Monday, February 1, 2010

Fertility, Reproduction, and Women in Academia

I've been away from blogging for a bit due to some computer problems (ie, my hard drive died, I was without my laptop for a week, and now I'm still trying to get all the necessary files and software re-loaded on the new hard-drive). I'm still slogging through a new course, and have scheduled my proposal defense for a few weeks from now, so I'll probably not be posting much for this month.

Anyway, there are a couple things I wanted to post about. One is some thoughts about my upcoming fieldwork, but I'll hopefully write that sometime soon. However, right now, I'm thinking of several things I've read recently, that all seem to intersect around the issue of reproduction and fertility, and how that intersects with women's lives.

First, the aol news that pops up whenever my computer signs into AIM (which it does automatically) was kind enough to inform me of a headline to the effects of "90% of women's usable eggs gone by 30." Not the most reliable source, but really not something I would like to hear, given that I definitely won't be any position to consider having kids until I'm in my 30s. Next, I read a post over at Isis the Scientist about post-docs, and a comment about how lengthening post-docs delay the start of stable academic employment (ie, a tenure-track position). Given that most of us finish graduate school in the late 20s or early 30s (or later), the timing of post-docs and attaining economic and career stability (if that every happens), is very inconveniently timed for women's lifecycles. And then, finally, I read a post at Aardvarchaeology, in which it was suggested that the best way to reduce your environmental footprint and reduce population is to not reproduce/limit how many children you have.

Anyway, all of these things are hitting me at a time when I am considering how extremely completely incongruent female biology is with an academic life. While I care deeply about the world's overpopulation crisis, I also understand, but personally, and from an anthropological perspective, how crucial motherhood, and the possibility of motherhood, is to a woman's life. It is, in many ways, what defines female-ness, it is what the female neuroendocrine system is pulling to do, and it is a deeply personal choice that effects how an individual women will define herself in relation to her family, her community, her legacy and contribution to the world. For that reason, I think it is something that must be a viable option to women, and perhaps even a right.

In my global perspectives on human health class, we discussed the issue of access to fertility treatments for women in developing in countries. On one hand, it seems counterproductive to provide these options, when our world is overpopulated. On the other hand, an article we read (this was a couple years ago, so I don't remember what it was called or too many details) described the challenges Egyptian women faced when they were unable to have children. If a women cannot have a child, it effects how her husband, family, and community perceive her, and increases the risk that her husband will divorce her to remarry a younger, more fertile women. In that perspective, I can see how access to new reproductive technology could change women's lives, and how the option to have children can be seen as a right.

That said, the situation is a bit different, politically and culturally, for women in the U.S. Nontheless, the lack of adequate maternal/paternal leave and childcare options, plus the stigmatizing effects it has on career trajectories, creates a cultural and political environment when the option to have children is stifled. It still is an option, and it's one that many women pursue, but there seems to be definite pressure against it in the US. And, most importantly, this pressure largely falls on women. While men also have to make compromises to have children, it does not affect their career prospects or earning potential in the same way, nor does it as strongly affect how individual women are perceived both academically and culturally.

Anyway, my point is, I think we should recognize the importance of children in people's lives, particularly for women. And I'm thinking about this a lot, because I would really like to have children at some point. However, when I think about how all of anthropological training and research affects how I would want raise my children, it also goes very much against my career aspirations. And while this might be less of an issue in Canada or Sweden or Denmark or any other current with greater support with healthcare, maternal leave, and childcare options, in the US, I feel it is a big concern for women in American academic careers.


  1. Whenever I mentioned to other female academics in the past that the career seemed incompatible with having a child (because so few of the TT or tenured ones actually had children) they dismissed it as a choice they made not to have children in the first place or insisted that it could be done and pointed out all the women who had kids (not very many, so I wasn't convinced).

    However, I do think it can be done. Even in the field, as Jane Goodall did it.... now I realize she's a superwoman, but I firmly believe if there's a will, there's a way. Some things will have to be compromised.

    It really helps to have a second parent who is capable of shouldering a fair amount of the child care responsibilities too. In our society, mother's are still seen as the primary caregivers so they are the ones expected to take time off work after a baby is born, take days off when the child is ill, and so on. I think if more men did so, society wouldn't expect women to always do it and career trajectories would look different.

    Academia is still one of the few places where you can largely work from home if you want to (unless you have a lab-oriented position, in which case you're just buggered!)

    I am with you on childcare and (paid) parental leave policies. I'd be willing to pay higher taxes to have those, personally.

  2. There's a good anti-alarmist counter to that ABC News article at the Intersection bloog on Discover's site (I can't paste the url in the comment box).

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