Talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

After one of my last posts, I got busy at my real job and slacked off on reading the comments at the end there. This weekend I was going back over the list, and catching up with what had been said … and I came upon this comment left by commenter KT:

I am a TT faculty, am a family-comes-first person and have been supportive for students and postdocs having problems. And I understand there is no good time to have a baby and it is not easy to wear many hats. BUT, I also think it is unfair for a TT faculty to support pregnancy and shortened work to take care of babies. TT are in the tough battle and all the lab member count, since the size of the lab is small. Losing one postdoc for 4 months for maternity leave and some decreased productivity for 1-2 years… This is a gigantic loss.

Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

Since I read this one, it has been bothering me. Let me be clear, it is not the first time that I’ve heard this kind of thing. Years ago I was at a seminar for women in science- and the presenter said something along the vein that choice projects would be taken away from the people who couldn’t devote the necessary time to them- and people with kids were explicitly mentioned.

Anyway- I’m getting away from the comment up there. I’m just going to take this apart one sentence at a time. First- I’m less interested in what people claim they are, and much more interested in how they act. Lots of people proclaim themselves to be family-friendly, hell- we’ve got a whole political party that has co-opted that particular mantra, but when push comes to shove it is really just empty chatter.  So, I see the proclamation up there in this comment- but the rest of the comment seems to me decidedly un-family supportive. Please remember, for the most part such comments, and the actions that can logically follow, affect the 50% of the population that actually bear the children.  And it is attitudes like this that cause women to run through the nearest exit from academic science.

Furthermore, working people from all walks of life and all different careers have kids! How is the situation of a TT faculty member losing a female lab member temporarily to maternity leave different from a small business owner (or any business for that matter) losing an employee to maternity leave?? We TT people are not unique in this burden. And I’m guessing that at some point in your career you have had, or will have some slacker student- who spends a ton of face time in the lab… but gets almost nothing done for whatever reason… totally unrelated to their childbearing status. How will you treat such a person… in relation to the super-productive postdoc who needs 12 weeks off to care for a child?  Is it FAIR that one of your projects be delayed because one of your lab members needs time off after child-birth (and these are almost exclusively women doing the extended leaves)??? Nope. Is life fair? Nope. Are us people who claim to be family friendly going to sacrifice a little bit to make the workplace more family friendly- PROBABLY, YES.

But it is this part of the comment that really made me sit up and swallow hard:

Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

Holy Cow. I’m normally pretty mild mannered- but this comment actually made me mad. I mean WHAT THE HELL!!  First, pregnancy is not always a choice. People have unprotected sex or birth control failures from time to time. These things happen, and assuming a ‘choice’ was made, and putting the blame on someone for being in a circumstance that might be temporarily inconvenient to you as the PI changes nothing and helps no one.

Secondly, I very much doubt that people who have this attitude are applying it equally to the men who work for them as to women who work for them (and it would be similarly disturbing if all people who had a normal life including children were discriminated against by employers… )- simply because comments about caring for babies that follow in the comment itself up there- and this disproportionately still falls on women.  Men have kids and families too…Perhaps folks with this attitude  don’t realize, although it seems bloody obvious to me, that comments like this are screamingly discriminatory toward women.

Third, you as the employer can have any ‘illegal’ or ‘politically incorrect’ feeling that you like. But, you had better learn to suppress those feelings, just like you can control all different kinds of urges, or you may find yourself the subject of a lawsuit. That lawsuit and it’s downstream events will probably cost you a lot more time, productivity, and damage to your career than doing the right thing in the first place.

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29 thoughts on “Talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

  1. There’s a story at my institution that one of the grand old professors had so terrified his students, that one of the students asked his advisor permission if he could get married. Apparently the professor thought about it and said “OK. Take the weekend. I’ll see you monday.”

    Of course this was a long time ago (1960s?) and both student and professor were male. But plus ca change?

