Maternity is not an option, even in gender studies

I work in gender studies, a highly feminised domain that question sexism most of the time and even there, pregnancy during Phd is not an option (no matter your age and how long last your research contract). I hesitated a long time to point it out here because I didn’t want to criticize a domain that already challenge university in so many ways about sexism. But now that many stories have shown that the refusal of maternity is rooted in the university, I can say that a lot of teachers and researchers in gender studies I work with transmit it.

Maternity and research are opposed. And you can see it the most clearly in the reactions of many professors and researchers about the rare women who go over it and are pregnant during the Phd. Many time, I assisted at conversation that said ” What a bad idea, what was she thinking?” as if having a baby was not a conscious decision but the result of a moment of madness (does it remind you the way medicine conceived the woman as irresponsible and overwhelmed by her body in the nineteenth? Me, yes.)

A baby is only considered as a danger for the Phd, diverting the researcher from its goal and life: science. When gender studies investigate every other professions or history, the incompatibility between work and maternity is denounced. But research is not the same. It is an apart world. Making science is a much bigger job. But can I say that the highly flattering and positive image of the researcher giving his/her life to research etc transcended by her/his job is not neutral? It is a gendered and dated representation of the researcher from the time when university, science and researchers was only male and the question of private life and, more, the question of pregnancy, was simply absent. Unfortunately, this image is active for a lot of people, even for researchers working on women’s rights everyday.

This climate is aggravated by the sexism in the university. I remember a meeting when my research group had to choose the theme of the next colloquium. By strategy (and I agreed with), we deliberately didn’t choose subject like maternity and things that could be considered as “woman stuff” to avoid being “ghettoized”. As feminist researchers facing all this years of glorification of maternity in history, maternity is a subject of “bons mots” that show our distance with essentialism (above all, be sure not to be taken as a maternalist), not a subject of colloquium (or only in a roundabout way). I’m not saying that feminist are against maternity. It is a cliché. I’m saying that all this things put together reduce to silence the question of maternity at work even if this question is not closed, especially at university.

Because of this illegitimate “not now” climate, I spent many years convincing me that I didn’t want to have kids, that I will see later. And it took me so long (with a lot of personal pain) to go over this climate when I realized that in fact, I want kids now. Now that I’m facing the eventuality of a foreign post-doc and its practical issues, I regret not having done it before (besides, the “not now” discourse has been extended). Because of this and for other reasons, I want to take a time to ask myself what I want: continue research or not. And how to do it.

But, even if I stop, it will not be the end of the story. At the coffee break during the colloquium (this one not about “woman stuff”), a female professor in gender studies talked about a woman who decided to not continue in the university after her Phd and at the same time had her first kid. “What a pity”, she said “she abandonned”, clearly disappointed about her lack of feminist tenacity in a men’s world and talking about her as she has made the choice to be a stay-at-home mum (while she began a job in her domain. Just not at university). At the time a rapport was published about woman in research, these persons are the first to ask authorities about what they are doing to keep women in university, and I sincerely think it is wonderful. But I want to ask :

What are YOU doing to keep women in university ? Perhaps considering pregnancy as an eventuality (university has dispositions for that, I checked, finally) in place of a dangerous incongruity of a woman usually quite intellectual who has temporarily lost her mind could be a logical way to interact with all those women around thirty (and over) and a good way to start.

Story signed by : S.D.

The story happened to me as a PhD student in the year 2014 at an academic institution in Brussels

Posted under: sexism story

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