This is part three in my three-part series on being a woman in a male-dominated profession. See here for a post musing about why some fields are still so male-dominated, and here for what I see as a welcome change in the profession. This post is about a part of the field that needs work. And that is the attitude toward motherhood. Not parenthood, motherhood.
Before I became a mother, I tended to think philosophy wasn’t really as sexist as all that. Sure, there are leches and old-fashioned jerks. But really, I didn’t see it as a major impediment to my career aspirations. A minor one, but not the major one that women of bygone eras were forced to confront.
Then I became a mom. I no longer think sexism is a minor issue.
There is an interesting control in this case. My husband is in my department and at my exact level. Not coincidentally, he had his kids exactly when I had mine. I have had repeated questions and comments about whether I can finish my dissertation with all I have going on, whether I’m going to stay in the profession, whether I am really serious about the profession. These questions and comments have been to my face and behind my back. They have been made by males and females. No one, not even once, has ever asked my husband anything remotely like this. The fact that one of my kids has severe disabilities compounds the problem, and the fact that I went and had another kid after the disabled one – well, then it’s obvious I don’t care about my job.
There is implicit bias against women in general. I think, however, that people in the field have taken steps to try and overcome that bias. These are sometimes awkward stop-gaps, but they have addressed the issue somewhat. There is more specifically implicit bias against mothers. Anything that indicates motherhood on a CV makes you less likely to get hired. There’s actually a bias for fathers. But there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much awareness of the issue nor attempts to address it, the way there is with sexism in general.
Here’s what drives me nuts about this. It is assumed that my children, and especially my kid with special needs, are nothing but dead weights and distractions from my aspirations. That’s not how I see it at all. There’s no question that I have less time than I used to. But that has made me better at managing my time.
In terms of spending time with my kids, academia is wonderful. It gives much more flexibility than other jobs. If I had had a regular 9 to 5 job when I had my special needs kid, I almost certainly would have had to quit it. He has doctor’s appointments that take up half days on average three times a month. He averages a surgical procedure every six months. He has 10 hours of therapies per week. Because I can work early mornings and late at night for teaching prep, grading, and research, though, and don’t have to be on campus full-time, I’ve been able to work and take care of my kid. There are people without children who have been in grad school longer than I will have been. I look around my department, and I don’t see that the people without kids are more productive on the whole than those with kids – perhaps with the exception of the first year or two after having kids.
Here’s what drives me even nuts-er. I haven’t just managed having kids. It’s not the case that academia is good for being a parent, but not vice versa. I think being a mom has made me a better philosopher and a better teacher. As a teacher, it has made me more patient, and more apt to put myself in the mind of someone not fully mature. As a philosopher, they have influenced me. I don’t know how many times I’ve used an example or counterexample in a paper that was inspired, however indirectly, by my kids. One of my areas of specialization is philosophy of mind, and seeing developmental psychology close up sheds light on issues of innateness and cognition more generally. My special needs kid has been especially revealing in that regard. I see development occur in such slow motion that I understand it entirely differently. I have much clearer concept of what abilities are encapsulated from which other abilities, and what is required for certain achievements. Plus, he’s forced me to rethink my views on certain ethical issues, personhood, autonomy, happiness and well-being.
So I now have a different perspective on those things from someone who never had kids, and I think it’s actually a potentially valuable contribution to the field. So it’s especially annoying that motherhood is seen only as an impediment, when I think it has been a boon. I’m not sure how well that generalizes to other professions, but I think there are probably many others where parenting could be an actual benefit. Here’s hoping that more people start to see it that way.