Father, Scientist…Mentor

January 28, 2008

It is not news to observe that child issues cause women scientists some considerable career anxiety. When to tell the lab or the PI that you are pregnant? Should you wait to start “trying” until after the job interviews? Until after tenure so as to be taken as a “serious” scientist? How many children are “allowable”? How many pictures of the little darlin’s can go over the bench? Should the “balance” of lab and child rearing be kept as opaque as possible from one’s lab?
In contrast men have a much greater ability to conceal their “dad”-ness from their labs. They should not do so.
The father/PI who is seriously concerned about gender equity in science will go out of his way to exhibit his status. If you agree, there is no need to read below the fold.

The issue goes well beyond the confines of the day job, naturally. In fact the triggering motivation for this post was actually an entry from Blue Gal entitled “This is not a mommy blog, really“. The point isn’t only that there are such things as “mommy blogs”, nor that they are so common. Think about the number of overtly “dad” blogs you read.
I will not pretend my blog reading is representative of much other than my various interests, biases and plain chance of searching. Still. One can rattle off the examples. From my internal daily blogroll alone there is the inestimable Dr. Free-Ride and her Sprogs, ScienceWoman and Minnow, even the curmudgeonly Female Science Professor occasionally has a mommy post.
On the “dad” side, there is, of course, the Dean of academic dad-blogging. If I’m not mistaken the good Professor Myers is inordinately proud of his chip off the old blog, but she is hardly a recurring feature. And there is the occasional reference from the Munger, Pere. There are quite a few blogs that I read from men, apparently of sufficient age and career stability that they might be dads…or might not. Certainly one cannot determine this save from a very close reading of their blogging, if at all.
You might ask yourself, DearReader, in your own professional interactions are you more casually aware of the parental status of men or women?
One of the more powerfully formative mentors in YHNs training history was someone who visibly rejected the “mentor” role. He seemed to have an aversion to the sort of responsibility for someone else’s career that mentor implies and yet he still provided invaluable advice and perspective that I’ve used overtly in my own career. How so?
It is the power of the example. There were several areas in which I picked up either positive (“gee, that seems useful”) or negative (“not gonna go there“) PI patterns from this person. One of the former was this guy’s role as father and scientist. Whenever one had to find this PI, if he wasn’t around because of father duties his whole lab knew about it. “Oh, he’s at Opening Day.” or “He had a sick kid today, he’ll be back later”. or “He’s taking his kid to [SportingActivityX]”. This guy has a perfectly viable career with nice pubs, great NIH grant support, always seems to have at least 4-5 postdocs and a similar number of techs, serves study sections, organizes symposia, etc. In short, he’s well respected and does not appear to have paid any obvious sort of career price to date. This had a great impact on YHN as I was transitioning both as PI and father.
The power of this example for me was basically “Screw it, if he doesn’t worry about being known at work as a guy who takes his role as father seriously then I’m not going to worry about it either”. And I basically never worried about this sort of thing again. Now, I’m not going to claim that this is necessarily the smart thing to do, career-wise. The whole point here is an acknowledgment that there are people sitting in judgment of your career who do see too much parental-ness as being an indicator that you are not “serious” about science. But it is worth taking this rather minor risk for the greater good. After all, many of you have (or will have) female spouses with aspiration to scientific careers, no?
So here are some thoughts on what you male PIs and Professors who also happen to be dads should be doing. It is your responsibility to sent a comfortable working environment, is it not? And a real leader leads from the front, no? So step up.
Let them know you are expecting. IME the whole “I’ll tell them just barely before I can’t pull off the loose-labcoat anymore” thing is a big consideration for pregnant women. Unless your wife habituates your office place, your co-workers might be in the dark until you email the announcement. (Tell me you at least do that much, right?). Go ahead and leak the info at your workplace whenever your wife tells her workplace.
Be frank and open about bailing for “dad stuff”. When you have to leave at 1pm to pick up a sick kid from daycare it is OK to say so to your lab or admin. Setting meetings with colleagues? Go ahead and say the reason you can’t meet past 4 some day is because that is your day to take the early shift.
Talk “mommy” shop. Guess what? You don’t have to avert yourself from the conversation, yes even if it is about the trials of “pumping”. I mean after all your wife deals with this crap at work right? Pass her tips along. Engage. Let ’em know you agree it is stupid that the new “postdoc” offices don’t have doors, nevermind locking ones (TrueStory). Recommend daycares.
Leave your screen saver set to your archive of pictures of the munchkins. There was discussion on this a fair while ago somewhere which has fallen in my memory hole. Any readers recall? [Update 1/29/08: Found it. It was over on Female Science Professor]

11 Responses to “Father, Scientist…Mentor”

  1. Tree Fish Says:

    Bravo, DM.
    I, too, have benefited tremendously from an advisor who wasn’t afraid to leave lab in mid-morning to see one of his kids’ plays; or dance recitals. He sits on study sections and editorial boards, organizes symposia, has plenty of research dough, and travels a lot giving seminars.
    You know what he does when he’s been travelling at conferences or seminars? He takes a day or two off to spend with the Fam to make up for his travels. He justs keeps his head down and works like a fiend when he’s in. It got him early tenure!
    More trainees need to be transparent about their parental responsibilities, and preferences for being a good mom or dad. And more PIs need to embrace that important aspect of their trainees’ lives. Even the childless (or disgruntled, divorced PIs) should humble themselves and encourage their people to commit to the greater good of their own budding family. I actually know of a PI who was miffed that a friend of mine was accompanying the spouse to their child’s ‘first shots’. “Why don’t you let the women do the women stuff,” is what the PI asked. Luckily, these dinosaurs are emeritizing quickly.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    “emeritizing”. LOVE it.


