In the Company of Women

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a room of medical clinicians and public health researchers – all of whom happened to be women. Although the demographics in my own discipline are shifting such that approximately 60% of new doctoral degrees are awarded to women, I rarely find myself exclusively in the company of women, much less women of various ethnic backgrounds who have decided to pursue scholarship at the highest levels. However, I have no illusions that the problem of low gender and ethnic diversity in STEM fields is simply due to women’s lack of commitment to their work.

If you can’t tell, I am not a fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In narrative – as Imani Grady argued, black women have been leaning in for years, and yet we still hold few positions of power in academe or business. It is clear that the structures within academe were not created to support the dynamic nature of women’s lives, particularly those aspects that include caretaking and childrearing.

Here I happened to be at a conference that was designed to discuss how we, as women, can navigate the arc of a long career in international research – careers that require far more flexibility than the lean-in narrative outlines. This conference managed to address everything from mentorship to publications, with a special focus on integrating the academic and private lives of women. It seems even as more women in academe choose to have children, there is still an aura of apology and explanation, discussions of our research that emphasizes that we won’t allow ourselves to be “mommy-tracked.” The women at this conference women wore their kids like a badge – the way many of us do when we are not at work, the way we do when we are in spaces that embrace the messiness, emotional exhaustion, and unending work that is parenthood. Before this conference, I didn’t realize how hungry I was to hear how others were navigating these waters. I learned and observed a few things that day that are worth sharing.

Own it:

There is no hiding motherhood. From the puke on the corner of your blazer, to having to jet out of work early to make a game – there is no pretending this doesn’t impact your entire life. So own it, and know that the changes to the way you work don’t have to signify the end of your work. In a previous post, I discussed the ways that I have shifted my writing process to fit my ‘mom on T-T at a new gig’ reality. I have experienced my most productive year yet. I am sure this is in large part due to my acceptance of the ways my days have changed. I finally stopped trying to find 4 hours to work (like I used to), and accepted that writing might come in 30 minute blocks. I have also been mindful about what kinds of professional activities I commit to, and decided to ignore the colleagues who perform “work” by constantly talking about how early they got in, and how late they stay. Our currency is the publication, talk, grant, and course review. The proof is in the output.

Find mentors:

One after another, senior scholars noted that it is important to cultivate a network of supportive colleagues. One mentor will probably not do the trick. Mentors serve different purposes, but make sure that they understand your life and can be honest with you about how to push your career forward, and where you need to improve. I will admit that I am still working on this. I have found it challenging to find even a few folks who understand the specific challenges I face as a WOC in my field.

And embrace the Ebb and Flow of a long-lived career:

Perhaps the most impactful lessons came from senior clinical researchers who recounted the different phases of their careers, and the ways that they continually negotiated their identities as mother/researcher/partner/educator. I have always wanted to have the long arc of my career figured out now. I don’t wear the ambivalence of an unknown career future very well. The day to day barely managed chaos that is motherhood has pushed me from this perch (and presumed security) kicking and screaming. I am not secure. My plans are not set. I cannot control the future. But I can make the most of my time. I can create a network of support. I can plan the next 5 months. These women recounted 30 year careers that took them from local hospitals to clinics in developing areas in Latin America, India and Africa. At no stage were they sure of what was coming next, but they were sure of their competence, creativity and intellect. That was inspiring. I can bet on those things to carry me.

I watched women ranging from graduate students to senior faculty move through this space, owning it, and sharing their wisdom with the community, without apology for wanting dynamic and complex lives (both with and without children). As my career has progressed, my opportunities to gather (in person, rather than on social media) with women in honest discussion has so diminished that I am lucky to do it once per year.

So I sit here at a crossroads, feeling stronger in my ability to craft the career I want while simultaneously wanting more family life. If Ann Marie Slaughter didn’t make it clear or if you missed this piece on the baby trap in academe, it seems we can’t have it all (at the same time) in life or academe. I trust math. Numbers give me some peace, and I am not one for imagined exceptionalism. So I will not suggest that we can all buck the trend, do it all now without sacrificing even a single child’s doctor’s visit or professional networking opportunity. But I will push forward, hour by hour, dancing through the minefield of scholarship and parenthood – charting a path that allows me to create a fulfilling life – even if that path shifts in unexpected ways.

8 thoughts on “In the Company of Women

  1. Great post. I really do believe that we have been sold a lie – we cannot have it all. Impossible. Hard to hear I know. Even harder when the reality of that hits home. But like you, I’m just taking it one step at the time. One thing is certain the path will shift, but we can handle that too!

  2. These are all excellent points. Well done in writing them in a nice readable way, that helps to identify them. I am a big fan of embracing the different phases, and making the most of each one as it comes along.

    Just another note on that – sometimes you have to be pro-active and actually see that there is an opportunity coming along, and put some effort into making it work for you, (A prepared mind and all that). I guess mentors can help with that, too.

  3. I love this post. I love to hear the stories of how women of older and newer generations are navigating the issues. It took me at least 16 months post-maternity leave to feel comfortable “owning” motherhood, and now I feel like a badass (most days) because I’ve been able to integrate things in a way that works for me. I completely agree with this: “At no stage were they sure of what was coming next, but they were sure of their competence, creativity and intellect. That was inspiring. I can bet on those things to carry me.”

  4. “At no stage were they sure of what was coming next, but they were sure of their competence, creativity and intellect.”

    This is great! I feel like I have to have my whole career figured out and lined up *right now,* but that’s just not true.

  5. Just a quick comment – no matter how old the kids get, one can never, ever, ever “disown” motherhood. It is just a fact of life. So it is wonderful if young mothers can be proud of this wonderful “ownership” right from the word ‘go’.

  6. Probably the best post I’ve ever read since I started blogging. I’m glad some readers picked up the lie that most of us have been sold that “we can’t have it all…”

    There is no shortage of the things we want. We certainly can have it all
    Thanks for sharing

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