Tuesday, April 26th 2011

#scimom and me

DSC03265I’ve been thinking on this #scimom meme for some time. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I could write that would be a useful or thoughtful contribution, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty comfortable mixing personal stories in with the science I write about on this blog. Heck, I’ve even shared my birth experience for all to read!

But writing directly on the intersection of science and mothering? That is somehow a much more frightening prospect, even though I am in a friendly discipline. It is hard to face the reality that my colleagues respect my reproductive decisions, in the historical context where that has not always been the case in academia, and in the personal context where my decisions are judged and challenged by others all the time, even if they aren’t colleagues: first because I am a woman, then because I was pregnant, and now because I am a mother.

So, I want to tell you two things: how I make my life work, and why I do it at all.

Putting in the time
I get asked a lot how I balance my life, how I get any sleep, how I have a tenure track job and a blog and am an amateur athlete and mother all at the same time. The answer is that balance is not attainable, but that I’m really happy exactly as things are.

The supermagical key to being a mother and an academic scientist is: you need to devote a lot of time to both. As romantic and wonderful as it sounds to try to do both at the same time, it almost never works. When young women ask me how I do it all, I answer that the two keys for success are social support and full time childcare. For me, that means a supportive partner and forty-five hours a week of childcare outside of my home.

Usually, the woman asking pauses. I can see the barely masked horror on her face as she realizes that I don’t have a happy existence where I do puzzles with my daughter with one hand while tapping at my laptop with the other. I look like a nice enough person, so she rejects what I’ve told her — that my child is out of my sight most of the work week — and tries again. “Okay, but really, how do you do it?” And I reply that I need social support and full time childcare. This is how I address the can’t-be-in-two-places-at-once problem. Some hours I do the puzzles, other hours I do the writing. I almost never mix the two.

At the beginning of each semester, my husband and I sit down with our schedules: our regular faculty meeting times, lab meetings, office hours, teaching hours, and how much time we want to exercise. We also look at our daughter’s schedule, since she has swimming twice a week. Then we slowly work out an equitable arrangement of pickups and drop-offs that we stick to, with the closest thing we can approximate to religious fervor, for the whole semester. I no longer go out for social coffees or lunches and stay at my desk the entire day (though at least I am standing). When our daughter goes to sleep, I often work for a few hours, though I certainly don’t do this every night unless I have a major deadline approaching. This is the reality of my job if I want to be a mom and academic.

Can you be a scientist and mom if you don’t have social support and full time childcare? Yes, though I would contend you need at least one of the two. And here’s why: I need a supportive partner because, when the mommy guilt kicks in, he is the one who encourages me to go to the extra team practice, or stay the extra hour at work I need to hit my deadline. He is the one who reminds me that he wants a close relationship with our daughter, too, so bugger off and let him cuddle her for once. You don’t need a partner to do these things for you, but you do probably need someone to hold the right perspective for you in those moments you feel crazy.

And I need the full time childcare because this whole idea that you can get all your work done during naps, or every night once your kid goes down, is a fantasy we need to stop entertaining. Just because our job is flexible doesn’t mean it can fit into fewer hours unless you, like Hermione Granger, got special permission to use a Time-Turner. And while this job doesn’t necessarily require a sixty hour workweek, it does require at least forty. So if you don’t have at least forty kid-free hours a week you will not make adequate progress.

Why I do this
I enjoy my job. I even love it. But I love it because I made it a job that I wanted. In its worst moments I am still filling out too much paperwork, dealing with too much bureaucracy, or student cheating, or people who do not appreciate the contributions one makes to the discipline by, say, blogging or teaching.

But this job’s best moments far outweigh the worst, and if I didn’t feel that way, I would find something else to do. So far, in this job I have gotten to pursue the research agenda I find the most interesting, which has had me pursuing new methodologies, new areas of study, and new ways of thinking about female physiology and health in a way I find exciting on a daily basis. I have been able to effectively mentor about a dozen undergrads and several grad students. I have created learning environments that make me proud to teach in a university setting. And I have been able to put on my ranty pants when it comes to evolutionary psychology.

