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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science in Society"
September 30, 2005

Peggy Hollyday
Gender and Science

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Peggy opened the conversation by describing three recent newspaper articles: a Los Angeles Times letter to the editor by CalTech President David Baltimore, which discusses the declining position of American science in the global economy because too many scientists want "balanced lives"; a speech by Harvard President Lawrence Summers about diversifying the science and engineering workforce, and a recent New York Times article by Louise Story, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" (September 20, 2005). Peggy's summary focused on Baltimore's argument that American parents are failing to pass on the culture of disciplined work habits to their children, and his claim that the resulting search for a "more balanced life" means that this country is losing its leading edge in the global economy. She suggested that this position resembled Summers' observations about the reluctance of American women to make the "total commitment" to 80-hour-work weeks required of the most prestigious jobs (in which "the mind is always working on the problems at hand"), and that it might also explain the phenomenon Story describes in her article, of the many women at elite colleges who are now setting their career paths on motherhood. The claim Peggy set forth for our discussion was that the values implicit in Baltimore's editorial are--per Summers's and Story's accounts--not being embraced by large numbers of well-educated American women, who are refusing to put wealth and power at the top of their schemes of value.

Discussion included a number of testimonials--about being raised by women who worked outside the home and by those who did not, about decisions to do the former and the latter, about the pride of having a mom who is successful in the world, and about the pleasures of having a mother who was more available at home. Questions were raised about the size and validity of Story's sample, and about the value statements implicit in her claims that children raised primarily by their mothers are better off; it can be good for children to have the experience of other caregivers. A number of explanations were also offered for women's different choices (such as the practical realities of their giving birth and breast feeding); advice was tendered both for and against "being greedy" (aka "having it all" or a "sense of entitlement"), as were cautions against idealizing "the good old days, when moms stayed at home. Much is unpredictable in life; it is difficult to plan ahead. It was suggested that one can no more have a "perfect life" than a "perfect wedding," and that we might all aim instead for the level of "really great." There are many ways to parent: some mothers are happier and better parents when they work full-time. But it was observed that the "debate had been framed with few options," and that "women are made to feel bad" whichever choice they make.

It was also suggested that a more interesting issue than the limited choices facing women--more interesting even than the issues of what constitutes good child-rearing and mom-satisfaction--are the pressures on all Americans to live lives of high competition and stress, and to "feel ashamed if they choose a saner way to live." At a personal level (with the assistance of willing partners), balances can be obtained, but the issues might more usefully be framed on larger socio-economic levels: is a "systematic campaign" afoot, aimed at persuading corporations to hire only the hardest-working types, the "compulsive nerds"? Why is it assumed that the corporate culture, and the culture of science, cannot be changed to be more "family friendly"? Why is the work culture too deeply entrenched to create a space to mother? (For more on this, see Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood.) Do we want an economy in which it is presumed that those in leadership positions in the power structure are working 80-hour weeks? Who sets such standards? Perhaps women are rejecting these pressures (or perhaps they are not: the Yale sample is double/triple-selected for privilege).

Discussion ended with various suggestions to ignore the warnings (such as those voiced by Baltimore, Summers and Story) to "watch out," and instead "do what you love"--even if it means that the U.S. will "cease to dominate the world."

The brown bag conversations will be abeyance for two weeks, but are invited, in the interim, to continue on-line.

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