Todd Pettigrew mansplains how women in the academy should choose their choice

Attention conservation notice: Don’t lecture women on their choices based on cheap shots and self-aggrandizing stories about your own experiences.

Two of my brilliant students, Eli Glazer and Alejandro Sanchez-Lopez, tweeted this post to my attention. It’s by Todd Pettigrew, in Macleans Higher Ed. Why do people write these things? Since Eli and Alejandro are two of my favorites, I’ll dissect it, even though it’s so flimsy it does not deserve the attention. There, Dr. Pettigrew, are some clicks for you. Enjoy.

First of all, the issue: women on the tenure track balancing career and family.

I am often hard on my colleagues who are good demanding things for themselves because of caregiving concerns, but who never ever think that their demands should be made generally of the institution, for all people working there, from the janitors to the provost. If I hear one more comment on “Can female professors/other privileged occupations have it all?” I am going to barf/start smacking people upside the head. For one thing, it suggests that work and children are “all” and that women who don’t have both are lacking in one or the other, and why don’t we all just back up and let women and their partners and their families decide what “all” is for them and try to help them attain their goals? That strikes me as cool.

And second, nobody is asking the women cleaning toilets if they can have it all. I’m happy to worry about the problems of women on the tenure track, but only so far that I worry about the problem of uncompensated caregiving work and its distribution between genders in general. People caring for terminally ill spouses and aging parents have caregiving work, too, and it takes time and energy and money, too, and they tend to get fewer workplace accommodations than parents of either gender do.

So I’m not automatically inclined to take up the cause of extending caregiving time and childcare benefits to parents on the tenure track, but I am inclined to do so for people in general. Kids are important to us all, just like caring for the sick or aged matters to us all. Period. People who need care (i.e., all of us, at some point) are part of society. They are ours–not just some women’s problem to deal with. Ours.

But my students, who have to deal with me picking on their lapses in reasoning all semester, are waiting to see a response to Pettigrew, and I am happy to oblige. Please never write stuff like this piece. If you do get a public forum for your ideas, please show humility, reason, and care. That’s your job as somebody who is trying to influence policy.

The first set of problems: 1) Pettigrew appears to have no idea what it’s like being a woman in male-dominated field in the academy; 2) he appears no have idea what things are like in science departments; 3) he probably has no clue what things are like at major research universities because he never appears to have been at one, except as a grad student. His willingness to speak to ‘academic women’ as a ‘progressive man’ begins from a position of basic ignorance about many things salient to the discussion. That is your first sign as a writer and a reasoner: if you must write about a topic that is way outside of your experience, go with humility first. Tread carefully. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about intellectual humility and the spirit of exploration. And not sounding like a tool.

Let’s break down the argument, point by point.

Lousy/Borderline unethical argumentation alert #1: Distorting the original argument for your own ends.

A recent article in University Affairs, for instance, reports on a study by Shelley Adamo who argues that women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they “are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. ‘That sort of handicaps them,’” according to Dr. Adamo.

First, as a married man I resent the claim that a husband or other life partner inevitably “handicaps” the career of a female academic. If your special someone doesn’t think your career is important, then find someone who does. And what about the life partners who support their academic spouses by paying the bills while their partner is burning the midnight oil?

How did “…that sort of handicaps them” turn into a claim that it “inevitably handicaps” anything?

That distorted framing–which is a form of audience manipulation–starts from the headline onward. “Academic women should stop blaming their children” is designed, pure and simple, as click-bait. The women in the original study are talking about the issues that arise for them in their roles working between career and children. If they blame anything, it’s the academy’s inflexibility, childcare provision scarcity, and a broad misunderstanding/denigration of the time and energy that caregiving takes. Nobody’s blaming the innocent widdle kiddies, although it helps Dr. Pettigrew construct a moral highground–for the children I speak!–atop a straw man–or straw child in this case.

Lousy argumentation alert #2–Personalizing something not about you. “I resent the idea…”

We should all be worried that he resents the idea…. Of course, he is distorting the ideas specifically so that he can resent something, but we should all be concerned about his feelings about something that was never said or even seriously implied rather than waste our time worrying about the issues/arguments/ideas concerning caregiving work.

Lousy argumentation alert #3–The Facile Contradiction

Next up: the assertion about the supportive partners. Sure, we all know supportive partners exist; I’m even fortunate enough to have one. Isn’t that clever of me?

But that is cheap argumentation 101: find a contradiction to a claim and then act like that contradiction proves something. But without evidence, we can’t tell if the contradiction reflects the prevailing trend (i.e. most people have supportive spouses) or whether this is a man-bites-dog contradiction (it happens, but it is not particularly illustrative of social life).

The contradiction may prove nothing for all we really know, but it does superficially reassure us that if a guy takes out the trash or holds down a job, women don’t need childcare or extra help attaining career success. See what I did there? Woo! I, too, can distort arguments and imply they are wrong, deeply wrong by contradicting something that was never claimed in the first place.

