Monday, April 18, 2005

If Harvard's president had really wanted to be provocative...

As a woman faculty member in the physical sciences teaching at a women's college, I was particularly struck by Lawrence Summers' recent remarks concerning the apparent unwillingness or inability of married women with children to manage the sacrifice of working 80-hour weeks. He might consider whether it is that women are less willing to sacrifice than men, or if they might have to sacrifice more. Few women scientists enjoy the luxury of a stay-at-home spouse, which means they must at best, take on half of the hours necessary for management of the household (and at worst, significantly more than half). I note that Princeton's recent study of its science faculty found that the majority of male science faculty had a spouse at home at least part time. None of the women did. If you don't have to prepare the meals, grocery shop, do the laundry, take the children to lessons and school, clean the house, you can work an 80-hour week, commute, contribute the roughly 10 hours a week that the average man does toward the upkeep of the household, sleep 7 hours a night and still enjoy 3 hours a day of down-time. That's enough to have a life: read a book, watch a movie, coach your kid's soccer team. Those three "extra" hours a day are roughly what I spend doing dishes and laundry, making beds, taking care of children, and mopping floors. In families like mine, where both spouses have to split the household management, there is a "second-shift" awaiting us both at home. I'm reasonably sure the majority of the guys at Princeton are not coming home to mop the floors!

I wonder why the general assumption that doing great science requires 80 hours a week doesn't appear to be up for discussion. I don't spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in the lab doing science, yet I have maintained a significant, high-quality research effort for almost two decades. My average number of citations per paper -- in some quarters a measure of their quality -- is competitive (or better) than that of the Harvard chemistry faculty. So while I may not publish as often as the faculty in Harvard's chemistry department, what I do publish is clearly read and used.

If Dr. Summers merely wishes to provoke, by all means rehash arguments that skirt the edge of "can women really do science and math?" or "women don't really want to work that hard". Instead, why not be truly provocative and ask why 80-hour weeks are necessary for academic science, ask if we are confusing quantity of publication with quality, ask if success in Ivy League science departments should depend on the unpaid, invisible work of women at home.

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