Would part-time science help?

Pita Enriquez Harris enriquez at sable.ox.ac.uk
Wed Dec 6 07:27:56 EST 1995

Beth said;

>   This whole discussion has really struck a chord with me.
>   I recently stepped down from a (more-than) full time job as a faculty
> member (after the birth of my daughter rather radically re-arranged my
> priorities) and am now working part-time in a "hybrid" job.  

This sounds like a truly realistic solution. As I see it, the truth of 
the matter is that even when there's just one partner working as hard as 
you need to to be successful in science, that person will suffer enough 
from stress and will never be able to do enough.  Double that and throw 
in children and you have the makings of a really difficult lifestyle. I 
have no doubts that it CAN be done and I even know several couples who do 
it. It isn't easy though and one thing it does seem to demand is that you 
give up everything else in life except work and ferrying children around.

The problem that I think many people (mostly women with kids, I guess, 
but I don't want it to sound too exclusive a problem) are experiencing is 
that there is precious little middle ground. You either do science all 
out and take the consequences (no kids, or exhaustion/burnout, plus or minus 
higher divorce rates) of success or else you do the 'honourable' thing and 
Leave Science.

Is there a case to campaign for a middle ground? Time out allowed for 
child rearing, job sharing and part-timing are all schemes which are used 
by Big Business. Of course it means that women who leave the well-beaten 
career path will ultimately suffer a drop in promotion prospects. But 
they get to keep their jobs at least, and although they slow down in 
their progress, they usually manage to maintain some forward momentum.  

I think Beth's position sounds great!

> This has meant more time to spend
> with my family 
> The extra time is certainly
> making it easier to find the patience to deal with 2-yr old behavior ("Do
> it MYSELF mommy", tantrums and "more story please" can eat up LOTS of
> time).

Gosh, yes. I would say that 80% of all rows I have with my three-year old 
stem from time pressures. Little kids just don't know about hurrying. It 
seems terribly hard on them to introduce them to the harsh realities of 
life vis-a-vie ALWAYS being in a mad rush from as young as 3 months old. 
Some might say that its good for them to learn this lesson as young as 
possible but then I doubt if we any of us on this list had such an 
experience as kiddies. Can anyone admit to never being able to take it 
easy in the mornings, never being able to lie in, laze around with mom, 
just make up what to do with the day, in those precious years of freedom 
before school?  I wonder; what kind of a generation are we breeding, we 
who place our kids in daycare? There are doubtless many advantages, but 
one thing is certain: these kids will never know the kind of freedom 
which we took for granted.

Back to Beth,

>   I feel very lucky.  I know that positions such as this are very hard to
> find.  Even though my job switch meant taking a pay decrease & a decrease
> in official "status", I'm still doing things I enjoy and I'm working with
> people who respect me, irrespective of my "title".

The whole 'status' problem. As a woman 'at home' you can be made to feel 
your status is zip, unless you are clearly on some sort of maternity 
leave and you are always talking about going back to work. At least among 
the women-at-home you have status if you are being a 'proper mum'. But 
part-timers have it worst; they are perceived to be part-timers at both jobs!

Incidentally, in England at least, the latest chic is to be a 
stay-at-home mum. It is the latest status symbol amongst the upper 
middles and upper classes. You can't open Harpers+Queen or Tatler without 
some ex-company director telling you how rewarding her life is since she 
jacked in her job and became a fulltime chauffeur to her kids, ferrying 
them around all the cool schools and music lessons of London's posh suburbs.
It is called being 'Maternally Correct'.

Do I stick my neck out when I venture to say that I think most scientists 
are essentially, hobbyists? We do what we do for the love of it, the fun, 
not the money (hah!), security or status. But there's not a lot of room 
for scientists who don't at least pretend of running their own lab. Which 
is dumb really, because, look at the system: its a pyramid. It is just 
NOT possible for all those who are now post-docs to become group leaders, 
unless the subject continues to expand forever. So who's going to be 
first in line to jump off? Some would say; the bad scientists, those who 
just can't cut it. I say; anyone who can think of something 
better to do. So, for a women with kids, that could be a more homebased 
career, or whatever. When companies offer voluntary redundancies, they 
often find to their dismay that its their best people who leave; these 
are the ones with the imagination and drive to find another position. 

The people who fund science may like to think that by offering an 
continually competitive and family-unsupportive environment they will 
ensure that the field is always dominated by the thrusting and ambitious 
who, naturally, make the best scientists. I don't myself quite see what 
how these attributes necessarily help one to be a better scientist. But 
that is what is selected for. And the bright, competent scientist who 
cares about his/her sanity and his/her family's and cuts down his/her 
hours or even leaves for a less exploitative career? Well, clearly, they 
were never well suited to science.

There are surely enough of us who want don't want to be ego-maniacs, who 
want a normal life, with time for ourselves and our kids, to pressurise the 
various interested parties into accepting a change in the way scientist 
live. Why SHOULD we have to give up our work? Why SHOULD we allow the 
field to be dominated by the kind of people we all know run things? Why 
SHOULD we have to become like that if we want to succeed?

(Because that's life? Because that's the way it is? Once they said the 
same about slavery.)


Dr. Pita Enriquez Harris           "Waste no more time arguing what a
Nuffield Department of Medicine           good man should be.  Be one."
Oxford Radcliffe Hospital                                  Marcus Aurelius

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