Revisiting the Clara B. Jones mess: Hate the game?

Jun 03 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Over the weekend @phylogenomics must have been catching up on some blog archives, because he linked to my old Clara B. Jones post from over a year ago. Regular readers may recall that this was a follow-up to Jones' comments on EcoLog in response to a question about taking a child into the field during field season. It quickly spiraled into a numerated diatribe on Dr. Jones' wolrdview - that women shouldn't try and mix family and science, but abandon family and concentrate on work. The final stanza sums it up well:

As a final *opinion *to listserv readers; I consider it, possibly,
irresponsible for major professors, mentors, parents, etc. NOT to advise female graduate students of the disadvantages associated with certain personal choices (marriage, motherhood) IF they desire competitive research careers.

Other Jones highlights include the unsolicited advice for female scientists to freeze their eggs until post-tenure and pointing out that female grad student applicants really don't bring anything novel to the table. If you really want a good feel, you can even check out the tumblr that popped up in the wake of some of Dr. Jones' more recent comments.

So why am I bringing this all up again? Because of the twitter conversation that followed the post. In particular, @hspter felt that my criticisms were unwarranted and suggesting that I should focus on the sexism inherent in science over attacking a woman who has sacrificed for her career. She's just keeping it real.

In a way, I see where @hspter is coming from. If I'm interpreting her argument correctly (and hopefully she will clarify if I'm not), her sentiment is that Dr. Jone's is just telling the next generation of female scientists what they need to prepare for. She's outlining challenges and reporting the way she went about overcoming them. Rather have it blunt than blind. I can understand that and I'm not about to sit here and tell you I know any better. The data are clear that women have an uphill climb in science, compared to their male colleagues. Everyone has a story of women who can juggle it all and there are examples in our community as well. But the trends are clear and it's something that we need to fix.

Where I don't see eye-to-eye with @hspter is in the notion that comments like Jones' are totally fine and important to expose women to. Whereas I am all for addressing realities, I would argue that Dr. Jones' comments are a form of passing sexism down to the next generation. I'm not alone in that interpretation of Jones' comments and the ensuing discussion.

One can argue that it's best for young scientists to be faced with this kind of thing early on so they know what they are in for - get out now, while they still have a chance. But to me that's just propagating the problem. If we bow to the bigoted voices in the community and drive the people we most want to retain away at the early stages, there is no chance to make progress. I called out Jones' comments because I don't think that saying things like "most female applicants are inferior" reflects reality, nor is it the message that should be heard from senior people in the community. Not everyone agrees with me, which is fine. I think it's worth exploring both the message and the subtext, which is why I'm bringing it back up. I think anyone in the scientific community who makes bigoted statements needs to be called out, regardless of their target. If the community lets it slide, then people get the message that it is acceptable. The road to change starts at the level of the community and attitudes that are commonplace there. It is critical for voices for equality to be loudest in bigger arenas.

15 responses so far

  • Susan says:

    False dichotomy from hipster. Why must I choose between attacking the player and the game when BOTH are sexist and problematic?

  • Hilary says:

    So I have a couple follow-up comments. First, I read Clara B. Jones' first statement in a vacuum -- I'm defending her in your post about work-life balance, not the ensuing threads where she makes remarks about how "most women applicants are inferior" (though I will get to that later).

    Too many female scientists go into academics thinking that they can have it all, which simply isn't the case. A woman scientist may think she has a supportive spouse who will share the parenting load, but as surveys have shown men assume women will take over parenting when times are tough. The onus of making a dual-career family work still falls on women, and often that results in women backing into the position of giving up their career for their family even though they didn't plan it (again, the survey is illuminating). Therefore, having a woman like Dr. Jones explain the tough choices she had to made, as well as the reality that trying to be the has-it-all supermom simply isn't going to work, is a valuable thing for women to hear. The reality is that women have to make harder choices than men do, and that sucks. And this bait-and-switch ("I'll share parenting.. oh wait no I expect you to do everything!") in relationships makes me so mad I can't see straight.

