In December, I attended two conferences back to back, one here in Canberra and then another in Sydney. I got to present my research at both, as well as meet researchers from industry and academic and listen to many lectures and other research presentations. Over the course of the two conferences, in both tracks I attended, there were only two other female presenters, a professor from Arizona and a professor from Spain. No other female students in my tracks. This isn’t unusual, but I am always very aware of it.
I want to share and contrast two antidotal stories I heard told by two different men at the conferences. The first story was told by a man who founded a successful solar research company. As the company expanded, they relocated from a larger city near the ocean to a remote inland desert sight. Both the ocean and pollution from the city were negatively impacting the solar research, and desert sights are often best suited for concentrated solar technology. The antidotal story went something like this:
When the man moved his family out into the desert because of his job and company, the man told his wife they would probably be living there for a year and a half to two years as the man completed that phase of his research. The wife said she’d stay there a year, tops. The man jokes that three years later, his family is still living with him in the remote desert as the research stretches on. And he chuckled at that.
The second story was told by a man who was a professor at a prominent California university until he was invited by President Obama to serve as the first scientist (as opposed to politician) Secretary of Energy. He was very successful as the Secretary of Energy during President Obama’s first term and enjoyed his position in Washington. When President Obama was reelected, the president asked his Secretary of Energy to serve with him for a second term. And the antidotal story went something like this:
After President Obama was reelected and the man shared with his family that the president had asked him to serve as Secretary of Energy again, the man’s wife said to the man that everyone is replaceable, even him. And that she was going back to California with or without him. So the man told President Obama that it had been great working for him, but he was going back to California. And he chuckled at that. The man went on to become a professor at a different and even more prominent California university.
The difference in these two stories was so striking to me. The first is typical. Individuals in research are expected to make sacrifices for their research and their research careers. They have to make the hard decisions like asking their family to move to the middle of the desert. And I think there is a lot of social pressure on families (read wives) to support their spouse’s career, to swallow the discomfort of living in the middle of the desert. And for the career demands (like extended time in the desert) to take presidence over the wife’s demands (only living in the desert for one year). When I heard that man’s story and heard him chuckle, I wondered about the wife: how happy or miserable she really was in the desert, if it was bad enough that she wanted to give him an ultimatum like the second man’s wife gave, if she feared the man would choose his career over his family if she did. And I wondered about the people in the audience, listening to the story, laughing along with the man, who took a story that was really about the wife’s sacrifice as normal, even expected, spousal behavior with regard to balancing career and family.
I loved the second story. I loved it because the way the man told it. He didn’t apologize for his wife. He didn’t imply that she was being over-demanding or excessive or even color her ultimatum negatively in any way. He told the story like it was a funny and true thing that she said and he responded in the only way he personally could respond: that of course he would follow his family back to California, regardless of what it meant for his career. It should be noted that a professorship at a prominent California university is in no way a downward career move, but that isn’t really the point. I think the reason the man told the story was to explain how he ended up doing his current work instead of working with the president. The point I took away from the story is that life is about career and family. Both are important.
I was so happy to hear someone as important as the former US Secretary of Energy state so plainly that he put family before career because that is not a narrative that I hear ever in academia. And personal, as someone who did ask my partner to give up his life and move across the world away from his family for my career, I appreciate people talking openly and candidly about the overlap of career and family, especially validating when family takes precedence. Because sometimes, family does.