Repost: Father, Scientist...Mentor

Internet random walk had me returning to this post for some reason recently. It wasn't Abel Pharmboy's excellent post on the women in his life, although that is clearly related. I did have the thought "I've only written one post tagged with methamphetamine? Really?" at one point along the stroll. Anyway.....
This was originally posted on 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]

10 responses so far

  • AJ Milne says:

    Moreover, I don't think they're nuts for thinking differently...

    Ah yes, so very charitable of him...
    (Of course, Keynesianism, for all the questions it does pose, also involves relatively few talking snakes...)

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    You might ask yourself, DearReader, in your own professional interactions are you more casually aware of the parental status of men or women?

    No two ways about it, the dudes are dads and the the ladies are "don't ask." The casual dude-talk here is about 30% kids and family, about 40% work-bitching, maybe 20% politics, and maye 10% sports. The only way we know about most womens' family is when she's conspicuously pregnant or out on maternity leave; otherwise they mostly keep quiet about it.
    Part of that is that the whole "reproduce or don't reproduce" subject is professionally touchy for the women; it's a much less loaded subject for the guys.

  • [redacted for professional reasons] says:

    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.
    This only applies to students, post-docs and other underlings, of course. Even the most junior of tenured faculty can cheerfully use their parental status as an excuse to disappear at any time, blow off important meetings, or just never show up for weeks at a time. Let alone when their child needs to do a science fair project and suddenly takes over your lab bench...

  • DSKS says:

    "Leave your screen saver set to your archive of pictures of the munchkins."
    I have it alternating between munchkin and the resolved crystal structure of the zebrafish P2X4.1 receptor, does that count?

  • Cloud says:

    Yes, Daddy Scientists, please do speak up about it. I try to do so now that I am a mother who also has an established career (in biotech, though- not academia). I remember looking ahead from grad school and being scared about the prospect of trying to be a mother and a scientist, because there were so few examples to show me how it might be done. It has turned out not to be as hard as I imagined. This is not to say that there haven't been problems. But scientists tend to be good problem solvers.
    Whenever I'm asked for advice by a young woman who is looking ahead to the work/motherhood balance, I always say "pick your partner carefully." And I mean it. My husband and I are equals at home, and that makes all the difference.
    My blog is mostly about mommy things, sometimes some science, sometimes some travel, sometimes random rants about things like health care reform. I figure that it is my blog and I can write what I want. However, I do sometimes wonder what people think when they click over from a science-only comment I've left somewhere and are greeted with a post about the cute things my 2 year old says.

  • Anonymous says:

    Men have never been penalized at work for being parents. Women have and still are. No one has ever questioned, since the dawn of time, that a man with a job/career is also one with a wife and kids.
    Men today are of course proud to show off that they are parents (I would even say that past a certain age men feel anxiety if they have not become parents yet) because it is tangible proof that they have "successfully" met societal expectations - it shows they are providers and at least one person thinks they are hot stuff. It is rarely questioned that their parental status detracts from their working abilities.
    Women on the other hand are still assumed to not be able to handle family life and work life. the woman's role has always been seen to be the nurturer while the man is the provider. And at its most basic level, what is "work" (paid work I mean) other than a symbol of "providing"?
    Therefore, encouraging men to flaunt their fatherhood now doesn't help the working women/mothers any more now than it did decades ago. All it does is reinforce the status quo.

  • Cloud says:

    @anonymous- I think DrugMonkey is encouraging men to advertise their status as INVOLVED parents, not just as someone who got his wife pregnant and now provides financial support to the family. I think that is a key difference, and why his suggestion does not just reinforce the status quo. Making taking time off to be with a sick child or needing a flexible schedule to support your child care arrangements as PARENT thing rather than just a MOTHER thing would be a big change.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Cloud, one of the reasons I am inordinately fond of this and a related post is that I am usually smacked down by the "this is just a hallmark of male privilege" comment. It is an excellent point. Not that my observations aren't good too, and many comments are supportive.
    It's just that this stuff is not simple. by any means. and sometimes when we think we are doing some thing that is obviously a GoodThing, and even when some people thank us for it, there is going to be another side. A side in which we are just another part of the problem.
    I think we do best when we recognize the full range of perspectives and try to keep all the valid ones in mind. Even when there does not appear to be a single right path to fit every situation.

  • PD says:

    However, I do sometimes wonder what people think when they click over from a science-only comment I've left somewhere and are greeted with a post about the cute things my 2 year old says.
    probably they are not thinking anything in particular. Geez what is it with people who blog thinking everything is about them all the time?? Does blogging make people narcissistic, or is it only narcissistic people who tend to blog about their lives?

  • Eyeballs says:

    Does blogging make people narcissistic, or is it only narcissistic people who tend to blog about their lives?
    I'll go with option 2. What about people who comment on blogs?

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