  3. I especially like the 2nd and 3rd suggestions; will have to try to spread them around, here.
    I was at the Society of Bricklayers Engineers & etc. lately, at a panel on family issues for researchers. My advisor (65 year old white guy, stay at home wife, 2.5 children) got up and said in front of 200 people that family was the most important thing and one should never compromise on it and he was so glad he’d missed meeting X to see his shrimp of a son win the 7th grade cross country meet in the rain and no amount of research could substitute for that.
    I nearly fell out of my chair. I fully believe that *he* did this for his children, but almost nobody in my lab has children… because if we left at 3 to pick up the kiddo, that would be unacceptable. It’s a peculiar situation.
    On the bright side, every single person in the lab Dr. S is going to has a kid or kids. Apparently the PI is good with people having, y’know, ‘lives’.


  4. Luna_the_cat Says:

    I *like* you. Bravo for this, and thanks.


  5. Ewan Says:

    Colour me amused. The recent slew of job talks had my 5 year-old (albeit at age 2) in slides 2 and 3. Honestly never occurred to me that this might have any merit or demerit other than that involved in getting the initial laugh.
    [I also found it impossible to hide the fact that yes, I’m married, and yes, she has a job – not that I would want to: if some place is going to ding me for having a family, well, too bad.]
    Incidentally, I fully endorse everything you said on R01s vs R21s etc. In some cases – e.g. NIDDK, which just funded my first R01 – we’re being explicitly discouraged from the smaller grants on grounds of return per effort. And everything I hear confirms the ‘not getting it on the first submission regardless’ gossip. In my case, at least, being scrupulously careful to respond to the reviews was clearly a key factor in getting funded at A1.


  6. Great timing on this post – I just brought in a new crayon drawing from my kid to put up on the office wall and I’ve already had to stay home with her once this week for a sick day while Mom had to be at work.
    The personal info on the first page of my CV has my wife’s name and her academic affiliations (more lofty than my own) as well as my daughter’s name and birthdate – implicit in listing this information is that current and future employers know I’m a father of a young kid and husband of an accomplished academician with the need to share in family responsibilities. As fellow junior and mid-career faculty with similar situations move into positions of leadership, I should hope that we all, men and women, are given the flexibility to accommodate issues that come up during “normal working hours.”
    I wrote the following somewhere but can’t remember if it was a post or someone’s comment thread: I would submit that being a good father also supports the cause of women in science and medicine. Many of us marry fellow professionals in fields similar to ours and the academic advancement of our spouses is as important as (if not more) than our own. Beyond my own personal joys of having a family, I feel good that the flexibility in my position contributes to my wife’s career success.


  7. PhysioProf Says:

    As fellow junior and mid-career faculty with similar situations move into positions of leadership, I should hope that we all, men and women, are given the flexibility to accommodate issues that come up during “normal working hours.”

    I make it clear to all of the people in my lab that I don’t care what time you come in, what time you leave, how many days off you take, or when they are, so long as you work your fucking ass off–experimentally and conceptually and maintain long-term sustained scientific productivity. I don’t want or need to know why you come and go as you do, so long as you are productive. Kids, cribbage, swinging sex orgies, I really don’t give a shit; it’s none of my business.
    This approach seems to work quite well for people motivated by at minimum a good-faith desire to perform well. Those that are motivated by something less than that–“clock punchers”–do not last long in my lab.
    And let’s face it, as faculty this is how we are routinely treated by our superiors, and we fucking love it! It is perhaps the single greatest perk of academia. It is cruel and counter-productive to deny this perk to those below us in the hierarchy.


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    “The personal info on the first page of my CV has my wife’s name and her academic affiliations (more lofty than my own) as well as my daughter’s name and birthdate”
    Although this may appear to contrast with my main point, DON’T do this. No personal stuff on the CV! This is most certainly not the “getting to know you personally” document.
    Maybe, just maybe, this can be on the Fullest of Monty CVs you send when you have been invited to a seminar or when someone is putting you up for an award.
    Other than that, not on your website, not with your application for job or grant, in short, no.


  9. PhysioProf Says:

    I feel the same visceral “Nooooo!!!!!!!” in reaction to personal information on a CV. But I think we should be open to exploring the possibility that this visceral reaction is really a manifestation of male privilege in the scientific context.
    The reason it “shouldn’t be relevant” could have its historical origins in the fact that, until relatively recently, virtually all scientists were men with women at home to take care of everything other than their science.


  10. Interesting, gents. I went and checked back through my CV files (back to the ones chiseled on stone tablets) and learned that I started putting the personal info on the one required of me by the format of the university where I held my first faculty position. It was the version that was used for appointment, promotion, and tenure within the university system and I just tended to continue keeping my spousal/family affiliations on there since that was the monster version required for most of my activities.
    The fact that you each reacted so emphatically in the negative makes me wonder if I’m really stupid or if convention varies by university and/or field. Might make for a good blog post.


  11. Schlupp Says:

    PhysioProf, your visceral reaction about personal information on CVs is right, I think. In continental Europe, such information is still considered essential on CVs, and while using it to discriminate against people might be forbidden, it’s not considered a VERY bad thing to do. People can openly admit to doing it, and other people will not think the worse of them. (A quote I once heard: “She doesn’t need the professorship, because her husband has a good job.”)
    I really think that the US is way ahead of Europe in this point, but I am not sure it is quite time to put such information back on CVs.


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