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Freedom, obligation and gender equity … is there a magic trick?

At 11-months-old, Max is discovering some obstacles to his own freedom. Olivia Carter

For reasons that will become apparent, the topic of this piece is freedom. The only problem is that very little about my life at the moment is captured by that word.

In fact, if I was forced to provide a single word description of my daily life it would probably be “obligation". From preparing a lunch box to giving a lecture, I have obligations to my children, my students, my collaborators and my university.

I realise this situation is neither unique to myself nor to parents more generally. Indeed, I imagine that most working adults feel a level of obligation to their work and family.

So why am I writing about freedom? Because I was asked to and I felt that I couldn’t say “no”.

Given I am so lacking in time and freedom, I decided the most efficient and honest approach to this request – from a new magazine called New Philosopher – was to write about the very dilemma requests of this sort raise.

On March 8 it was International Women’s Day and, to coincide with this day, two notable things happened:

1) One of the leading scientific journals, Nature, published a special issue dedicated to the “gender-gap”, which included discussions about the impact of raising children.

2) Here in Australia, the early and mid-career research forum of the Australian Academy of Science published a document called Gender equity: current issues, best practice and new ideas.

For anyone interested in this topic, these are both recommended reading. They nicely summarise a lot of the important facts – such as the striking imbalance between the relatively equal numbers of male and female graduate students, with successively fewer and fewer female representatives in senior roles.

They also provide some guidelines and suggestions regarding how the situation could be improved.

One important point raised in both papers relates to a lack of female representation. There is general agreement that there needs to be:

  • an increased proportion of females on committees
  • more women in decision-making roles
  • more invitations to women to give keynote addresses at conferences

Journals such as Nature have also acknowledged there needs to be more women on editorial boards and that more women need to be invited to give commentary on important scientific matters.

This, of course, leads to the problem that the relatively small pool of available women are overly burdened by obligations, relative to their male counterparts.

But if I had read these documents a few years ago I would have idealistically said their suggestions were a no-brainer. There are plenty of competent women out there to fill senior roles and present at conferences.

Now, experience has taught me that the lack of “availability” of such women is a real problem.

Finding Females

I am currently heavily involved in a relatively large international academic society. In the last five years there have been two women invited to be president, and in both instances they declined the invitation. To date, our list of presidents looks dismally biased, with one woman and 18 men (no man has ever declined the invitation to be president).

It has also been my personal experience that women are much more likely to decline invitations to give keynote addresses, specifically citing the fact they have family commitments and are unable to travel.

Either that or they are doing everything in their power to maintain the level of academic productivity needed to maintain an academic career.

When I was asked to contribute something for the first edition of New Philosopher, I gave my now standard response to most requests: I am sorry but I am simply far too over-committed at the moment as I recently had a child and am returning from maternity leave.

The response from the editor Zan Boag hit me squarely in my female bits:

I really was hoping to include you in the magazine, it is very hard to get female voices heard above all the male chatter! […]

As the creator, and in most cases the primary carer, of those who will define the future of the planet, the female view on the world is extremely important. Yet it is hardly heard. This isn’t a matter of feminism or equality, rather it is one of balance. And as the father of two girls (and a boy), I am keen to see a more balanced world for my daughters (and son) to grow up in.

Well said, Zan! I could not agree more with those sentiments. There simply needs to be greater female representation. So if I’m not going to agree to this sort of thing then I am just perpetuating the same problem that continues to exasperate me.

I applaud initiatives such as http://academianet.info, which gives a web presence to high-achieving female scientists, making them visible to conference-programme committees seeking female speakers, journalists seeking experts to quote, head-hunters seeking board members, and the like.

But I confess I am yet to respond to a recent invitation to be part of a similar Australian-based initiative, Here She is!. I simply don’t have enough time in the day with my current long list of obligations.

I feel like I would have to be an idiot to say “yes”, but I would also be an idiot (and a hypocrite) to say “no”. (As an aside, if you happen to be female and fit the profile of this initiative, I know they are currently welcoming new additions to their directory of women.)

As I stated in the opening sentence, as a very busy mother trying to survive in science, freedom seems like a million little jobs away.

At the same time I am acutely aware that I am in an extraordinarily fortunate position to live in a time and country where TRUE freedom exists: the freedom to follow my passions; the freedom to decide whether or not I want to have children; the freedom to voice an opinion without fear.