    The reason I came out swinging about the first post is that you didn't acknowledge that she, as a woman scientist, faced an entirely different set of problems than men did. You lumped the male work-life balance and the female work-life balance problems together, and furthermore harshly criticized a woman for making the work-life balance decisions that she did. Silencing her and criticizing her advice minimizes her experience in science, which was that she felt in order to be competitive she had to give up custody of her kids. Whether or not that is a generalizable solution (she even says it isn't) isn't the issue -- it's what she felt she needed to do. Men do this literally all the time (giving up custody in I presume a divorce) and are not harshly criticized, so on top of the women-in-science issues, harshly criticizing a woman for giving up her kids also rubs me the wrong way, since it borrows on the idea that it's unnatural for a woman not to want to be a mother.

    Now as for her other sexist comments she made -- there is a sexist status quo (academia/family structure), and successful women scientists have somehow overcome it. There are generally two reactions to this: 1) recognize the inequity and try to bring it down, or 2) say "I made it in this status quo and so should you". I'm sure there is better terminology for this, but given the amount of sacrifices that Dr. Jones made, her comments reflect a sort of survivor complex. I and I am sure you and your readers would prefer for successful women to follow path (1) but I think it's unfair for any, especially those who haven't faced the same challenges, to criticize someone for following path (2). I don't interpret her comments as sexist (though I see how they have that effect) because they are the result of sexism imposed upon her by the institutions and she's managing it in a really common and recognizable way (path 2).

    I do think you and I agree on 99% of things here. I just think singling out a woman for her decisions and comments isn't the best way to fight sexism in science. I view her as a symptom of sexism, not a cause. Trying to silence her will only fight the symptom (and hides the fact that these symptoms even exist, thus misleading younger women scientists!). Changing the infrastructure of academia, as well as changing the family policies of the US, is the only way to fight the cause.

  • Busy says:

    I think anyone in the scientific community who makes bigoted statements needs to be called out

    Everyone, including a dude that has for the most part always done right, goes on to post something inane and deletes it thirty minutes later when he comes to his senses?

    p.s. I'm not saying that was the case with that tweet you linked to (I'm unfamiliar with that case), all I'm saying is that pursuing every case doesn't sound very productive use of your time, or, more importantly, other people's attention span.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Hilary, thanks for weighing in. I'll confess that one of the main reasons for writing this was that the more I thought about your point about Jones being a product of the system, the more I felt like I hadn't given that viewpoint a fair shake. However, I'm still not comfortable with giving her carte blanche to spout off about the perceived inadequacies of female trainees. While my initial post was sparked by the comments I linked to, there was certainly more context to her comments that I was aware of than just the single event.

    The interpretation of her comments does matter. From several conversations I had with others, there was an overwhelming sentiment that she was basically telling women that they shouldn't be in science if they want a family (or even marriage). No one I talked to (including a large number of women in science) felt this was representative of their experience or encouraging. It represents a false dichotomy for any woman in any intensive career: family OR career. I'm not going to argue that women do not face more difficult challenges in science (and other careers) than men when it comes to balancing the home and workplace, but I disagree that it is one or the other. It's possible to make people aware of the challenges without telling them to look elsewhere. Is the story different for lawyers at big firms? For CEO-types? Surgeons? So we say "family or career, pick one"? I can't get behind that and I'm not going to let that attitude go unchallenged. I would rather work to clear Path 1 than let senior people tell others that Path 2 is the only option.

  • Hilary says:

    I don't think she gets a carte blanche either. But if it were me and I were advising a student who had come across Dr. Jones' advice, I would say something like: "Her attitude is the result of systematic sexism. I don't think she is right to say all women are inferior etc., but you have to understand that her comments are the result of surviving in a sexist institution and internalizing many of the negative messages directed towards women. You can make different choices re: family, but you also need to know that you are going into a field that did cause some women to make these choices and internalize these messages. And here are the ways that I think the field should change to eliminate this problem..." etc.