I am going to tell you a secret. I do this job, I am this kind of person, because I want to be a role model for other young women, that they can have jobs and have kids and still have other things going on in their lives.

But really, most of all, I do this for my own daughter, far more than for any of you reading today.

I do this so that when my daughter plays house with her friends, she introduces the idea that the Daddy does the dishes, or puts the baby to sleep. Already my daughter likes to play gym or office as well as house. That’s not to delegitimize parenting and domestic work, but to simply place it alongside the other activities people do. None of these activities should be particularly privileged above each other as being more feminine, OR more important.

_MDF7458.jpgI do this so that she has a role model when her first teacher says girls just aren’t as good at math. I want her to remember that Mommy and Daddy do science every day, and that that science requires a lot of math.

Finally, I do this so that she has a role model to hold on to when her first classmate says that only boys are good at sports. I want her to remember that Mommy is the one with the big muscles in that moment, not only so that she can have big muscles one day but so that she knows I can kick that kid’s ass.

Being a #scimom
This #scimom meme is compelling for all sorts of reasons. I hope it will make scientist mothers less invisible, and de-scrutinize women’s decisions, whatever they may be. I’ve said before that there are ways in which women are conditioned to be risk-averse over the course of their lives, and a lot of this has to do with the scrutiny, the drama, the push and pull of differing expectations on our time, our lives, and our bodies.

There are external factors that need to be fixed like maternal leave, and people that need gentle reminders about their implicit biases. And there are changes that women need to make within, where they work to operate against their internalized sexism. These battles feel especially public, and make me at least feel especially vulnerable, as a working mother. That’s why this is all so hard to talk about.

Women are incredibly powerful, we just don’t act like it often enough. Perhaps the #scimom meme will contradict the risk aversion and provide us with the courage to gang up on the problems of the world. This story on Michelle Bachelet has been on my mind ever since I read it last week. Read about Bachelet, and think on her life and what she is trying to accomplish right now. She knows it takes women to create a revolution. Let’s move things along.

Thursday, February 10th 2011

Who are you and what are you doing here? The results

National Women's Day

Thanks to Ed Yong and a number of other very smart people, I was inspired after Science Online 2011 to perform a survey of my readers to figure out who comes here, why they do, and what they’d like to see more of. I enjoy engaging with other science writers, bloggers, and fellow anthropologists, really I do. But I hoped to gain some insight into how I might reach an even broader audience, to increase awareness of the kinds of science I do and that I find interesting. There are political ramifications to having a lay population completely unaware of the basic functioning of the female body, particularly around reproduction, when we have so many strong feelings about it. Feelings will always win in a one-sided fight: put it up against evidence, though, and at least some people will start to operate more rationally.

Science Online 2011 taught me a few other things in terms of how to reach that audience. By bringing in a personal element, showing enthusiasm, or giving the reader more things to look at than a wall of text, I could invite different kinds of people in. As everyone now knows, you can try DMing Ed Yong (hee hee, sorry Ed!). I tried to do those things in subsequent posts. And so, this happened:

Figure 1. My hits from the first day of #scio11 to yesterday. Eep.

My survey went from the 17th of January until the 21st or so; I stopped at sixty respondents. As you might imagine, my readership has changed.

That said, I think I learned a lot from the survey, so I want to share it with you and see if we can broaden the conversation.

Who are you?

The people who filled out my survey were about my age, were my ethnicity (European), and were mostly women (I suspect the f:m ratio would have been even higher if I hadn’t taunted Twitter at one point that the female respondents were beating the males). Here are the graphs (notice that the bars/pie slices represent absolute numbers of respondents, and percentages are listed next to each choice):

I regret the way I wrote the ethnicity question. I was trying to figure out how to ask people’s ethnicity from a more global perspective — that is, I couldn’t exactly write European-American, African-American, etc, because I have readers from other countries. These ethnicities also mean something very different depending on where you live. This led to confusion in almost ten respondents, many of whom were white but not all, who just put in the “other” section that they were white/black/mixed race/etc.