I realise it is exactly this “freedom” that has allowed me to lead a life that is now filled with a million obligations.

Given how far things have come, is it reasonable to expect more progress?

Anything is possible when you are four years old. Olivia Carter

I definitely do think that more can be done, but at the same time I would like to consider myself a realist. I think it’s perfectly understandable for parents to want to have total freedom to choose how much time to spend with their children.

But this is never going to be a viable model in any situation where people are competing for limited jobs or funding opportunities.

The question is how to provide a fair and equitable work environment for either males or females that choose to take on parenting roles, that is similarly fair for anyone that chooses not to have a family and ends up devoting more hours to work due to desire or circumstance.

I wish I could take the lead from my daughter, who celebrated her fourth birthday on the weekend, joined by a few of her friends and a couple of real-life fairies.

When you are four, all you need to do is stamp your feet, spin around and wave your hands in the air to make magic happen.

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "As the creator, and in most cases the primary carer, of those who will define the future of the planet, the female view on the world is extremely important. "

    Golly - The Conversation has managed to recruit some august bloggers..

    Of course I am sure the issues you raise are important to you and many others. Although personally I can't get worked up too much about how the baubles that I myself can never aspire to achieve are divided up between the genders - whether it be in science or in the corporate world. That doesn't mean the issues aren't real and significant and shouldn't be resolved equitably within the community that does compete for them

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  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    sorry olivia but your article sounds a bit like a sob story to me.

    in some ways you do women a dis-service by coming off sounding like a bit of a whinger.
    if you want something - go after it.

    there are women doing it REALLY tough out there - single women with kids, women who live with violent men.

    i hear what you say, but unfortunately we dont get everything we want in life.

    as they say - life sucks - then you die.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      i forgot >>>>

      you said

      "So why am I writing about freedom? Because I was asked to and I felt that I couldn’t say “no”."

      says it all to me somehow.

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    2. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen, I think you're being unfair to Olivia. In my reading of her pieces she has been reasonably objective and recognised that she has made certain choices, which then limit her capacity to make certain other choices.

      It seems to me that this piece is a simple lament for opportunities lost. I could write something similar, as could we all. The difference would be in the detail.

      However, this piece is also a pretty conventional middle-class professional piece of feminist polemic and in that I agree with you that it is a whinge. A pretty balanced one as such things go, however.

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  3. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Olivia, are you "free" to publish a photo of other children on the 'net, or were you obliged to obtain their parents' written permission?

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  4. Julie Roccisano

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Olivia, I think you are really onto something here.... so perhaps women are asked/offered positions etc less often and, when they are asked, are more likely to say no due to their family obligations.

    I wonder if this links to the research by the ABS that shows that when you add together paid and unpaid hours, most women do significantly more than their male partners.

    Research has also shown that women tend to apply for pay rises and promotions less often then their male colleagues.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Julie Roccisano

      "I wonder if this links to the research by the ABS that shows that when you add together paid and unpaid hours, most women do significantly more than their male partners."
      Julie, would you mind linking that. It sounds very interesting.

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    2. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      It might sound interesting, Kim, but Julie won't be liking to it - it's simply wrong.

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    3. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Julie, I understand you'd have higher priorities than posting me a reading list, it's just that you'd be 10 seconds away from the exact data you are referring to, I might never find it.

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    4. Julie Roccisano

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Julie Roccisano

      Actually I've put the wrong link up as it is children that change the balance. That is, when a couple has children living at home, and paid and unpaid hours are added together women do more hours than men. The link above doesn't go into detail about the paid work and domestic chores hours of couples of children. The data was collected it is just not presented in the above ABS article.

      I have no idea where the article is that uses these same ABS stats as in the above summary but compares the time spent by men and women with children doing paid and unpaid work (it was delivered at a conference I went to a few years ago).

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  5. John Perry

    Teacher

    I don't want to get too personal, but starting with less "pink" and "fairies" just because they are girls might be a good start. I don't have daughters, so I can't speak from experience, but I'm pretty sure I'd be careful to keep those away from them if I did. I don't subscribe to the "but girls love pink and fairies" argument that I often hear from other mothers - there is such a thing as conditioning.

