Advancing Whom?

On the campus where I work, there is a program titled Forward, sponsored by a large NSF Advance grant.  The tag line for the program is “advancing women faculty,” and they have a number of sub-grants and programs dedicated to doing just that.  These include travel grants, teaching buy-outs, and research grants among others.  Yet, recently, the program tread into waters that seem to muddy their mission.  The new University President in his infinite wisdom decided to close the tiny campus child-care center in an effort to save money.  I would suggest instead reversing the stupid-expensive decision of the former president to take our athletics program to division 1 status, but that is another post.

This decision to close the facility was wrong; there is no question.  But the over wrought response strikes me as just as wrong. There were midnight emergency e-mail messages, impromptu meetings – during Spring Break, there were demands made of the administration.  The Forward team has been privy to a number of ill-advised, sexist, and outright biased behavior on the part of University administrators since its inception.  They have responded to varying degrees, ranging from whispered complaints to initiating new research to back claims already proven in previous research.  When they closed the child-care center, however, Forward and other campus groups raised a public outcry, the likes of which no other inappropriate or biased behavior has elicited.  The center cares for 38 children of faculty and staff, many of which are not the children of women faculty on the tenure track.  It demonstrates the internal bias of Forward and the people associated with it.  They really want to advance moms and other parents, not women faculty.

This pro-natalist bias is extremely heavy in my department, where two of the Advance team are housed.  One of them actually stated that women do not face much struggle in the workplace until they procreate.  It was probably just a weak moment, but Forward’s own data suggests that climate at our university is bad for all women.  When I interviewed for my job, I was told by a member of the search committee that they just hope I loved kids.  For the record, I do. But I am not a parent. I am not blind to the struggles of working parents, especially women who are saddled with child care responsibilities more than are men.  But that does not mean that only moms matter.  It does not mean that difficulties or responsibilities at home that are not connected to children or child care are less than.  But that is the not so subtle message I sometimes get from parents, especially mothers, around me.  They suggest that I have some kind of personal advantage over them because I have chosen not to reproduce.  It may be true that I do not struggle with sick children on work days or sleepless nights with newborns.  But I also do not have the advantages that come with children, most of which are never acknowledged by my colleagues.  Of course, they admit to the personal benefits of a loving family and cuteness within their midst, but they do not admit that they get benefits *in the workplace* at least in my workplace.  They can say “my child is sick” any time they need to.  There is no shame in having a sick child in my workplace, although that may not be true everywhere. If one is listening carefully, one notices that even when these mothers are sick or their spouses/partners are sick, they do not say “sick partner.”  Nope, they say “sick family” to keep the pro-children thoughts in everyone’s head.  But other kinds of personal issues, even being sick yourself, are not afforded the same deference.  Of course, I have never been openly judged for illness; these are good kind people.  It just isn’t the same response as “family illness.”

When I am scheduled to teach a graduate course in the evening, the assumption stands that I can spare that time which is not considered normal work hours.  The parents in the department may talk about time away from their family in ways that I cannot.  The same is true of weekend events.  If I wish to stay away from special events on the weekend, I must come up with some great reason.  Parents can cry family time with nary an eye blinked.  I’m not suggesting that I am asked to do extra at odd times because I am child-free; they are not cruel or openly unfair.  The situation is so much more subtle than that.  But I am made to feel guilty that I do not stay up all night with children who refuse to sleep, as if my choice is somehow unfair to them.

It’s frustrating, and I feel small complaining, but surely other life choices besides children are viable too.  The child care facility is worth saving –hell should be expanded, and support for working parents is important.  But I would urge people to think a little bit about their biases and how they affect others who made other choices.


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