Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Women and the Two Body Conundrum


Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches (NYTimes, 12/19/06)

The New York Times has an interesting article about the "two body" conundrum facing women working in the sciences - a conflict I would argue is present for women in nearly every professional career. There are other aspects of this article surveying the inequities in the sciences that result in more women entering and then leaving the field compared to those numbers among men. However, the two body conundrum is one that is a frequent topic of conversation between my wife, a corporate lawyer, and me, a poet and photographer. Briefly, the two body conundrum is the unresolved conflict between having a career and having a family. In order for women to resolve this conflict successfully, they either have to be gifted individuals with exceptional skills that cannot be readily acquired by others or have two bodies, the punch-line being that no one can be two people. Thus the conundrum.

I think, however, it is also the answer. The focus of the article is upon emancipating women and equalizing the playing field, but it doesn't really address the underlying problem of WORK in the current era, though the article hints at the issue when it questions (through a quote from Evelyn Hammonds, professor at Harvard) whether a 70 hour work week is truly required for anyone to succeed in science. I feel the underlying problem is that contemporary models for employment & career building do not create space for the building of families or even the maintenance of a well individual. The article presents accurately that one of the most tenacious inequities women face emanates from the perception of their relationship to child-rearing as being disruptive to the dedication required for women to be serious scientists. What the article does not discuss is that this perception is based on an equivalent & opposite assumption that child-rearing will not be disruptive to a man's career, because it is institutionally assumed that men will disappear from the family during the period of time required for them to establish themselves in their field.

My father is a scientist and was an academic for 40 years. Until I was ten years old, he was barely home during the week. He left for work at 7 in the morning, returned at 6 in the evening for dinner, and then returned to the lab at 7:30 until after I was asleep. When my mother died, much of the friction in our family was the result of his realization that his absence made my mother the sole historian of those years, followed by his struggle to accept that he could not repair that absence, no matter how well intentioned his efforts might be. My father, if offered the opportunity in retrospect to be two bodies and build his career and his family simultaneously, would have signed whatever Faustian contract was required in order to do so.

The reason that the two body conundrum is difficult for women to overcome is that it is an untenable proposition for anyone - man, woman, mother, father, or parents of any configuration - commited to creating a healthy family. Individuals cannot solve the two body conundrum, because individuals by definition cannot be two bodies. In a family, the second body is the second parent, and current models of employment and career building demand that one parent MUST be absent in order for the family to generate the resources required to raise a family successfully. The current model is not healthy. People should not be doing it. Employers - universities, corporations, factories - are getting away with an unjust stipulation when they force either parent to acquiesce to those terms in order to build a career. And governments are subverting their responsibility to families in situations where a single parent is forced to manage a family without access to the resources having two bodies would otherwise present - child care, health care, and time off from work.

Thurgood Marshall was asked at the end of his career as Supreme Court justice, whether black people were better off now than they were when he first started practicing law. His answer was that the question itself was moot. People are better off now. No one is served by inequity. Humanity is lowered by what costs prejudice exacts upon the spirit of the community. So too I think in terms of women's access to an equitable workplace. I think the goal is not merely make the workplace more equitable to women. The goal is to make the work place more equitable and thus, more humane. We will all benefit from that increase - as individuals, as men, as women, and as parents.

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