  2. Ok, not to defend KT too vigorously, but the main point was that running a lab is more like a small business, which can’t really support the lost productivity of workers who take off many weeks, for whatever reason. That is why the FMLA doesn’t apply to small businesses (<50 employees I believe). PI's are in a tough spot because even though we are at a large institution, individual labs can take a serious hit from worker leave, to the point where you don't get grants, tenure, promotion, etc, much like a small business failing. So the effects aren't really temporary for the PI. I think there needs to be more support for faculty who actually 'walk the walk' from departments and administrators, and granting agencies. It's not up the PI alone to implement family-friendly policies.

  3. This is the insidious problem. To make an extreme metaphor out of it, it’s like saying “Some of my best friends are black…” and then still making comments that a lot of black people on welfare are just out for crack money.

    If we are going to change the face of science, PIs have to sack up about this. We have to get over this kneejerk fear of a loss of productivity and work with our staff to MAKE IT WORK while supporting them in these situations. But, as Neurowoman points out, departments and administrations need to sack up about supporting faculty to be ABLE to do it, too, without losing their chances on tenure.

  4. Neurowoman- Your point is well taken. I quite agree that there has to be more support (as far as I can tell there is none now) for family friendly policies- and departments, administrators, and granting agencies need to actually put their money where their mouths are.

  5. First of all, it is a basic human right to have children. And this decision should not be dependent on what kind of job one has.
    I find your comment on productivity the most important, – it should not be important how long somebody goes on maternity leave, what is important is how productive she is. And I see lots of my colleagues surfing facebook or other sites during the 8 hours I actually work at the office, and I do believe that it does equal out.
    What I still do not understand, – and maybe that is a very European perspective, – is why is it of any interest to anybody what I do in my free time? Whether I care for a baby or my sick, old mother or whether I spend every free minute windsurfing is none of my PIs business,- that is my private time.

  6. I appreciate KT’s honesty, and on one hand I see the point. It is hard for any employer to lose a productive employee for any length of time, no matter what the reason. On the other, I have to agree with Arlenna. I am reading a good book right now about the civil rights movement in 1960’s Mississippi. The scary thing is that this comment by KT reminded me of that book. In both cases I see a deep seated prejudice against a group of people, by another group of people who can’t even understand how their reasoning is flawed. Also, it reminds me of my six year old (whines) “But it’s not fair that my postdoc has to take maternity leave!”

    What I would like to point out to KT is that the student/post-doc is probably fully aware of the impact pregnancy and childbirth will have on her career, and probably is very worried about it. Instead of trying to hide any incorrect feelings in a delusional attempt to appear family friendly, perhaps KT should be honest: “Hey, that’s great- for you- but it will impact your productivity in this lab, so let’s find a way where we can give you the support you need while minimizing the impact on your momentum in lab.” As I’ve said before, we need to all understand that having children does impact your work, and we need to find a way to work around that.

  7. KTs comment is EXACTLY why I did not feel comfortable in my old PhDlab. Although everyone said the right things, the actions were totally different. I was made to feel as if my having a child was the wrong choice, that I “can not” be here to do the mouse work because of my child. I wasn’t even given the opportunity to try. As you know, new PhdLab is totally different, the attitude is how to we make this work? I’ve actually spoken to my PI about it, and her attitude is this is what we have to do to change things.

  8. I guess it goes with what another person stated in this thread “what I choose to do outside of the lab is my business” wheather it is hanging out with my child or reading a book…. The whole thing with post docs and “taking time off” is imho more about “how much time is really resonable to account to a post doc” since we all know that noone is really counting it to be a 40 hours work week as a post doc. Maybe that is part of the problem in here and not so much “the women giving birth and being gone for -gasp – 12 weeks”??

    I get the feeling that it is more “post doc equals no life outside of the lab” for some tt/PIs and then there is a larger issue than just kids. It’s the whole “are you really dedicated to Science”.

