Sunday, April 06, 2008

False Choices and Jargon

Oonae over at Hopeless but not serious wrote about jargon in academic language in Simple problems, complex solutions. She dissected Russell Jacoby's jargon-filled rant against the use of false “binary oppositions”.

I have been ruminating about both issues (and bullshit) lately.

Why are we either "working moms" or "stay at home moms"? Why are mothers forced to choose? Why do employers demand "ideal workers" who can work at any hour and travel any where at the drop of a hat? Why do most men feel entitled to put their careers ahead of their partner's? All those shirked duties have to get done and who do you think picks up the pieces and keeps the family going?

It's not bad enough that Silda Spitzer felt that she had to quit her demanding job when her husband ran for higher office, but we have to hold her painful and private choices up for ridicule. Read Linda Hirshman's incredibly mean-spirited and unfair attack on Silda Spitzer. I've blogged about Linda Hirshman before, and I agree with her on some issues, but this is beyond the pale.

For those of us who live in the "reality-based community", you may want to read Debating Whether "Stay-At-Home Mom" Is A Worthwhile Profession for levity. (Thanks to Laura at 11D for pointing out this link.) Here is an excerpt but you should read the whole thing.

John Hawkins: I don't know. My last job before I went into blogging was doing tech support. One day they had a big meeting and told us they were laying us all off -- but, we could take huge cuts in salary and benefits to stay on. I said, "no, thanks." That's a bad break. She had a bad break, too.

I see being a stay at home mom as an honorable profession, one that is as good as pretty much any other. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but I think it's a great choice for the women who want and are able to do it.

Allison Sommer: Yeah, but you can take your skills and experience elsewhere. It's harder for a 50-year-old woman to do a lot with her "resume" of bearing someone's kids and running their house and giving dinner parties for their friends.

John Hawkins: True. But, there's more to life than having a nice resume when you are 50 years old.

Allison Sommer: I also think it's a totally legit life choice to be respected, particularly when the kids are small and school age. But I see it as a very problematic way to make it a lifetime career, profession, whatever.

John Hawkins: Depends on your marriage situation.

Allison Sommer: Exactly. Which is why girls should not be raised to bank on it as a "career choice."

John Hawkins: There are probably more women who succeeded in that "career choice" than any other world wide and in the US, over any period in history. That doesn't mean the other ones are bad, or that stay-at-home-mom is the best for everyone, but it works out very well for a lot of women.

Allison Sommer: Depends on your definition of success.
The part about his last job explains everything.

Another false choice harms both scientists who are mothers and our nation as a whole. If you follow the hand-wringing about the lack of females in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, you are familiar with the "pipeline" analogy. Much ado is made of putting more girls in the pipeline to increase output of women at the end. Actually, the situation is more acute than that. We possibly don't have enough people of any gender willing to enter the pipeline. And the pipeline is extremely leaky.

If we want to rectify the situation, maybe we can start with the way we frame the problem. Who wants to be the output of a pipeline? Why are there no efforts to bring people who have left STEM to come back to work in those fields? Instead, we just import more indentured servants on H1B visas which moves the benchmark "ideal worker" even further away from the reality of working parents.

Wow, this post got long. I will have to write about jargon in a separate post.

Do you remember the days when tech support calls from the US were answered in the US? Often they were answered by mothers working at home with young children. (One could hear the occasional child competing for attention at the other end of the call.)

The companies set them up with an extra phone line and a computerized database of common questions and answers. The women could set their status as available or unavailable and calls to 800 customer service lines were automatically routed to workers who set their status as available. They were paid for the time they worked.

Occasionally, when the women collected enough good customer reviews and their children were older, they moved into higher level troubleshooting positions that required more skill and training.

Where are those jobs now?


  1. Anonymous17:03

    Well, I know where some went: Mumbai. I work for a newspaper that, as of about 18 months ago, outsourced its IT calls to India. Now whenever those of us putting the paper out here in the U.S. have a computer problem for which we need to call the Help Desk, we're patched through to someone in India.

    We all have stories of frustration trying to get some of our problems resolved this way. I suspect the people at the other end have no dearth of stories, either.

  2. The pipeline leaks because it's so much easier to leave than advance from within. I used to be in STEM. I was a chemist. My career morphed, and continues to, into straight business (QA, Contracts, Program management...). I still work with the STEM community, but I no longer have lab hours, journal articles, or the like.
    Opportunities for more money, better hours, and so on kept presenting themselves with free education. And so I left the pipeline.
    Meanwhile life as a chemist had grueling hours, little pay, and advancement at times was constructed to be impossible for those in basic S&T like me.
    I don't regret leaving it either. If a field wishes to get and retain people, they have to be prepared to do what it takes.


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