A question you shouldn’t ask

written on June 26, 2012 and saved for publication until tenure

I’m thinking about this on the heels of the Women in Theory workshop, but it’s something that has been irking me since the start of grad school.

Grad school.  And suddenly there’s this thing we’re supposed to chase.  No, not the next FOCS deadline.  The work-life balance.  I hadn’t heard this term before grad school.  The next thing I head is that “work-life balance” is apparently synonymous with “how to have babies and a career at the same time”.  Now, when I started grad school, I was 21.  Given that the average female Ph.D. doesn’t have kids until much older than the average, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I was not thinking about this.

At Brown, we would occasionally have these “faculty grad lunches”.  One prof, a bunch of grad students, brown bagged lunches and a preset topic.  I remember a few of these:  one on how to give a good talk immediately (with the prof having had just come from the dentist), one on how to get a good job (with the rather depressing message that the only direction is down), one on achieving work-life balance.  Now, this last one.  The invite for this last one was only sent out to the female grad students.

I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off.  Not only do men, apparently, not have to worry about work-life balance, but women, apparently, have to spend time talking about it.

I boycotted.

The Women in Theory conference held a panel on work-life balance [1].  The day before, I chatted with the other speakers about how I found it aggravating that “work-life balance” so often solely focuses on child-rearing and that there are other aspects of work-life balance.  (Before all the parents out there jump down my throat, maybe talk for a while with your child-free friends.  And if you don’t have any child-free friends, maybe you should branch out a bit.)  I related my frustrations with this equation when I was a grad student (which wasn’t very long ago, and less long ago than any of the other panelists).

The panel lasted about an hour and a half and was largely driven by audience questions.  And one question about kids did come up (fair enough).  The answers chewed up a good 20 minutes.  And several attendees approached me after with their frustrations with this.

Now, I don’t bring this up to be critical of this particular panel (which very helpfully ended up spending most of the time on general advice – when and how to switch problems or advisors, how to balance our natural personalities with the aggression that we are told to hone, etc – advice that I was happier to hear than give!).  I bring this up because it keeps happening.

I just watched Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk and one line (her response to a young, single women talking about making choices in order to make room for children later in life) really hit this home for me: “You’re thinking about this way too early”.

So, my advice: let junior researchers lead the discussion.  They will ask if they want advice on that point.  If they aren’t thinking about it, don’t force the issue.

Oh, right.  A question you should never ask.  Unless you are very close with someone.  VERY CLOSE.  Don’t ask them if they are going to have kids, let alone when.  Particularly in a professional setting.  Try the “am I being sexist” test for this one.

[1] Note: the attendees of the Women in Theory workshop are Ph.D. students, largely in their first few years of graduate school.  I would put the average age in their early 20s.  The panelists and speakers were all (relatively) established researchers (professors, etc.).

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2 thoughts on “A question you shouldn’t ask

  1. Glencora Borradaile Post author

    This still holds true for me. I’ve had discussions about the need and good for women-only spaces, and I can understand that. But I think what makes this style of gender-equity work problematic is that it puts the focus on what women should do (Sandberg’s “Lean In” has this problem) as opposed to what the non-women should do. This is the same issue we have with any underrepresented group. If you are underrepresented, you have less power to change the situation.

    It’s time for the overrepresented to step up and help make the workplace better, call out the sexism, recognize their privilege and their implicit biases.

  2. Suresh Venkat

    This is admittedly a ‘weak sauce’ response, but I suspect that even in the overrepresented group there are many of us who’d like to balance out work and life better, but feel stymied (also) by the cultural expectations associated with us. It’s a different kind of pressure (the pressure to abandon work-life balance rather than a pressure to achieve it), but it does explain why discussions targeted at men (as well they should be) tend to go nowhere.

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