For much of the past 6 weeks since the September start of the academic year, my wife has been traveling to Switzerland, Kosovo, New York, and Washington DC for her research on the relationship between the military and health care systems. And I have had trips to Pasadena and Chicago, and tomorrow I'm off to Baltimore. This has certainly made for some challenging logistics on the home front, as we have three young daughters and the timing of these trips coincided not just with the start of the semester, but also of course with the start of public school. It's all going went well (both the research expeditions, and on the home front), but I was recently reminded of a conversation we had at the end of August (and on the eve of that very hectic September).
On that particular evening, after the kids had finally agreed to go to sleep, my wife and I were each checking in on the emails that had poured in during the 5-8pm window. "Another invitation for us to speak about work and family" she said. But then she furrowed her brow and didn't look enthused. "What's up?" I asked.
Over the past couple years, we have participated in many of these opportunities to speak with younger researchers who are on the academic path but wondering about how to navigate it with family. I guess we are a natural fit for such panels: My wife is a double-board-certified MD with a full-time research career, and I am professor of astronomy, and we have young children.
So, what was my wife's worry about the invitation? Our concern is that these invitations are (almost) always from women-in-science groups and the audience is (usually) overwhelmingly women.
(Let me first be clear on a couple issues: First, we love doing this, and are delighted to speak to exactly these audiences, and so please invite us for more! Second, what I'm about to say pertains to hetero couples, but I certainly don't want to imply that this is the only family model!)
OK, so what we would REALLY love is to receive such invitations from groups with a heavy participation from men, particularly given that men are still the significant majority in our field even at the graduate student and postdoc levels. Postdoctoral associations, graduate student associations, a Friday 4pm chat... I don't have an easy answer, but surely there is a way to have these sorts of discussions with our students and postdocs as part of their professional development, just as we hold journal clubs and workshops on grant-writing and speaking, and not leave this to be arranged by women-in-science groups. I would love to be approached by a group of men-in-science who are excited about the future but worried about their ability to balance family and work!
Our feeling (and what we try to convey at such panels) is that in the present climate you really can have both a family and a stimulating research career. The key is that your partner must be exactly that! If you are going to have a partner and the partner is a man, then it is essential that he views this as his issue every bit as much as yours. There are many men out there who have lots of advice, both about the practical issues as well as the broader challenges. However, until we create a mechanism for these discussions to include most of the junior men in our field (and ultimately instill a sense of co-ownership among men of this issue), we will likely continue to stumble on the same problems that have plagued us in the past.
I would love to read in the comments examples for work-family events that could engage (or have engaged) a larger number of the junior men in our field.