Just in case you wondered what they really say about you at the office

"I've just worked twenty hours without rest, and I'm fresh as a frackin' daisy, Ed!"

Hey, all of you unmarried, child-free women:  it’s not your imagination that you’re getting dumped on by everyone who leaves the office by 3:30 every afternoon to chauffeur their children in the the after-school soccer/ballet/piano lessons dash across town.  Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell suggested before a live mike this week that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is perfect for the job of Homeland Security Secretary because she has “no life” because she has “no family” and “can devote, literally, nineteen, twenty hours a day” to her new job!  What a lucky duckie.

Aside:  one of my best friends is a critical care physician who is the only unmarried, child-free person on her service.  Guess who’s always, always scheduled to work for every holiday?  Guess who gets pleading phone calls asking her to pick up a night of call, although her colleagues never reciprocate?

I first found this at The Clutter Museum, whose author has thoughtfully posted the video of Campbell Brown’s takedown of the Guvnah, in which she points out that both Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff have wives and families, and they were never asked how they would balance their families against the job as Homeland Security Secretary.  Here’s a fuller explanation of Rendell’s oopsie, and an excerpt from Brown’s commentary:

1. If a man had been Obama’s choice for the job, would having a family or not having a family ever even have been an issue? Would it have ever prompted a comment? Probably not. We all know the assumption tends to be that with a man, there is almost always a wife in the wings managing those family concerns.

3. If you are a childless, single woman with suspicions that you get stuck working holidays, weekends and the more burdensome shifts more often than your colleagues with families, are those suspicions well-founded? Probably so. Is there an assumption that if you’re family-free then you have no life? By some, yes.

2. As a woman, hearing this, it is hard not to wonder if we are counted out for certain jobs, certain opportunities, because we do have a family or because we are in our child-bearing years. Are we? It is a fair question.

I also appreciated the comment Brown made about Napolitano having other qualifications for the job aside from not being married and not having children.   Funny how actual skills and experience don’t come up as often as marital status and children do when evaluating women politicians, either favorably or unfavorably.

0 thoughts on “Just in case you wondered what they really say about you at the office

  1. As a gay man sans children (thankfully), I also have been presumed to have more time to devote to the workplace than my hetero child-riddled colleagues. Indeed, some have imagined that I would cheerfully pick up their slack because they were so busy with their own families and I, obviously, had nothing else to do.


  2. And, aren’t you grateful to have something to do with all of that empty, lonely free time, GayProf? I mean, you really should be thankful that your colleagues are looking out for you!


  3. Excellent point! I have a similar situation as GayProf – as a happily single, childfree lesbian, I’m assumed to have plenty of spare time to pick up the slack. At the same time, there’s another stereotype playing in, which may (or may not) be more prevalent for women. I was thinking about this the other day. There’s an assumption that “alone” is an imperfect state, a phase in life, evidenced by “oh, are you still single?” or “dating anyone yet?” This isn’t to say that I’ll never have a partner, or that I don’t date from time to time. I don’t, however, think of my life as a building-up to this inevitable point of coupled joy. I enjoy education and career advancement, and I also have hobbies (I study seven languages, people, give me credit!) and plenty of friends. When I’m busy and surrounded by people I love such as friends and family, I don’t perceive any lack in my life. Maybe Napolitano likes to get together for a weekly game of RISK with her friends, or is an avid breadmaker, or goes for a jog every morning. What’s to say these pursuits are some how less important, less fulfilling, etc. than husband and kids?


  4. Yuk! I guess J-Nap can relay those three a.m. phone calls to her fellow cabinetpersons who are home with their tucked in towheaded ones, after helping the prez. to put out the fires, of course. What about the SecDef? When a U.S.-flagged cruise ship (are there any?) gets captured by some Somalian pirates, is he going to be working the blackberry from the sidelines of a travel-team soccer tournament? This is scary.

    Our Gov. really toaded-out on that one, Historiann. It hasn’t made any news here, either, in the middle of deer season, so this is breaking… Hopefully Judge Rendell (tha’ missus) will slap a couple of weeks of ankle-braceleted work release/house arrest on him. And in the official mansion out in Harris’s Ferry, too, rather than the little ten-bedroom Colonial Revival fixer-upper in East Falls, Philadelphia.


  5. I just want to comment about scheduling for doctors with and without kids. Lots of urgent care doctors have rotten schedules, and having kids may not earn one much sympathy from colleagues. My father is a physician, and when I was young, he had to work and be on call at all sorts of undesirable times. The fact that he had 1-3 small children rarely if ever bought him a better schedule. Moreover, I recall one of his childless colleagues telling him once how much easier it was to make use of the inopportune vacation times that were available if one didn’t have children, whose schedules any vacation planning needed to accommodate.

    Of course, my father was a father, not a mother. Maybe female doctors with kids are treated better than those without. And now that my dad is the person setting everyone else’s schedule, I know he tries to be understanding of people’s family concerns, so maybe people without kids get less consideration as a result. He is very concerned with making scheduling decisions in a sex-blind way, however. (Apropos a discussion I’ve been following on another site recently, he got the rules changed so that male and female doctors get equal parental leave, for example.)