    I think the issue I continue to have is that you keep phrasing this discussion as though it's women who need to be making different choices and have a different attitude. As I said before, I don't think women are actively making the choice of family vs. work but rather backing into it. (Even Dr. J herself presumably tried to have both family and career and then chose career when she surrendered custody of her kids). As it stands now, statistically for women being married with kids hinders their careers, whereas for men in enhances them. You bring up CEOs -- the proportion of women CEOs who are single is much higher then the proportion of male CEOs who are single. I'm not sure it's a "false" dichotomy when successful women are making these choices time and time again at rates much much higher than men. Can women make family/career work? Absolutely! Does it hinder their careers in a way that it doesn't hinder men's careers? The data says yes, and as a result some women make the choice to eliminate all hinderances to their career. It's a crappy reality that needs to change, but acting like it's not a reality or that women just need an attitude adjustment doesn't help change it. And women need to know it's a reality so that they know what they're getting into and plan/make choices accordingly (which minimizing the risk of backing into all family/all career life).

    Rather than focusing on women's choices, I think the discussion needs to be about the things that should change so that women can (like men!) "choose" both and not have it hinder their careers (I put "choose" in quotes because I don't think most men ever even seriously worry about having to choose one or the other). The things that need to change are 1) men/fatherhood (don't do the bait-and-switch on the career front, and have a default assumption of equal parenting) and 2) institutions (paid paternity leave, etc.). When these things change, women will be able to more easily choose both family and career.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Paid paternity leave doesn't seem to be that helpful either:

  • Hilary says:

    ugh, yeah I forgot about that study. Couple that with the fact that academic women are far more likely to marry other academics... is it really surprising that they are doing all the somersaults to do the career/family balance and even then sometimes failing? It sucks.

  • Hilary says:

    (Maybe part of the failing of that policy is that, by definition, academics are a subset of people who are least motivated by money. Paid paternity leave doesn't get you more publications.)

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Well, if we want to enact change, then yes, women do need to be a part of that changing attitude. Look, we're all scientists here right? Ok. We all know that you can throw one hypothesis on the board, and all the scientists in the room will come up with their unique way in how to test the hypothesis. One issue that I have with Dr. Jones is that she essentially says, if you want to succeed, this is the ONLY avenue.

    A career in science is messy. The lines between personal and professional life are often blurry and are, at times, incompatible. There are benchmarks set to monitor the upward trajectory of one's career. Personally, I refuse to apologize for having the gall to have children before tenure and expect that this decision will not impact my future career trajectory because, if I get tenure, it's because i've earned it, damnit. It will not be tenure with an asterisk--the asterisk indicating 2 kids.

    Now, how I handle these career decisions is what matters--do I ask permission and meekly move forward as if I'm so lucky to even be here, thank you so much for having me? No! And that's one of the points of this post. If I keep acting meek, then it will just reaffirm to some members of the faculty that I don't belong here. Act like you belong in your job. Don't apologize for having to go home for a sick kid or taking maternity leave. Realize that your relationship with your partner is fluid and will need to be's called assertive communication and being receptive to your partners needs.

    I don't know about having it all or halfing it all. I do know that if I let my husband go or didn't have my kids, my life as a scientist would not be as rich or rewarding. I also know that anytime a Dr. Jones gets a hold of a microphone, I, and folks like me, need to grab it right back and shout into it even louder-because the woman is a misguided loon.

  • DJMH says:

    Jones is spouting exactly what the patriarchy has always told her. I don't see any reason to give her a pass for having bought into it, any more than I think men should be given a pass for buying into it.

    All well and good to tell the next generation that having a career and kids will be hard, but the total absence of any hint of indicting the system for this is why her comments are (rightly) targeted by PLS.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    (Maybe part of the failing of that policy is that, by definition, academics are a subset of people who are least motivated by money. Paid paternity leave doesn't get you more publications.)