    Part of it is this idea that women should have babies and then “keep going as 20yrs college students” (as the same for men who are dads but should pursue silly hours anyway) and no life changes at all. And I guess it depends on how you divide the work load in the lab, if people can be gone for 4 months, since I have a hard time thinking anyone can’t be replaced (if only for a shorter time). Of course, it will be a timing thing too – there are times that are more “suitable” than others – but this means that it is even more important to be able to be open about the pregnancy thing since that makes it possible to PLAN the workload.

    …and I don’t even want to focus on the children and the female issue, I get angry about the fact that now when I don’t have kids it is viewed as I can work all the time since I don’t have a family (=life). I guess you can never win?!

  9. I mean, staying pregnant is a choice, if a woman has access to full reproductive medical services. Ultimately it should be a choice, even if access to an abortion is in reality unfortunately limited. (Getting pregnant exactly when you want to is, obviously, not at all something people have a lot of control over.)

    But otherwise I wholeheartedly agree with you. This is a problem with the system and how it awards funding and tenure, and not a problem to lay at the feet of those lazy women who take too much time off to have their stupid families and selfishly screw over their PIs.

  10. And then there is the flip side. My PI has said to me (currently child-free) on more than one occasion:

    “Well, you know, Bob has a family so I understand that he can’t put in the hours late at night or on weekends, but you don’t have kids so there’s no reason that you should be holding back.”

    WTF!?!? I have to get myself knocked-up in order to work normal hours!?!? Having kids is a choice. Not having kids is a choice. In either case, it’s nobody’s business but mine what I do with my non-working hours. Productivity is the end goal, so if I can work the same hours as Bob and get the same results then I should able to choose to do other things with my time (that don’t revolve around the “kids = get out of jail free” mentality).

    On the other hand, I don’t have to ask my PI for permission to take a vacation. He has explicitly stated that he knows that we more than make up in unpaid “overtime” the days beyond our allotted 2 weeks vacation that we occasionally take off. I hear this attitude is not common unfortunately.

    It comes down to this: trainees get paid crap. Most of us fill out time sheets to reflect a minority percentage of the actual amount of time that we put into this job. Yes, there are other benefits besides the paycheck. But the fact remains that most of us work more than we are paid to because we are investing in our own career. PIs like KT need to realize that many of us are essentially “volunteering” a large portion of our hours – at least that’s what our union would say if we had one. PIs do not own their trainees time, whether that be the 12 weeks following the birth of their children, or their weekends, or their evenings at home.

  11. Well. I have actually been in this situation, running a tiny lab on a shoestring, untenured, high expectations from dysfunctional department, blah blah blah, when my (then only) postdoc got pregnant. And I admit, I freaked out but IN THE PRIVACY OF MY OWN OFFICE WITH THE DOOR SHUT. But I went out of my way to be supportive because it was The Right Thing To Do and Benefits All of Society. But I don’t really buy the small lab=small business argument. Maternity leave is three months. You know when it is going to start and when it will end, and you can plan accordingly. What is the big fucking deal? Tenure takes six years. NSF target dates in my field are every 6-12 months. You can’t plan around three months?!

    Of course, I was blessed with one of those supremely organized and competent postdoc that everyone dreams of. But even slackers have a right to have kids and be treated fairly.

    As for the last line in that comment … even when people want to get pregnant, that does not mean that they can choose a convenient time (for them, for us) to get pregnant.

  12. Changing views takes a long time, and the onus lies with all parties (in order of most to least change needed):

    1. Institutions. My husband and I have been talking about starting a family for a while now. In one of these talks he informed me that he will get NO time off when we have kids — not even (officially) the day I go into labor. That’s abhorrent.

    2. PIs. Not being a TT faculty, I can only partially understand the pressure they are under. But here’s the thing. If you hire me, say as a 2-year post-doc and I have a baby, you lose me for 6 weeks. (I don’t know where these women are working who get 12!) That’s only about 5% of my two years, and about 2% of your 5-7 year tenure track. And I’m only one of your employees! It’s not as bad as it seems. It will not destroy the lab and keep you from getting tenure.

