Damned If You Do… Banal Gendered Exclusions in Academia, Babies and ‘Dinner with Other Candidates’

This post first appeared on The Sociological Review Blog on 26th July 2017 here.

‘The younger generation of academic women just don’t have children.’ I’m sat in the office of an older woman professor in an elite university. I’m here as part of a job interview. This institution has moved to a more American way of doing things and part of this is having individual meetings with members of staff instead of a job interview. This is my first meeting of the day. I’m taken aback that she has mentioned children/my (correctly) presumed lack of them in this setting. She continues telling me how her students were really glad that she has children and is a professor, showing that you can do both.

What am I supposed to say here? At this point (a few years ago now) I am 35 and childfree. I have decamped my household, partner and two house rabbits from London to Glasgow for work and my ability to move without caring responsibilities has allowed me to navigate ‘the game’ of academia as a post-doc. As I have argued before, the requirement to be movable is part of an increasingly precarious employment situation for those going into the academic job market. But here in this office I can’t win. I could tell her that raising this is completely inappropriate, awkward when you are trying to get a job. I could identify myself as part of this generation of academic women without children – positioned here as letting the side down. Or else, if I agree with her, I look even more like an employment time bomb than I already do. I sit politely and smile, without commenting. Now maybe I just look passive and uninteresting.

Later that evening, it’s the horrendous ‘dinner with the other candidates’. The other candidates are from all over the world, are all young white men and mostly seem precariously employed like me. One of the young male members of staff present (everyone is male at the dinner, bar one older woman professor) starts to talk about his toddler. The others join in, swapping dad stories and showing pictures of babies on their phones. The older generation also join in with their own parenting experiences. They remember those sleepless nights too. Once again, I can’t win here. I don’t have anything to contribute. But if I was a mum with a small child, outing myself by showing their picture would be risky in this situation. While being a dad is seen in academia as a sign of maturity, having a bit of that elusive ‘work-life balance’, I would run the risk of provoking anxiety (‘Will she want another one? Will she take time off?’). Once again, I smile and nod.

Research has shown that children help men academic’s careers but hinder women’s. The structural disadvantages are obvious, including expensive childcare and the extended precarity of the post-PhD years that often coincide with a woman’s fertile years. But the kinds of more banal exchanges I’ve described above play into this too. The first example is more surprising than the second but shows how women can also be complicit in reinforcing the idea that a woman without children is less of a person, leaving the gender bias and ‘baby penalty’ in academia unchallenged. It individualises the issues and presents an attitude of ‘I managed it so why can’t you/they?’ It also shows how a move towards this US system of individual meetings in recruitment is a problem for equalities and diversity issues. There is no standardisation of questions, and things that wouldn’t and shouldn’t be raised in an interview can be brought up as part of an informal chat.

The second example shows how ‘dad chat’ is one of the ways in which male academics bond, forge and solidify networks. This is worrying in the context of the job interview dinner. No matter how informal, this too is part of the recruitment process and ‘dad chat’ here becomes part of performing being good socially. One colleague of a similar age to me working in a different institution told me that when he became a dad, he started getting invited to more social events outside of work. Suddenly there was this new world of barbecues. I haven’t heard this from my women academic friends who have children.

The radical politics espoused by many in my working world seems out of whack with the pervasive heteronormativity of academia. While I’m genuinely happy to learn about CBeebies through the dad friends I go to lunch with (‘Paw Patrol’ sounds really strange), that talk should probably stay out of the ‘dinner with the other candidates’. As well as campaigning for things that would make life easier for parents – especially women – in our workplaces, like nurseries on campus, crèches at conferences, and challenging the idea that having a baby for women isn’t the same thing as retiring or going on holiday (‘Clever girl!’ said one colleague to a friend of mine when she told him she was going on maternity leave), we also have to consider how these kinds of banal exchanges exclude.