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Childcare is the least problem when you are a scientist with a family. I'm saying this as a scientist father in Germany, a country with a (deserved) reputation for bad child care. In the past, a lot has been said and written about how scientists with families, in particular women, are at a disadvantage. The prime solution touted most of the time was that more money needs to be invested in childcare facilities in order to get more women scientists to stay in science. For some recent discussions see these two artciles in The Scientist and especially the comments to these articles:

Power Couples - Family versus science

What transpires from these articles and comments - and which conforms with my own experience - is that having someone else taking care of you children is not a potential solution. Why is childcare not the answer to get women to stay in science?

I can tell you from my own recent experience: because if you have children, you don't want other people to keep them away from you. You have children, because you want to see them grow up, because you want to play with them, teach them and because you just love them. However, a regular work week of a scientist ranges anywhere between 50-80h. For me, until recently, a regular workday started between 7-8am and ended between 7-8pm. Add to that computer work and the occasional few hours in the lab here or there on weekends and of course the inevitable business trips to give talks or conferences. If I kept this schedule now, the first time I would see my daughter awake would probably be around the time when she started going to school at age six and maybe, if I'm lucky, the occasional week-end day or so.

Here's a great example: The other day, between two lab reports (i.e., after a particularly bad one) out of the huge pile I was grading, I checked the blog of our daughter Freya, saw her pictures and immediately decided I would definitely stop grading these lab reports in time to make it home before her bedtime, just to see her a few minutes that day. No  more grading and no more grant/paper writing or experimental design or discussions with the students/postdocs late at night, not that day. I don't get how people can work with pictures of their children on their desks...

Clearly, if you have children, even with optimal child support, you will spend less time working, no matter if you're male or female. However, I'd hazard a guess that the amount of time you lose at work will be roughly proportional to how much time you want to spend with your children. Therefore, I state the hypothesis, derived from my own experience (admittedly, N=1, which means purely anecdotal), that one of the main reasons (and there are always several) of why there are fewer women than men in the tenured scientific positions is that women, even today, are (for whatever reason!) on average, more likely to sacrifice work-time for child-time then men are. This sacrifice not only puts those who want to stay in science at a competitive disadvantage, many (perhaps the smartest ones among them?) also realize this disadvantage and look for more suitable jobs ouside of academia before they have kids.

Thus, the only solution I see to this problem is to make science into a 9-5 job and I cannot fathom how one would go about doing that. You can't have your cake and eat it too: a highly competitive environment that requires 80h weeks and a 50-50 male-female ratio. That's just completely unrealistic. Or do we really want to make women as disinterested in their children as men? devilmad.png

To make it unambiguously clear: in my opinion, either the scientific community (and politicians) learns to live with a skewed sex-ratio in the sciences or they change the system to prevent 40h work-weeks with regular vacations from being a disadvantage. There is no way to have both.
Posted on Tuesday 18 January 2011 - 11:40:47 comment: 0
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