    3. Mothers. Show your PIs you are productive. I sit next to a peer whose attendance in the lab is superb. He’s never sick, he almost never comes in late or leaves early. However, he spends 20% of his time (at least) asleep at his desk or surfing the Internet. I guess that means I could have 2 babies in one year alone and still be as productive as he!

  13. Nice post. Thanks for deconstructing that so well, and glad to see people like Anonymous deal appropriately with pregnant post-doc, even if it freaked s/he out a little.

  14. There are two kinds of postdocs: the maniacs who will work 80+ hours per week regardless of external circumstances, and everyone else. The maniacs aren’t going to have kids, so no problem there. Every untenured prof should be so lucky to have a lab full of maniacs. For the everyone-else postdocs, having kids isn’t much of a performance hit, because they’ll put in their 40 hours and just reallocate time elsewhere. Again, no problem. If you run the kind of lab where a couple members having kids is the difference between grant and no grant, or tenure and no tenure, you run the kind of lab that’s destined to fold eventually anyway. No-one runs on the ragged edge of disaster long-term.

  15. @ Genomic Repairman: I once heard a PI say aloud, “You get paid to produce, not reproduce!”

    Ha! For some reason, my bargain basement salary has me laughing at this one, it’s so ridiculous. I’m actually not paid to do much of anything. 🙂

    @ AA: PIs do not own their trainees time, whether that be the 12 weeks following the birth of their children, or their weekends, or their evenings at home.

    Word, my sista!

    It is beyond me why many PIs and other employers have not clued into the fact that if you treat your employees well, your employees will love you back and do what they can to be productive little workers. Maybe you will have a few bad apples who take advantage, but by and large- the kind PI wins the prize.

  16. That comment still sticks in my craw.

    It would be so easy to extend the same arguments to female faculty: We are a small department. What if we hire that woman and she chooses to get pregnant? It is unfair to the rest of us who will have to cover her classes and service responsibilities. Losing one faculty member for three months would be a huge loss and [this definitely cinches it for me] I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

    Also easy to reword for female grad students.

  17. ScientistMother- That’s part of why I used this example. I find it not all that uncommon that people say all the things you want to hear about this issue, but when push comes to shove their actions don’t match.

    fia/chall/AA & Candid- Yes, totally agreed. What you do in your free time is your business not your employers. Kids or no kids.

    volcanista- That’s taking the conversation to a whole different place- when we start talking about whether one should choose to terminate a pregnancy for the sake of one’s career. I’m sure there will be lots of strong feelings about that on all sides- and I would find it very wrong if employers got involved in that decision.

    Anonymous- Let me say out loud- I’M WITH YOU 100%. This is exactly, dead on, 100% correct. It is all about planning. In my short TT career, we’ve had two babies in my lab, and are about to have a third. It’s all about planning.

    And I know that comment sticks in your craw. It sticks in mine big time. That’s why I posted. 🙂

    Whimple- I like your comment. I’ll also add I think that people do better science when they DON’T work like maniacs. This is because they have time to *THINK* about their data…look at the literature etc. I myself need time to ponder things project related. When I don’t get that time, I’m less productive in the traditional sense.

  18. I appreciate all of your comments. I regret that my words were too strong. I thank neurowoman for putting my point in much nicer words. Thanks.

    To be constructive, let me say that both sides, couples having and raising babies and PIs of their labs, need to put a lot of efforts to make it work. And it would be great if both sides put themselves into each others’ shoes to appreciate it.

    And finally, I want men to get more involved to get around it. If we compare men’s and women’s performances before and after giving a birth in general, unfortunately, men’s performances are much less affected than women’s. Thus, women may tend to choose family friendly labs while men may choose any labs. If husbands and wives are equally affected by it, this discussion would have never started.

  19. KT- Thanks for coming back and looking at the post and comments. I appreciated your comment because it gave me the spark to write about that ‘I’m family friendly, as long as no one in my lab actually has a baby’ attitude that I have seen elsewhere, and that I fear leads to some hiring discrimination against women.

