Woman + Advisor = Mama? Something’s funny about that math… And we’re not talking ‘haha funny.’

I got my partner to make this in LaTex so that you would think I'm more of a real scientist.

I got my partner to make this in LaTeX so that you would think I’m more of a real scientist. (This is funnier if you read my last blog post about fonts.)

If you’re a scientist-who-is-a-woman (or another academic-who-is-a-woman), you may have experienced expectations from students to be motherly. And, if – or when – you’re not motherly to your supervisees, they may feel betrayed or angry, as people tend to when norms are broken. Because whether you are an actual mother to actual children or not, in most people’s minds ‘woman’ equals ‘mother’. Now this can be problematic, because ‘mother’ is also seen as basically antithetical to ‘competent’. You don’t have to tell me how weird that is; I mean, mothers in the West basically are generally in charge of everything to do with their children’s well-being, which basically involves a whole lot of competency tests. But, (feminist science) research shows that people perceive women as mothers, and mothers as incompetent. So, even if you’re the sort of woman who makes scary faces at babies (by the way: that’s not the least mean thing to do), you’re still being judged against these cultural norms. Students are socialized just like everyone else (plus via some other academic-specific stuff, of course) and they have expectations that  scientists-who-are-you-get-my-point should be, surprisingly and not surprisingly, motherly. And you can imagine what research says about perceptions of people, especially women and/or minoritized groups, who break their gender or group norms. (Hint: it’s not good.) So, anyway, it’s a lovely damned if you do (good mama, dumb-y scientist!) and damned if you don’t (bad mama, smart/jerky scientist who gets hated). It’s obviously not a one-to-one thing where every scientist-woman is subject to this in every encounter. More importantly, this all sounds depressing, so just think about unicorns and rainbows instead for while.

What does motherly mean, in the context of science? It could mean giving a lot of your time, selflessly. Of course, we scientists already do give a lot of our time to trainees because that’s a major part of most of our jobs. But there’s a line that differs for all of us between the right amount of involvement and selfless-too-much-I’m-a-good-mom-right?-RIGHT? involvement. Here’s one example from my own experience. I was asked to speak with a campus group for women STEM undergraduates about my experience as a scientist-who-is-a-woman. The invitation was for a Saturday or Sunday (I can’t remember which because I used up all my memory cells on other things), and I had a new baby (like, just from the baby store!) and was on leave. I suggested a weekday, which I thought was pretty generous (remember, I was on leave WITH A NEW BABY, and trust me: getting myself presentable was a major endeavor, perhaps equal in effort to, say, climbing a mountain or digging a tunnel through the earth). I explained how this would be a neat compromise we could talk about at the event, as an example of how one can make life and work and tunnel-through-the-entire-earth digging compatible. I never heard back.

Karen SmithBut I’m just me (bo-ring!); let’s hear what others have to say. Karen Smith, a mathematician, shared the following experience with me. When Professor Smith had just given birth to twins, and also had a five-year old child, a student asked her Why aren’t you spending more time supporting the women students in the department? Now, who doesn’t like to give support? And, who doesn’t like to support women students? And, moreover, who doesn’t like to support women students in disciplines where women are traditionally and contemporarily way underrepresented?Answer 1: I guess, to be honest, lots of people because otherwise all graduate students would be well-supported and trainees from underrepresented groups would feel all warm, and fuzzy, and supported rather than sometimes (or frequently) not-that. Answer 2 (and this one’s the obvious one): A WOMAN WHO HAS JUST GIVEN BIRTH TO TWINS. If there is one universal truth in the world, it’s that people who have newborn twins should be expected to do nothing but accept the support offered to them. This is one of those times (not the only one, obviously) where a person can legitimately ask what their country can do for them (where country = community of people who do not have newborn twins).

You know, I have to be honest; I have actually heard anecdotes like this from a number of scientists-who-are-women. In other words, there seems to be resentment towards scientists who are being mothers to their own children THAT THEY HAVE JUST GIVEN BIRTH TO (I haven’t heard similar stories about adoption, but I bet they’re out there) in place of mothering their supervisees or other students. To be clear, these stories are not about missing meetings, failing to return manuscripts on time, or even (gasp!) ignoring emails. These stories are, instead, about resentment towards new mothers who allot their extra time towards their newly grown families rather than towards mothering someone else. And, really, who has more extra time than a faculty scientist who just gave birth to twins?

It makes sense that minoritized individuals would be expected to support others from the same minority group (or even others with the same experiences of marginalization).  Many folks, especially women of color, have articulated how heavy this load can get even while it’s so critically important. But what ends up happening is that folks with the special privilege of not being the only minority member (whether by gender, or race/ethnicity, or intersecting identity) aren’t asked to shoulder this ‘extra’ ‘service assignment’ and therefore aren’t judged for turning it down (not surprisingly, since it’s hard to judge someone for not turning down something you didn’t ask them to do or expect of them).

In the case of students wanting women role models in disciplines where women are underrepresented, it’s a funny (not haha funny) feminist quandary: Yay for community-building and interest in feminist issues of social justice! Less yay for expecting that the scientists-who-are-women have the time and mental energy to always fill that gap for you! Yay for expecting your supervisors to care about you as whole people! Less yay for looking askance at your advisor-who-is-a-new-mother if she chooses/needs to focus her ‘free’ time on her family! And, less yay for expecting more of scientists-who-are-women than scientists-who-are-men! And, finally, yay for exclamation marks!

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the equation is built on faulty logic.

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