Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Buddy System for Working Moms

Madeleine Albright said, "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." Her intention was to point out that women as sisters should help each other succeed. Successful women have an especially high burden in this regard. To me, her comment seemed to be directed at individual women. A couple of things that I read/heard this week made me wonder if this should be directed at the structural and social arrangements that we have. In other words, we as women need to systematically seek each other out to be partners and help each other succeed in the workplace. I give you two very different examples to illustrate, one from a former professor and one from an officer in the Navy.

A personal essay by Kathy Weston appeared in Science recently. She is a science writer, who used to be a professor at University College London. After 20 years in her position, a Research Assessment Exercise deemed her contribution to the department to be inadequate. She left before she could be fired. Her career started off well enough, but her research projects became more modest and unambitious over the years. The causes included the competing attentions of family and her own self-doubt. One paragraph of the essay especially caught my attention.
Trying to run a lab full time with small children at home is very likely to result in a drop in research productivity or quality, and yet little allowance is made for those of us, mostly women, who find ourselves in this situation. I believe I could have run my lab very successfully if I had been permitted to job-share with a close female colleague, also with two young children. Between us, we could have covered all the bases, and perhaps as a team we would have retained our competitive edge and hence our enthusiasm. This just does not happen in the male-oriented world of science in which, traditionally, dogs are keen to dine on dogs rather than share the bone between them, so to speak.
And the part about collaborating with a female colleague is important. While sharing a lab with a male colleague certainly would be beneficial, he would not be feeling the same pull from home and pressure to perform at work.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sheena Sullen was the subject of an story on NPR this morning. She had enlisted in the Navy and was about to be deployed on a missile destroyer. Her fiance had already been deployed, so there was no one available to look after her two children, ages 14 and 8. Sullen made a call to her childhood friend, Jihan Sanders. After careful consideration, Sanders quit her job and moved into Sullen's home in another state along with her own children, ages 12 and 9. It's an incredible act of friendship-- in both directions.
For Sanders, it is a privilege to be a temporary mother, as Sullen had been to her. "I never had a mother, so I didn't know what it was like, even how to act like a girl," Sanders says.

Sanders is helping Sullen at home, so Sullen can succeed at her job as a Naval officer. If Sullen could not have deployed, it would have been the end of her career.

What if women could have buddy systems that were not ad hoc? What if it became the norm for women to find other women to help them run households and research laboratories? This pairing up would have nothing to do with romantic relationships (and would probably be better if it didn't). It would be more like a sister than a mate. I don't want to suggest that Weston would still be professor if she had a buddy to share her lab. Her story could have done in any number of directions. But it would have helped, and it would probably help women, including me, would benefit from an arrangement like this.

And as a special bonus, that special place in hell would be a lot smaller.

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