Guest Blog: Conflicting Goals and Role Models

I’m still on vacation (we all know how important work-life-balance is!), so this week another awesome colleague of mine, Hanne Watkins from the University of Melbourne, is filling in and reflecting on role models and conflicting goals in the male-dominated world of academia.

I had gotten pretty far in my academic career – all the way to Honours – before I had a female role model. The fact surprised me then, and troubles me now. Had I really gone through all of High School and undergrad without having a female professional to look up to?

It is also possible, however, that I did have female role models before that, but that I hadn’t realised they were female. It sounds silly when I put it like that, but I think I can explain. Prior to my Honours year, I might have had role models – teachers, writers, researchers, politicians – who I looked up to as figureheads in their respective professional and public domains, but where their gender (and mine) was irrelevant to their position as “my role model”.

But regardless. In Honours, the gender of my role model was suddenly relevant. She (let’s call her K) was a lecturer at my uni; she was smart and friendly and gave me career advice. These are all (arguably) gender-neutral activities, so I don’t want to overstate the centrality of the gender aspect of her role. Gender became salient to me, however, for two reasons. First, because K herself often talked about gender, feminism, and academia. Second, because she was over forty, single, and childless.

Going by cultural stereotypes, “forty, single, and childless” sounds like a woman’s nightmare. But K wasn’t living a nightmare. She was happy, she was an academic, she was smart and friendly and gave me career advice – and I wanted to be like her. Prior to meeting K, I had on some (mostly unconscious) level assumed that children would inevitably enter the picture at some point in my future. She freed me from that illusion, by showing me an alternative reality; a reality I wanted for myself as well, and which, thanks to her, looked achievable! Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was something of a revelation.

I’m not overly familiar with research on role models. But, I believe one theory suggests that for role models to “work”, you first have to have a desired goal, then you have to see someone who has achieved that goal, and then you have to perceive a “fit” between yourself and that person. (And some of the causal arrows probably go in both directions.) K ticked all the boxes. I wanted to be a childless academic in the future, K was that person now, and I was like K in that we were both female. (And, you know, smart and friendly and fond of dispensing advice. 😉 )

For a while, things were going along swimmingly.

Then, something dramatic happened: I started to want to have kids.

By that stage I had met lots of other amazing female academics, some of them older than me, some of them not; some of them with kids, some of them without. So you’d think I could find a role model among them, right?

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that simple (surprise surprise). Thinking about the research on role models, however, has made me ponder how my predicament can be understood through the theory of role models I described above.

I have two desired goals: have children, and be an academic. I’m not willing to give up either goal, which means my combined goal is to be an academic who has children. As I said above, I have met plenty of women (and men!) who have achieved that goal. However, I wouldn’t describe any of them as my role model for this combined goal. Instead, it’s as if my goals obstinately generate their own, separate, role models.

On the one hand, I aspire to be like some awesome academics I know; whether they have children or not seems irrelevant. With some of them, I perceive a fit – they are “like me” in some ways, and so they are the ones I would call my role models, and they are the ones who inspire and motivate me.

On the other hand, I aspire to be like some awesome mothers I know; what else they do seems irrelevant. Unfortunately, with none of these do I perceive a fit – because none of them are academics. This makes me feel as if my goal of being a mother is incompatible with being an academic, even if, as I said above, I know this isn’t true.

 

So. In some ways, what I have just written is just another version of the “oh no I have conflicting goals and I will have to find a way to compromise”-dilemma. So I’m sorry that it’s old news.

However, I think the new news, to me at least, is that the theory of role models can help me understand why these goals of mine seem to conflict at such a deep level.

Sometimes, the parenting-working conflict seems to be portrayed as a matter of time-management, organisation, and communication – certainly challenging, but relatively “superficial” things. Seeing the conflict as one between competing role models, however, suggests that it’s not just a about what I might want to do to achieve my goals. It is about who I want to be.

No wonder it’s difficult.

Advertisements

Do Men and Women Have Different Career Goals?

Initiatives aiming at addressing the under-representation of women in certain domains often include flexible or part-time working arrangements. The idea behind this seems to be that women often find it harder – and more important – to achieve a good work-life-balance, while other career goals such as prestige and a high salary are important to men.This of course makes sense, as women still take over a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work, while men are still seen as being the main earner of the family’s income. But times are changing – so is it really still the case that men’s and women’s career goals are that different?

A study that we conducted with academic staff at the University fo Exeter indicates that this isn’t necessarily the case. We asked them to rate the importance of different career goals on a scale from 1 to 7 and as you can see in the figure below, patterns were pretty similar for men and women. So it seems that it isn’t so much that women and men (at least in our sample) have different goals – but it might still be harder for women to achieve some of them.

importance

Improvements and Barriers for Women in Medicine

While there has been great progress for women in medicine, there are still obstacles and barriers they face and which need to be addressed. In an interesting short article, Hamel and colleagues reflect on these issues for women in academic medicine in the US.

They also talk about potential interventions to close the gender gap and a need to emulate those that have already proven successful such as making promotion criteria more explicit and assessing the appropriateness for promotion for both men and women once a year.

Demanding Careers, Work-Life-Balance, Family Life and Happiness

Just like surgery, academia is a time consuming career to have and poses a challenge to a good work-life-balance. Radhika Nagpal, a professor for computer science at Harvard, is a woman who made it into a field that is – just like surgery – still very male dominated. In a recent guest blog post on Scientific American she talks about how she manages her life, her career, her family and her happiness. Although not all her points may apply to surgery, her article is certainly worth a read and contains some useful advice for managing a demanding career in general.

In her article she describes seven things she did to make sure to enjoy her life and her career despite its demands:

  • Pretending that her position was a seven year post-doc to take the pressure off her and rather enjoy being able to work with some amazing people in her field
  • Stopping to take advice and rather go her own way (such as focusing on her research instead of trying to network like crazy)
  • Creating a “feelgood” e-mail folder that contained her successes such as job offers and which she could read when things weren’t going as well
  • Working fixed hours in fixed amounts – both in her career and as a parent.
  • Trying to be the best “whole” person that she can. Realising that it is impossible to be the best, most dedicated academic who spends all her time working as well as the best parent who dedicates her entire life to her kids and the best partner who is there for her other half in every moment, supporting him always and unconditionally, she decided that it was a much more attainable goal to be neither of those but rather the best “whole” person who combines a little bit of all of this.
  • Finding real friends outside of her field who are not concerned with her career.
  • Having fun “now” rather than constantly working towards a future in which the fun is hopefully going to happen.

To read the full article (do it! It’s really inspiring!), click here: The awesomest 7 year postdoc or how I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure track faculty life