  6. Judith: Quite frankly, the parents of young children I know are probably envious of people who have the luxury of time that being “alone” affords. It’s a herd mentality–also among the gays, but not quite as oppressive as among the straights–that (in your words, Judith) “‘alone’ is an imperfect state,” a problem that needs solving, rather than just how someone’s life is, or (dog forbid) that it’s an affirmative choice rather than a “fate.”

    I’ve tried fixing up friends twice since moving to Colorado. (I didn’t do so uninvited–I had permission.) Both setups didn’t work out, so I’m out of the matchmaker business.


  7. Buzz, good on your father. My friend is a woman who works almost exclusively with other women. I wonder what they would do without her to take advange of. Her situation is an example of how “family friendly” workplaces can generate new kinds of unfairness and exclusivity.

    A family member of mine is a recently retired pediatrician who sucked it up and worked while his kids were growing up because he was the junior guy. When he became the senior guy, he, like your father, sucked it up in order to be fairer to the younger docs with babies and small children. (To be fair, though, my family member had a spouse who wasn’t in the paid workforce until their children were older, so he wasn’t on the hook for all of the kid stuff.)

    In general, I think the big problem isn’t that individuals take advantage of other individuals (although I don’t deny that it’s a problem), it’s that work is structured now so that no one can do it without it disadvantaging others–either co-workers, or family members, or ourselves (health, mental any physical) or (frequently) all of the above. We should all question the hamster wheels we’re on, whether we have families or not. As Judith points out, activities that don’t involve children or child-rearing are very important to people’s well-being and overall happiness. (Everyone knocks the French, but I think they’re onto something with the limited work week they have.)

    And Indyanna, I don’t think Rendell is a bad guy. I just think that he should use this as a “learning opportunity.”


  8. You knew I’d write in on this one, didn’t you?

    Actually, OPU is not a terrible place at which to work as a childfree woman. I never am explicitly asked to pick up slack specifically for the childed. However, there is a clear and omnipresent assumption that, if I am not scheduled to be in the classroom, I am available. Parents receive immediate deference if they must avoid a meeting, leave early, or arrive late because of their parental obligations. But saying you have to leave because of a circus rehearsal? No so effective!

    The other thing that irritates me is that we have “family friendly” policies that appear to be progressive on the face of it, but that are actually quite retrograde in terms of their definition of family. I believe it is beneficial both to workers and employers to provide some flexibility to persons with significant family obligations. The trouble is, OPU’s definition of “family” seems to come straight from James Dobson: what it really means is “parents of young children.” Our faculty (I don’t know about staff) have significant benefits if they are parents, from extended tenure clocks (1 year per birth) to the *amazing* option of half-time work for slightly more than half-time pay, and twice the time horizon for reviews and promotions. None of this, however, is open to persons with family obligations other than young children. What about someone who must care for a parent with alzheimer’s? Or someone whose spouse has a serious illness? (SweetCliffie is a cancer survivor, yet we would have had no help from OPU had his illness occurred while we were employed here.) A truly progressive policy would offer such benefits to all faculty who had need of some extra time to care for family members, regardless of the family members’ age or relationship to the employee.

    While I agree that family balance is important, it drives me nuts that the word family is so widely used as a cipher for “children” and children alone.


  9. Fixed–and I agree, wholeheartedly. (I was hoping you would chime in!) The fact is that people who don’t have children are disproportionately on the hook for dealing with elder care. (And, there are a lot of parents who will one day have to deal with their parents aging too, so wouldn’t a family leave policy that recognizes that be a benefit to all?)

    A friend of mine at my former university was irritated at the benefit that only parents of children get free tuition for their children at that university. She has a nephew whom she knows would really be able to use it, as his parents didn’t make a ton of dough. While aunts and uncles aren’t ordinarily expetected to chip in for a child’s college education, it would be more equitable to offer a one-time chit to child-free faculty for free tuition for anyone of their choice. You’re absolutely right that OPU’s policies inscribe another kind of privilege, while they work to dismantle other privileges.


  10. I’d just like to add that I not only think that the definition of “family” needs to be broadened beyond “children,” but also beyond blood- and legal marriage relationships. I think my earlier comment may have sounded exclusionary of long-term partnerships, whether gay or straight, that lack a legal sanction. That was not my intention: I should have used the word “partner” rather than “spouse.”


  11. I’m with Squadro. These days, people have extended-family responsibilities and concerns. For instance, I would love to be able to put my nephew on my benefits for the same reason as your friend would like her nephew to have the free tuition, Historiann. Neither of his parents are particularly wealthy. His father’s company only pays insurance for employees, not the family of employees. That means the the family is on my sister-in-law’s insurance. She works full-time and goes to college full-time. She’d like to drop down to full-time but they can’t lose the benefits. She’s willing to do without, but they can’t let my nephew go without. He is only four, after all, and has a heart murmur. His parents, due to proximity, will also probably be the ones who care for my parents as they become less mobile. I’d love to be able to do this one little thing for them.

