I had been a graduate student for just under two weeks when a professor told a group of students assembled for an afternoon symposium, "I hate accepting women into the graduate program. They just eventually leave to have babies." I was appalled, and spent much of my time over the next few weeks thinking over what I, or any of the other graduate students, should have said. The irony, of course, is that I was studying in the Spanish Department - mainly reading novels by authors who have been dead for over a hundred years. If any of us choose to leave the field for awhile, we will simply have to read a couple of papers in order to be all caught up. Nothing revolutionary will have happened in our absence. Cervantes, Unamuno, and Borges will all still be dead.
Similar comments are frequently made by figures of authority in all academic settings. PalMD has a post up at Denialism discussing this attitude in the medical field, where he reports regularly hearing senior physicians comment that "...sending women to medical school is a bit of a waste." The compliant - women take time off to have families. Terra Sig discusses the impact that this sort of attitude has had on Dr. Nancy Andrews, the first female medical school dean at Duke University (appointed in 2007!) and subsequently the "...only woman to lead one of the nation's top 10 medical schools." In Dr. Andrew's own words, it is:
...important not to make assumptions about what women will and will not do. After my appointment at Duke was announced, many people told me that they'd assumed I would not be willing to move out of Boston -- that I would not leave Harvard, that I would not move my children before they finished high school, that I would not uproot my husband. Obviously, all those assumptions were incorrect.For many women, the assumption that we will take time away from our careers to raise children is incorrect. Yet, it can't be denied that many others will. It is disheartening that we still live in a society that so little values the contributions of women that we are unwilling to work to ensure that mothers and fathers alike can balance the responsibilities of raising a family with those of their careers.
So what can we do? First we must learn to adamantly oppose such statements, which devalue the potential contributions of parents, whenever we hear them. We must also push for real family values in government- legislation that would ensure paid maternity and paternity leave, legislation which would remove our current ignoble distinction of being the only country in the Americas which does not ensure paid maternity leave (we are one of the few countries in the world that does not, and most European nations offer paternity leave as well.) It is time to change the shameful policies and attitudes that push to keep women out of the workforce by seeking to make family incompatible with career.