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There Is No Nobel Prize For Mothering

Despite decades-long increases in the number of women in the workforce, writes Dr. Maureen Sayres Van Niel, two standards for career development continue to exist: one for men and another for women, particularly mothers. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
Despite decades-long increases in the number of women in the workforce, writes Dr. Maureen Sayres Van Niel, two standards for career development continue to exist: one for men and another for women, particularly mothers. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Nearly all of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prizes have been announced — prizes that honor those who have made extraordinary contributions to their professional fields. Since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, fewer than 6 percent of the recipients have been women, a fact that is not only troubling, but predictable.

Despite decades-long increases in the number of women in the workforce, two standards for career development continue to exist: one for men and another for women, particularly mothers. Recent studies have shown that working women continue to carry a disproportionate share of the duties associated with running a household, including preparing meals, nurturing and organizing the lives of their children and elderly relatives, cleaning the home and doing laundry. With these unabating responsibilities adding extra hours to women’s schedules, we can understand that parenting may exact a greater penalty on women's career advancement than on men's.

Women have been tending to the heart of the world for a long time while being held back from promotions for being 'less dedicated.'

To illustrate the continuing problems women face, consider that for decades, women have been asking their employers if they could work part-time after the birth of a child or work from home a day or two a week. Over and over again, these women were told: “No, we don’t want to set a precedent. You will either work full time, on-site, or lose your job.”

Yet, more recently, numerous tech and startup companies haven’t had a problem allowing employees, both male and female, to work remotely, sometimes for several days a week. So we now have to ask: Why weren’t women’s needs as mothers enough of a reason to change the system?

It is no surprise, then, that the percentage of women in positions of leadership remains disproportionately low, whether we are talking about tenured faculty in academia, representatives in Congress, operations managers in manufacturing jobs or executives in the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies.

But while we have one eye fixed on the impossible challenges that society presents to women who are trying to fit their beautiful biology into a system not designed for them, we must keep the other eye trained on the more essential nature of mothering that has been a woman’s reward all along.

All these years that we’ve been debating over the work-family balance and whether to “lean in” or try to “have it all,” we have overlooked something. Many women have been deriving private satisfaction all along from the incredible parenting work they have been doing. Somehow, in the midst of their zigzagging work and family responsibilities, many women have successfully managed to weave together a strong, resilient family fabric. They have helped create a home environment suffused with their own personal family values, launching their children into the world every day to face its challenges, bolstered by the love they have received at home. Women have been tending to the heart of the world for a long time while being held back from promotions for being “less dedicated.”

The balance between achieving and nurturing will vary for each woman. We all know both stay-at-home mothers and mothers who work long hours outside the home who have succeeded at their jobs as master weavers of the family fabric who are trying their best to create an atmosphere of respect, growth, discipline and love among their family members. And fortunately, many men are contributing more and more to the household work and child-rearing and care deeply about the careers of their partners.

Each woman must forge a solution based on her own life circumstances, but the quest is always the same: to find the mix that will allow her to take care of her own personal and professional needs, help build a loving family life, ensure the financial survival of her family, and get help when she meets obstacles.

...we must all seek a more equitable division of household chores and child-rearing responsibilities among men and women.

In addition, though, all of us share the responsibility to work for meaningful change to accommodate working women’s unique needs with mandatory programs such as paid family leave, flextime scheduling, part-time work options or job-sharing, telecommuting options when feasible, assistance with child care, and workforce reentry assistance after a period of absence for child-rearing. And of course, we must all seek a more equitable division of household chores and child-rearing responsibilities among men and women when gender does not play a part in the task’s accomplishment.

Until society truly begins to change the institutional practices it tenaciously clings to, only a fortunate few of us will ever win the awards that society gives for professional excellence, such as the Nobel Prize. But one day, the rest of us may receive a surprise call. This call will not come in the wee hours from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Instead, it will come one night from a son who is frightened by a medical diagnosis or from a daughter who has just learned she got the job. The congratulatory call will come from that profoundly grateful child who knows so well how hard we have worked to help her grow stronger and smarter — from a child who understands how very much we have done to give him love and a good life, in the face of so many societal hindrances. This child’s deep gratitude, and our own ability to place value on what we have done, will be our Nobel Prize for Mothering.

Related:

Maureen Sayres Van Niel, M.D. Cognoscenti contributor
Dr. Maureen Sayres Van Niel is a psychiatrist and consultant in Cambridge and president of the American Psychiatric Association’s Women’s Caucus.

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