood issue. It's that some people believe that they can tell other people how to spend their gift money. Unless I am missing an important point, these are private funds given away at the donors discretion.

Frankly, if I want to set up a grant to support only redheads researching tanning bed technology, that is my right. Complaining that blonds are not eligible will not give the me kind of warm fuzzies that might encourage further grant-making.

I volunteer for a grant making organization. There will never be enough funds for every good application. Don't make more problems for yourself by complaining. It will be noted. This organization wants positive publicity, not negative. They can re-direct these funds to other causes.

You know - the three scientist-mothers who win these awards will no longer be your competitors for others.

Very interesting, and you address many issues that surround women with kids in science. One of the women in my lab (PhD but not postdoc) is having another child, and it will be interesting for me to see how that affects her in the lab.

In a related story, a classmate of mine got married and had a baby in college (baby born between her sophomore and junior year). We all applauded her for graduating on time (her husband held back a year to have more time for the baby.) Then she said she wanted 10 (ten!) more children, and she'd go into the workforce when the youngest went to college. As a group my friends were rather appalled that she would wait that long to use her physics degree, and wasn't that a waste? (We were also a little shocked at the number of children.) Now I feel bad for thinking so poorly of her. First, it's no one's business but her's what she does with her education, but second, you don't have to have an industry or academic job to "use" a physics BS.

Just thought I'd share.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 15 Oct 2008 #permalink

With my family being largely German, I'll state the following. These are probably not scholarships as Education in Germany is free. With regard to children, the German government used to pay Kindergeld (a monthly allowance), for every child one had (though I am not sure this is true anymore do to cutbacks). But yes, Germany is very pro-childbirth and gives woman great benifits to have children. Remember Germany is a socialist country.

Danimal, Germany use to give women benefits to STAY HOME with children. See, the husband can sort of deduct "his wife's half of his income" from income tax if she does not earn anything, but they can not deduct a nanny.* (This is slowly changing now.) The difference with these fellowships is that they would pay for childcare carried out by someone who is not the child's biological mother. Shocking, I know.

As an aside and for your information, scientist above a certain level do generally not get scholarships to pay for "tuition", regardless of the country. We actually consider our work "real work", for which we get a something like a "salary" to pay for, you know, "living". Shocking again, I know. Sometimes, a contract providing this is called "scholarship", in spite of the fact that it is not supposed to be used for tuition.

* Yes, theoretically, the husband would be allowed to stay home. However, as long as the official German income tax forms clearly state that a couple's "main tax payer" is always the man, I refuse to believe all that liberal talk that German society really would be cool with the reverse situation.

My (limited) understanding of the German system is that the question of supporting mothers working/kids in childcare is made more complicated by past history. The reason being that it was a policy of the Nazi party to push for women to work and kids to be sent to daycare, and that this view of child rearing is still colored by this history. Not that this justifies at all the way childcare is viewed in society today, but just to say that there are more complicated reasons why some people think that having mothers going to work is somehow wrong.

In general, and with this I mean all the European countries I've lived in (including Germany), I experience a much lower support of employers for working fathers who want to care for their children than for mothers. This is, IMHO, the greatest problem and also part of what Zuska wants to tell us (I assume): society has to change - all that happens right now are band aids but not a real solution. We need the acceptance of the fact that some people want to have children, and a proper environment in which this is possible.

And, as much as I agree to that everybody should be able to make a free choice whether or not to have children, and a career, I like to remind you that without progeny our society would soon go down the drain. So I do believe that there is a responsibility of the society to support parents, to assure continuity of society, irrespectively of whether or not some part of the society has or has not kids.

Oh, and, Germany is not a socialist country, Danimal. Everybody who's ever lived in a socialist country will know the not-so-subtle difference.

Zuska, this is a well-written and insightful post. Our reproductive function will sadly always be tied to our careers, and I agree that it needs to be acceptable for women to decide to not have children. In dealing with this personally tough, it also needs to be alright for professional women to decide to have kids without penalty. The idea of the L'Oreal fellowship is well-intentioned but does little to actually serve women who decide to make family and career mutual priorities. I have posted some thoughts on that here.

Keep fighting the good fight.

anon #8, not quite. I've head the statement before that "Nazis wanted women to work", but it is not true.

It is true that National Socialism sought influence over education, but women were still supposed to stay home. It is also true that women did work during the later years of National Socialism, but only when workers got scarce during the war. Official Nazi party politics were always that women should stay home. E.g., access to universities for women was restricted, female state employees could be - and were - fired upon marriage and husbands got an interest-free loan if the wife left her job. Also, the current German tax system (joint filing, which is atypical for Europe) was introduced by the Nazis.

The one history issue Germans do have is socialism in East Germany, which indeed was a dictatorship that wanted women to work. But the analogous statement about National Socialism is not true.

I found German system much more supportive of having children with Scientific career then American system. This is not to contradict the logic you are giving in your discussion but my personal experience is that it is much easy to have scientific career with life (family, kids etc etc) in Germany then in US because of totally different level of work pressure and expectations. just my 2 cents after spending 3 years in Germany as a post-doc with a kid and 2 years in US with another kid.

By anonymous (not verified) on 19 Oct 2008 #permalink

I don't see the L'Oreal scholarships as a band-aid. Rather they are a beacon.

In a society where it is presumed women stay home and have kids, where someone might say "but a woman couldn't have kids and be a scientist", the scholarships provide a very visible example that women CAN and DO do both.

At the risk of sounding like the white males who complain about minority-specific fellowships, I have to admit some chagrin at noticing that it is easy to get the impression that most of the women-specific fellowships are only for women who are returning from taking time off to raise children. Which is not to say it really is "most", or that there are many women-specific fellowships, because I think that neither is true, but I've never actually tried to make a list of all women-specific fellowships and how many are restricted to women with children. Somebody should do this or post a link if such a list already exists.

I'm kind of surprised actually, I thought the L'Oreal ones were not specifically for women with kids. I guess it's good I didn't waste my time trying to apply for one, since I don't have kids maybe I wasn't eligible anyway.

I totally support the need for these scholarships. Something happened to me recently which I would never have perceived possible: I was awarded a postdoc at an institution, and then strongly informed by the proposed mentor that in their view it was not possible to carry out the work satisfactorily as a woman with a family (the children involved are nowhere near preschoolers either). If this is typical of employer views, the more of these scholarships the better, frankly.