    I only realised that things were turning this way re bringing up girls when my son was very…

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John, second-wave feminists had the whole gender-non-existent childhood mapped out, before they even conceived. The world is now full of stunned women (and men), who despite calling their son, Sissy, buying him a bambi-printed doona cover; not allowing anyone in the house to pee standing up; Santa giving him a Barbie Dream House for Christmas, and four very gender and sexual diverse dolls; a quilt-making set; a toy cupcake making set, with beige gloves and tea-towels, so Sissy could wash up afterwards…

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    2. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Perhaps I should have been clearer - I just find that articles like this suffer through the missed irony of having "gender equity" in the title and then a photo of little girls (no boys in that photo) dressed as pink fairies.

      If anyone is really wondering about where gender equity comes from, the answer is in how we present the world to very small children and observe how they participate in it.

      I was going to make a comment along the lines of "Sweden doesn't need to have this discussion because ..." but then realised that Kim would draw out the "as if you'd ever live there" line!! ;)

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Olivia Carter

      Olivia, in fact the real Elephant in the Room of Privilege is upper-middle class western married women with graduate degrees. They are the most privileged set on the planet.

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    2. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Olivia Carter

      Olivia, from the piece you quoted:"Having been both — the primary bread winner and the secondary earner anchoring the household — I’m here to tell you the latter (more home and less work) is often more fun. "

      After nearly 50 years of aggressive feminist propagandising and calamatising over being "allowed" to work, this still holds true and it is why so few women prioritise work over family unless they are placed in a situation in which they have to, such as having no partner to call on for financial support.

      I'd recommend you enjoy your good fortune and stop any anxiety that you're missing out on something. As Kim said, you're a member of the most privileged group on the planet. What more do you want?

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  6. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    After watching a couple of TED presentations by Indian education scientist Sugata Mitra, i cannot help thinking that if the problem is education then maybe all we need to do is change our perspective.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk60sYrU2RU

    what if our teachers are able to achieve more in less time using a different approach?

    In the same way as self learning groups can be far more affective, what about our nuclear family group.. are we suffering from having to do it all ourselves and lost all the benefits of the extended family.. or maybe extended groups..

    or we can just suffer in silence as if nothing is wrong.

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  7. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    If your obligations as self impossed and you choose them of your own free will then they are not limiting your freedom

    Its hard enough getting men to take responsibility for their decisions to have kids, dont let women start

    Having a child is a privilage not a right, if you can support that child then do not have it, I have little sympathy for people who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions

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  8. Eva Cox

    Professorial Fellow Jumbunna IHL at University of Technology, Sydney

    Thanks Olivia for both useful analysis and references. There is an issue for many of us of time pressures, as time is fixed and demands of paid workplaces and parenting are both often increasing and intensifying. Not so long ago, there were debates on cutting paid work time, of sharing both paid and unpaid work around more equitably, not just on gender grounds. Now the new world of market models and economic growth seem to over-ride the value of more social contributions. I'd like to see more discussion of time budgets, not just money, so there was time to be a good parent, good paid worker and good citizen, and even have time for some creative self. The big picture social change, the options for more civil societies seem to be off the political agendas.

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  9. Jennifer Norton

    statistician, researcher, entrepreneur

    This article raises a number of interesting points while not speaking to them directly.

    1/ Women (the article suggest mothers, in particular) are not represented in many places where decisions are made, yet are a large group who need to be heard. They speak for themselves and their families.

    2/ In the (not so distant) past, men were able to have families and yet achieve high office, or a high flying career. etc. Why? Because they had a wife who would not only manage the family and raise the…

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Jennifer Norton

      "Given that it is unlikely to find women who are both mothers and high flyers, we appear to be at an impasse.
      Or have I missed something?"
      Jennifer, that depends on whether or not you were either unborn yet or in a coma between the passing of the "Equal Pay Act" in the US in 1963, and Ally McBeal appearing on the cover of Time Magazine June 1998 alongside photos of Gloria Steinhem and Betty Friedan with the Front Page blaring "Is Feminism Dead"?
      You seem not to have been raised by a corporate…

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      kim a lot to say, and well stated i thought.

      i know this is all about women, but its about children not either reaching UP to their parents expectations, or themselves not wanting to emulate that driven quality that comes with great success.

      i started work in a public service that had the remnants of that old paternalistic regime at the top, but with a very short amount of time at two of the statutory orgs i worked for had women at the head.
      as well as a women premier (in vic).

      the public…

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  10. David Tuck

    Scientist

    'As the creator...of those who will define the future of the planet, the female view on the world is extremely important.'
    This is ambiguous, is the intended meaning that God is female, or that all females are capable of asexual reproduction?

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