Two last questions in this section were about the respondent’s education and vocation. Here is what I got.

A full third of respondents have PhDs. Damn, people. But I was pleased to see at least a handful of folks that were still in college (and I hope desperately that they aren’t just my current semester of students!).

So… I guess I and my doppelgangers read my blog. This demonstrates a few important things:

  • People read people who are like them.
  • If you want people who are not like you to read your blog, you probably have to step out of your comfort zone.

This is significant for a number of reasons. More prominent women sciencebloggers, for instance, likely means more female readers. Same goes with more sciencebloggers of color, of different sexualities, different physical capabilities, different countries, different ages. And since sciencebloggers can draw people into science, can excite them, inspire them to stay when they are feeling scared, and otherwise mentor them, having broader representation in scienceblogging is a Very Good Thing.

Conversely, if I want to reach something other than the white-female-straight-middle-class-academic audience, I need to be doing something different than what I’m doing right now. Some of that lies in promotion and marketing, but more of that likely has to do with voice, style and content.

What do you want from me?

Most of this section of the survey was freeform response, but I did have a few graphable questions.

What I find interesting here is that readers mostly want to read about the life of a scientist stuff (there are many women sciencebloggers who do this more regularly and eloquently than me), and more plain-old anthropology. Ladybusiness, reproductive choice, women’s reproduction, not nearly so much.

On the one hand, I think I would like to expand my writing a bit to try to write posts that have an anthropological perspective and broad appeal. On the other, if ladybusiness isn’t your top priority, readers, you don’t know what you’re missing!

I’d like to think that’s what I demonstrated last week with my iron-deficiency anemia post. If I weren’t scrabbling for tenure I could probably write a post a week on anthropological perspectives on women’s health like that post. Men and women commented on, and wrote on, that post. It made it to reddit, a few great feminism blogs, and lots of other non-science individual bloggers and livejournalers.

So ladybusiness is here to stay, but I am going to try to expand my reach. Anthropology is a discipline most don’t get in high school, so most people know next to nothing about it. It would be a great thing if I could expose more people to how cool the field can be.

What you had to say

I had two open-response questions, one on how I could attract more laypeople, and another that was just open for questions and comments. For the first question, you said:

  • Explain more terms, go for a less scholarly tone.
  • Many of you found me through Twitter, so continue using that medium.
  • Try for less of a wall of text (break it up, use pictures, etc).
  • Use more keywords so they get Googled.
  • Write “basics” posts that can be referred to again and again by laypeople, teachers and students.
  • Use surveys and other interactive widgets.

For the second, mostly you just said really nice things. Several women in academic positions more junior than me said they read me to stick with academia. I wanted to share just one quote, because it demonstrates what I’m aiming for, even if I don’t really think I’m there yet (but thank you!):

“…I really enjoy [your blog], and thank you for being one of the voices that makes ongoing work in science into something I feel I can read and follow, rather than some impenetrable ivory tower only accessible through poor mainstream media interpretation. (Even laypeople get tired of saying “They did a study! You know, the ‘they’ that ‘does studies,’ whoever ‘they’ are.”) The perspective on women’s issues is a particular bonus as well.”

I think those of us who want to write for a broader audience, if we can inspire this feeling in our readers, even some of the time, we’re doing well.

And finally, what I want from you

I didn’t write this post to inspire a conversation just about why you read my blog: I don’t need more of a lovefest and feel a little like I’ve reached Internet Saturation anyway! But I’d like to know:

  • Why do you come here?
  • Why do you read any science blog?
  • How do you think we can get your friends to read us too?

If we could inspire people to reach for other connections, with material and people they don’t know, instead of the zone of comfort they do know, it would be a marvelous thing.