    My guess is that in the very early stages of having a baby, if the woman is breastfeeding, there is a non-negotiable need for the mom to spend more time with the baby. In the first 6 weeks they spend a lot of time eating (often an hour at a time) and sleeping, and men may find themselves without a lot to contribute to either. There's still things to do (housework, cooking, diapers, etc.) but there's idle time and an excuse to say no to "outside" work. That's a recipe for any academic to write.

    The equation rapidly changes as the kids get a little older and sleep less during the day, but the first 6 weeks is relatively uneventful. If you're raising the child on formula, this also dramatically changes the dual-parental involvement.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I went on sabbatical to Venezuela, in 1987, I took my youngest son along (16 years old). My wife came along for a couple of weeks, then went home. Our two older kids had flown the nest, and she was home alone. So she stayed up at our university late at night and used her department's single Apple computer to write a very well received professional book.

  • myninacat says:

    It used to be that women were considered too" inferior" for a medical school education, a dental school education and a pharmacy school education. These careers were dominated by men--one look at those old class pictures they hang in the hallways shows you who they thought were the superior intellects back in the day. Nowadays, as ANYONE will tell you, schools have to perform xgame level stunts to find male students on a par with females. Women are just killing all the pre-admission exams and are outstanding in EVERY way. I don't know where Prof. Jones works, but I find it highly suspect that all the women candidates and trainees she meets are "inferior". What is she judging them against--male traits that she deems "superior"? Or maybe she deems them "inferior" because when she tells them they will have to choose between marriage/family and career--they say-"Hell no--that was then--this is now--and I'm going to change that."

    I am honest with every student, male or female, who embarks on a career in research/academia. It is very tough. Women have it worse--but it has gotten better, and with more women moving up and into areas of power--we can hope it continues to get better. Maintaining or promoting way past-due attitudes simply because "it's what I endured--so you should too" is counter-productive and stupid. We should be focused on helping people--men, women, all races--succeed. We need them and their ideas if we are ever going to solve the problems that as a human race we are up against.

  • Readers: Please note that the author of this blogpost states that i have claimed female scientists in the USA to be "inferior". Indeed, the author has fabricated an inflammatory quote. Never have i implied or stated that females in Science are "inferior", and i do not believe same. i DO believe and have stated that, in my experience, young female scientists, on balance, are more likely than males to be generalists, less likely to have competitive quantitative skills, and are less likely to bring UNIQUE accomplishments to the table. I do want to agree w at least 1 interpretation of my comments: i do, indeed, think that a female w children and/or other caretaking responsibilities is unlikely to succeed at the highest levels of Science as defined in the USA and in the related global industry. I think that females choosing to prioritize activities other than work will, usually, bear high professional costs. I think any reader will find that all of my statements are qualified, that i highlight the subjective nature of my comments, and that i emphasize there are exceptions to what i perceive to be the rules. Indeed, simply by chance alone there will be exceptions. I have advocated that we study these exceptions. Finally, i have never discouraged a female from taking children of any age into the field...i have done so many times. My very tentatively expressed objections were to the idea of taking a baby into alpine habitat strapped to the female's back while collecting data, concurrently in real time. As i consistently have stated, anyone is free to disagree. clara b. jones

  • i am only now commenting on this post because it has taken me a year or so [since i first saw it] to think it over...first, i want to thank "Hilary" for attempting to put my positions, motivation[s], & experiences in context...i may be expressing "survivor complex;" however, my baseline assumption is that whatever sexism does exist in EEB does not, in itself, prevent individual females from having successful careers...there are, simply, too many options available in the arenas in which scientists play...for some time, i have wanted to remind my critics that my concerns are for those females in EEB who are attempting to achieve a position in the top 1% or 5% of the field...i am not concerned, particularly, in the female EEBer who is satisfied with being average [or, rather, for whom "average" is good enough]...without extending the discussion unnecessarily, please note that i have never, ever stated or implied that female EEBers are inferior to their male counterparts...finally, i feel strongly that female EEBers who want cutting-edge careers as well as a family can delay the latter until finding a partner willing to assume traditional roles; this is what males do, and there is nothing unfair about it...females have the same choice[s]...anyone may contact me @

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