    And, I quite agree with you- there should be room for BOTH parents to be equally involved in the birth and raising of children. I hope to see that in my lifetime. Furthermore, employee and employer should work together to plan projects for the least disruption at/around maternity leave… there is plenty of warning (usually) of an impending birth…

  20. No-one runs on the ragged edge of disaster long-term.

    Depends what you mean by “long” but I’ve seen some people do what looks to me like this for good bits of their career. 10 yrs easy, maybe 20.

  21. Depends what you mean by “long” but I’ve seen some people do what looks to me like this for good bits of their career. 10 yrs easy, maybe 20.

    Hope for us all then. 🙂

  22. I know that you touched on this in your post, but I just had to put my two cents in. Yes, taking time out of the lab for maternity leave might interrupt productivity. The key here being that there was productivity to interrupt.
    In my short experience, people that are motivated and career oriented get quite a bit done before they take maternity leave and when appropriate have left things so well organized that taking care of a few things for them while they are gone almost took no time from mine or anyone else’s schedule. Those who have not been motivated or career oriented and took maternity leave pretty much got the same amount of crap accomplished while on maternity leave as off, which was absolutely nothing. It’s the same for people who aren’t in the throws of reproducing. Lazy unproductive lab members don’t get much done no matter how much time they spend in the lab.

  23. I had the same experience as Anonymous, but with a different outcome. My first postdoc was pregnant when I hired her, though she didn’t tell me at the time. I also freaked out with the door closed, and then also did all the right things–arranging for 3 months leave (she would not take less), keeping her project moving while she was on leave, and letting her work part time on return. Then, two weeks after returning, she quit because she couldn’t keep things together at home and in lab. I do know that keeping women in science is absolutely predicated on making it possible to combine family and academia, and keeping women in science is honestly very important to me. As such I know that I just have to swallow hard and move on. But the amount of time and money I wasted doing the right thing is really embittering and though I know I must, I am having trouble keeping things cool as I interview for new postdocs. I am only in my second year on the TT and this situation is really hard.

  24. Maria- I appreciate your honesty about your experience. There are always going to be a certain proportion of women in every profession who, once that baby is born- realize that their priorities are elsewhere- and they no longer want to work. In defense of your former post-doc, and as someone who has two kids myself- it is just impossible to know this in advance. As a thought experiment- imagine yourself hiring a man, who after 6 months is hospitalized for manic-depression- and then realizes he can’t hold down the job/or do the job you expect, despite his best efforts. Would you be bitter about that experience as his boss?

    What I’m trying to say is this: Stuff happens. It happens all the time, and for whatever reason and regardless of gender. I think the best we can do is try to roll with it. There is nothing that says that you shouldn’t feel the way you do about it- but I just try to do the best I can with the opportunities/people/projects I have, and hope for the best.

    I know that sounds corny, I know.

  25. drdrA, I really appreciate what you are saying, and I don’t think it’s corny. Thank you for putting things into that perspective; I know you are right. Lost opportunities are a dime a dozen in this field and I guess it’s easier to dwell on the ones you feel like you can blame on someone else!

  26. Nevertheless, Maria has a valid point. She did the right thing and got badly burned because of it. This is an opportunity for her institution to step up to the plate and refund the lost startup cash to her and also to extend her tenure clock by a suitable amount as compensation. If institutions were willing to bear this risk instead of leaving it all on the backs of vulnerable (non-tenured) individuals, there’d be a lot less hesitation (the illegality of it notwithstanding) to hire women in prime childbearing years.

  27. Pingback: Buffering the Effect of Pregnancy on the PI « Blue Lab Coats

  28. oi ola tudo bem com voce bijinhos de voce loucas ta doidinha para mim lauro de voce
    fugiu para não mim ver
    ta bom comvoce de mim não vai sai nanda
    da minha boca emtão não me fale

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