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Sociologists consider how male scientists balance work and family

Male Scientist Balancing Act
August 22, 2012

DENVER – Numerous studies have focused on how women in academic science balance their quest for career advancement with their family responsibilities. A study released here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (by researchers who have done considerable research on women in science) turns to male scientists, and asks how they balance work and home responsibilities.

The scholars conducted in-depth interviews with 74 physicists and biologists who are graduate students or faculty members at prestigious universities, and the results illustrate options that male scientists have that many female scientists who have or want children lack. A majority of men studied who have families organized their lives in decidedly unequal ways with regard to family and home duties. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most traditional male scientists are older (and more successful). But the study finds that many male scientists starting their careers (and whose wives work outside the home) do not attempt to have equal responsibility for raising children or managing homes.

The findings are significant, the authors write, because scientific disciplines are “greedy” about time commitments, and young scientists in particular are expected to work well above 40 hours a week. Further, these men are the colleagues of women (and those voting on hiring or tenuring women) trying to advance in science. (The authors are Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University, Anne E. Lincoln of  Southern Methodist University and Virginia Johnston White of Rice University.)

Based on their interviews, they divide the male scientists into four groups: pursuing autonomy, egalitarian partners, neo-traditional dual earners, and traditional breadwinners.

Those pursuing autonomy (15 percent) are academics who (single or married) have opted not to have children. As such, they do not face the same pressures as those with children to balance child-rearing responsibilities.

The nearly one-third of those studied in the egalitarian category talked in their interviews of many of the same pressures that female scientists with families experience -- especially "extreme hours and intricate schedules." Many of these men were married to women who were also on the tenure track, and under similar pressures. Many discussed the need to sacrifice (especially sleep and leisure time) to try to make it all work.

While the men described desires to move ahead professionally, they noted that they couldn’t work as they did before they had children. "I am not nearly as productive as I used to be.... And it's hard because I used to work here till whenever I wanted to and then I’d go home and I could work at night, now I kind of get home, put the kids to bed.... No academic institution is particularly -- that I know of -- is particularly great for family.... The people that do best in academia, sadly, often are those who don’t have [the responsibility of] child care."

The "neo-traditional" group of men (22 percent of the sample) was disproportionately made up of graduate students. These men have wives who work outside the home, and the wives are primarily responsible for the home front. The paper says that the men repeatedly stressed that their wives made the decision to organize life in this way, but the authors question how free a choice was involved.

"[I]t appears that men overemphasize their wife’s decision as a 'choice,' when in reality their wife’s choice to care for the children is constrained by her husband’s schema of children as primarily ‘her issue,’ ” the authors write. “For example, a physics graduate student argues that even though the trajectory of both his and his fiancée's careers have changed for family considerations, his wife chose to allow her trajectory to change even more than his. He indicates that his wife, who is currently in graduate school in a humanities discipline, would want to stay at home to raise their children when they are young: ‘I think that my timeline for taking and not taking jobs is not going to be as dependent on when I have kids. I think that’s going to be more dependent on my future wife because she hopes to not be working when the children are very, very young. That means that she wants to -- there’s certain times in the career track when it’s better or worse to take time off…. So that’s her issue.'"

Others talked about women being "burdened" by child-bearing, but with the understanding that this burden benefited the careers of male scientists, the authors write.

"That these graduate students and faculty members distance themselves from child care and home care is illustrative of a general trend among men in the transitional dual-earner model. These men portray decisions about child rearing as made entirely by their wives, rather than joint decisions, which has the effect of rhetorically -- and possibly practically -- removing them from the responsibility of care-work," the authors write.

And then there are the traditional breadwinners, who made up 30 percent of the sample, and who were the most likely to be tenured and older. These men were married to wives who did not work outside the home, and many said that they were able to better focus on science because they didn’t have to worry about much of anything at home.

Some of those interviewed expressed awareness of how they benefited. “For me it’s a little easier because I have a wife that has stayed home and taken care of [the children]. I imagine it would be much much more challenging if I didn’t have a spouse that was planning on staying home,” said one.

But others seemed decidedly less sympathetic to the impact of their choices. Asked, “Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?” one physicist said, “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”

 

 

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