Of course partners can play a supportive role; relationships are mix of give and take. But even supportive spouses can add complications to the highly specialized, and often narrow, chances for academic careers and fieldwork. When you have more people to accommodate in your career move, fieldwork, and schedule, the accommodations become more constraining. It’s hard to drop your family and go do fieldwork in Indonesia for 6 months; it’s probably even harder to take them with you. Certainly people do it, and certainly it affects parents and scholars of both genders. That’s why we should grapple with the concerns that caregivers have in general, not just lecture women (or anybody) about choices.

Oh, and just get yourself a partner that supports what you do, why doncha? It’s all so easy. Make your whole life fit the academic world, lest ye or anybody start questioning academia or the way academic institutions treat people. If some partner of yours doesn’t immediately fall in line with your career or has needs of their own, ditch ‘em. Trade up.

Lousy argumentation alert #4: Remove the nuance from a set of ideas, then distort those ideas, for your own rhetorical convenience. This one is really a work of art.

As for children, there are, to some extent, biological realities that would put extra strain on any woman trying to get to the forefront of her field. Still, feminists have been hammering the point home for over a generation now: women control their own bodies and should be able to choose whether or not to have children. But if that’s the case, then women can’t blame children for lack of academic success. If it’s a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers.

Biological realities that would put extra strain? To some extent? I don’t know what he meant to convey by that, so let’s skip it. Then he goes on to hoisting feminists on their own petard of choice! Devastating!

Only, again–he’s taken a grossly unfair read of what many feminists have argued. Feminists in reality are a diverse bunch and hold a wide range of positions on the body and birth control, but since that doesn’t serve his argument, he just flattens out what those “feminists” say for his rhetorical convenience.

And talk abut distorting an argument for self-serving reasons. I’m pretty sure what those hammering (oh, rhymes with yammering) feminists did not mean that women need to be able to control their reproduction so that it suits institutions. Yes, by gum, those institutions are so darned swell, we should expect women to make their choices to fit those institutions–not expect those institutions to evolve in pro-social, pro-family ways that would help parents of both genders manage their work and family roles. THAT’S JUST CRAZY. Choose, women, choose. CHOOSE YOUR CHOICE, women; you may have only one role! Men, carry on as you do, not having to make these choices because there are no career implications for you. (Only there probably are if you aren’t a crap caregiver, no matter what your gender.) Aren’t men swell for not whining or blaming their children in this situation?

This, from “a progressive man”? Does his dictionary have a different meaning for the word “progressive” than mine? Is there an obscure definition where progressive means assuming that maintaining existing institutional practices and cultures matter more than social inclusion?

Lousy Argumentation alert #5: The just-so story about oneself used as evidence, with straight-up misogyny mixed in

But what gets me is the way Fullick slips children into the mix of things that just happen to unsuspecting candidates: “Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child.” By the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms around pregnancy. Forgive me, then, but the birth of a child does not intervene. If you choose to have a baby while a graduate student, that’s your choice.

First, the misogyny. Note how he implies single responsibility for pregnancy to women: “by the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms…” Women, this is all on you. Having a child is not a family thing, a decision made in family and social contexts. It’s you and you alone. Those of us who advocate for women’s rights to choose also understand that partners and families have a stake in those choices, btw. What entitlements that stake grants is contested, fine, but women are not baby factories with on and off switches just because they have choices.

He does have a point about the passive language in the original text, but he once again overblows the passivity and amplifies for his own self-interested ends to score some cheap points rather than actually making an argument.

Yes, graduate students of both genders do know where babies come from, but what does that prove, again? Just because you know where babies come from, and you can use birth control to set the timing does not mean you are free to dictate the exact, proper, conditions for when childbearing come together in your life. Waiting for a “good time to have children” strikes me as a luxury–some people have it, other people do not. I suspect parents try to do the best they can. I worked a demanding job before graduate school that precluded kids: if I had said “no kids until tenure” we would have started trying when I was 39. Risks for maternal and child health go up by a lot by that age; check the numbers. So then….that’s my choice had I wanted children in Pettigrew’s framing? All so no university ever has to be bothered with coming up with ideas and practices that help out workers who have children?

So that we can understand how the pros do the baby factory on/baby factory off, Dr. Pettigrew does give us an instructional, just-so story about his own prudence:

When I was a graduate student, my partner and I discussed it seriously and decided against it. No child intervened. And we didn’t get lucky. We decided.

Never mistake your preferences or your experiences for evidence in argumentation. Dr. Pettigrew does both here.

How is HIS personal experience illustrative of anything other than a willingness to argue from an N of 1? Good job making the choice that worked for you. We’re all so glad for you. I guess this means you’re absolved from accommodating people who make different choices than you? How does that work in a cosmopolitan community amongst ‘progressives’?

Finally, it’s clear from Dr. Pettigrew’s tone and his cv that he has no idea what the work expectations are for women in science or at major research universities. Resources for parents and kids are likely to vary substantially by university context, along with work expectations.

Pettigrew is an associate professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. He has no idea what a young parent starting out in biology or any other science at a place like USC or Columbia is up against. I’m sure he had high teaching expectations placed on him–but I have no way of judging whether that’s easier or harder than what we had to go through to get tenure at USC.

And neither does he. He’s just willing to presume he does my know my life, and the lives of women in the academy more generally. That’s the art of the mansplain.

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