    While I’m glad that so much has been done to make workplaces more accomodating to families, I wish that they would open the definition of family. I also wish that “family” would be seen a part of a bigger definition that encompasses “life not at work” and that, no matter what you do in that life, no one’s “life not at work” is less important than anyone else’s.


  12. Quite frankly, the parents of young children I know are probably envious of people who have the luxury of time that being “alone” affords.

    I sure am 🙂

    I don’t have much respect for parents who take advantage of childless co-workers. Admittedly, I’m not in a field with funky scheduling like medicine or academia; however, engineering has its moments of unpaid overtime, weekend emergencies, whatever. I had plenty of co-workers who had an awful lot of “convenient” family emergencies. (And some who used family as an excuse for why they were staying at work more. Those guys were asshats, though.)

    If I HAD to leave for kid-related reasons (e.g., “daycare closes at 6pm” or “my daughter has a horrible fever”), I knew that would put extra pressure on other (non-parent) engineers. But while I often couldn’t do overtime, I could do other things to make up for it, so I’d finish some boring paperwork for whoever had filled in for me. It’s simply not fair to use family as an excuse to not do your share of work. (I think I was the only one who ever did that, though.)


  13. At Brezhnev State U., where I toil in the mined-out heart of Transaltoonia, I’d say that no one is differentially asked or expected to take on specific structurally defined activities (such as unpopular teaching schedules or extra service assignments) based on family or dependent duties. And when I wrestled for several years with a gathering eldercare crisis–especially when it spiralled briefly toward meltdown–people of all designations stepped in to pick up the slack and never said a word about it, then or later. That said, kids do seem to be viewed as the equivalent of so many cutting-edge monographs who just happen also to need orthodonture appointments and soccer practices. If you crank out enough of them, it seems to be seen as beyond reason that you should also be expected to at least review some books here and there or even publish a few cookie recipes. (There are considerable exceptions to this generalization, I should say). Collectively, parenthood does seem to keep the life of the mind running a distant second to the life of the mined. There’s no coercive regime of presumptive task shifting, in other words. Less gets done in the aggregate. Creation of new knowledge becomes defined as a sort of lifestyle option, and there’s even been talk of a “granny track,” as colleagues, er… mature.

    That’s correct about Fast Eddie (Rendell), Historiann. Philadelphians learned years ago, and other Pennsylvanians more recently, you get the good with the comedic. I clicked on the Campbell Brown segment and he was pretty much just schmoozing. Still pretty tacky. He did flatten a few linebackers last spring to spring Hillary for a pretty big gain in April, and for that we’re still grateful. (I’m sure she’d whop him upside the head for the Napolitano jibe, however).


  14. This is a great thread. There seems to be a general practice at most law schools to require more service from women than men. That women with children would look to childless women for help or relief with this, rather then addressing the structural problem generally, is understandable if regrettable. I have to admit, I almost always turn to women when I need help, because that’s where I’m most likely to find it. It never occurred to me that childless men get dumped on as well, but it should have.


  15. Funny, I can’t answer this question for my department, because our junior faculty don’t have children. There are three senior faculty (out of ten of us) who were hired ten to fifteen years ago when ‘standards’ (ie uncompensated workload) were lower and they have teenage children. Anyone hired within the last ten years is childless, and given our ages we’ll probably stay that way. I do wonder what would happen if one of us insisted on childbearing – or got saddled with another kind of dependent care – and suddenly began refusing late-night and weekend department meetings, overload teaching assignments, etc. It would change the department culture, that’s for sure.


  16. Indyanna, I can’t tell if you’re complaining that child-free people are expected to publish more, or that people with children aren’t expected to publish at all? (Or is this not a complaint but just an observation about your departmental culture?)

    Ann, that’s very interesting–I think you’re right that child-free women are probably leaned on more by other women, because women expect that other women won’t judge them as harshly (or because women expect other women to do more work too.) You’re exactly right: it’s the institution that needs to accomodate family issues and needs, not individuals.

    And Deborah–I think the trend you observe is highly significant. In the age of increased expectations everywhere, where even places with 3-3 and 4-4 loads and no pre-tenure leave are expecting books for tenure (at least in History departments), I predict that the already low birthrate for women Ph.D.s will sink even lower. (Do you seriously have late night and weekend department meetings?)


  17. Oh yes. We have department meetings 8-10pm, or on Sundays, and yes they are mandatory. We’re also all expected to teach night classes. The college is also pushing students to take study tours now, which means that someone’s got to lead them, with no additonal compensation or course release (and spouses have to pay their own way if they want to come along, and forget bringing children). And, of course, a book for tenure. And salaries that are too low to support a family, so you can’t rely on a stay-at-home partner to pick up the slack.

    My department is half male and half female, and the male faculty don’t have children either (and probably won’t, unless they divorce and remarry younger women). So, this may be a problem for men as well.


  18. Pingback: Having a life « The Accidental Mathematician

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