Two apparently unrelated headlines in the education presses caught my attention this week…
January 29th, 2010


Two apparently unrelated headlines in the education presses caught my attention this week:

“Female Scientists Do More Housework Than Men Do”


“Colleges seek new ways to support female scientists.”

What is your inquiring reader supposed to make of this? It follows logically from the first story that colleges are probably providing female scientists with domestic help or docking grades from male scientists who are underperforming in the laundry room. Sure, it’s easy to be glib about this sort of thing but if I weren’t laughing I’d be crying at the persistence of traditional divisions of labour. Women, the study goes, “often have more obligations at home and [therefore] lower retention rates in their fields.” It’s not just childrearing that takes a lot more time away from the labs; it’s the entire domestic and social arena which women are still managing above and beyond their professional duties.

Years ago a social worker at Memorial published a rather popular monograph about the “Christmas Imperative” in which she documented the way women assume the role of ensuring family solidarity through the enactment of rituals, especially at Christmas time, clearly one of the most labour-intensive periods in the year. Imagine a female scientist having to run her experiments while worrying about whether or not she had time to bake a fruitcake, wrap all the presents, and baste the turkey. You’d eventually think twice about which one of those duties—domestic or professional—was worth it.

Both headlines quoted above come from US publications, but there is nothing uniquely national about them. Wherever women are working there are concerns about workplace retention. This kind of situation in turn generates a subtle prejudice against hiring women, the assumption being that they won’t stick around to earn the big research grants or commit to longitudinal studies. And that is why we call such a situation a vicious circle.

I make these comments in view of recent myths noise about the diminishing pool of men in post-secondary education. You probably heard about, say, the president of the University of Alberta boasting that she will be promoting white men from here on in, because, to echo the Big O, she can. With all due respect, she says she is worried about men no longer being in position for top leadership and corporate positions. But how does the growing anxiety about men being crowded out of university classrooms—and the workforce into which they graduate —square with the study I cited above?

A good scholar looks at the whole picture, or as much of it as she can. We all know that men are still out-earning women almost everywhere, shocking as that now sounds in 2010, and even with collective agreements in place, ostensibly guaranteeing equity. Well, equity, shmequity. Things just don’t work that way. Much more focused research is starting to emerge about gendered trends both in university culture and in the professional worlds, and, as with any serious subject, there is way more there than meets the eye.

We hear a lot about women invading medical schools but the same can hardly be said of engineering or the physical sciences. Consider the study mentioned about women doing the lioness’s share of the domestic work as one factor among many influencing why they don’t hang around in their chosen fields.

I keep returning to this subject in my blogs because there so many emerging fallacies floating around both inside and beyond the academy about women ‘taking over’ the workforce; because every time I get on a plane, as I did a couple of times today, and see the vast majority of those sitting in Business Class are men I wonder whether their partners are at home folding their shirts or driving to pick them up at the airport; because if universities and colleges are really serious about seeking ways to support female scientists  they will radically transform their leave policies, their limited day-care facilities, their expectations about muscular performance in the lab and in the field, their mentoring structures, and their general support mechanisms.

There is so much work to be done, and it isn’t all women’s work either.


Thanks to mars_discovery_district for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

One Response to “Two apparently unrelated headlines in the education presses caught my attention this week…”

  1. Shari Graydon says:

    I really appreciated your attention to and analysis of this issue, Noreen, and also found your piece on teaching of relevance and use. Your writing — in addition to being intelligent and timely — is personal and engaging.
    Many thanks,

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