Can clinician academics have kids?

I have have been drafting this post since mid-April, writing it in several different ways. None if seems quite right, and my back stage editors keep taking issues with it… But now the July Special Issue: Women Clinician Academics is at hand…

I’ve got to stop drafting and just post it.

Can clinician academics have kids?

The short answer is: yes, of course they can. They do it all the time.

What people really mean is “Can women clinician academics have kids?”.

The short answer is still “yes, of course they can”.

Yes, but…. what people really really mean is “Can women be successful clinician academics AND have kids?”

The short answer remains “yes, of course they can – and they very much do so.”


This post has three rough aims: 1) To support all the women who are aspiring to become clinician academics and who have asked me, with sincere anxiety, what lies ahead for them in terms of their options for having or not having children. 2) To support women’s right to keep our personal lives, including children, outside work, if we so desire – without being judged as emotionally inadequate. 3) To encourage reflection about how we think about, and judge, successful women based on their parental status.

I regularly find myself at the receiving end of (what to me seem like) loaded comments about what people presume is my parental status. The comments are usually made by people who know very little about me, my values, or my personal life. Often these people also know very little about my working life (i.e. they don’t work with me day-to-day, and have no real knowledge of my tasks, my work load or my working patterns). Sometimes these people are complete strangers talking to me for the first time.

I also witness and hear other women in academia receiving comments over “the kids issue” (among my closest peers, this is a recognised phenomenon).

I am not quite sure what this phenomenon precisely is (any feminist theorists out there, please do help out by posting a comment!) but, put bluntly, it seems to me that if you are a productive woman (clinician) academic and you don’t have children, you run the risk of being judged as “the cold, rigid, career obsessed, tries to be a man” type.

…What do I specifically mean….? I mean comments that maybe could be classified something like this….

Education‘: People sating things like “you can’t wait forever… biology, clocks ticking…” … What is one meant to say to this? “Oh gosh, I’ve been so burried in my papers and data I never even noticed how late my clocks are..!!” …?

Pitty for getting one’s priorities wrong, reflected in comments like “It’s just work, you know… don’t sacrifice your whole life for it…” ….What is one to say…? “Yes, you are right, I don’t have a life at the moment since I don’t have children.” ….?

Belittling the achievements and abilities of successful women who don’t have children by implying they have managed to become successful primarily by sacrificing parenthood. “It’s easy for you, you can just [do x, y, z]…” What is one to say? “Yes, it’s all a breeze, no effort and juggling work and home for me” …?

Refusal to grant equal rights to life outside work. “Well just work a bit harder. What do you need a holiday/time off/flexibility for?” …Sometimes it feels like one needs to have a child to have an acceptable reason for not to be available; that friends, partners, pets, homes and hobbies don’t count.

What can one sensibly say when receiving these comments…? Especially, what can one say without re-inforcing the stereotype, without being seen as socially cold and confrontational? Without coming across that one is misguided or is belittling parenthood?

As an attempt to try to be constructive, I have drafted a list of questions to reflect on:

i) Why do we assume that if a woman academic works hard and is productive she doesn’t have kids?

ii) If a woman academic doesn’t have kids, why do we assume she has made a choice not to have them (i.e. that it’s not because of circumstances outside her control, e.g. other personal life factors)?

iii) If a person has made a choice not to have kids, why is the assumption that the choice was “career over kids“? What about all other reasons why someone may choose not to have children?

iv) If a person has made the choice to have a career over kids, why do we assume that it’s a misguided choice? And why do we assume they now want our opinion on that choice, or that they want to even discuss that with us?

v) Do we apply the same assumptions to successful, productive men too – and do we treat them the same way? For example, when gazing over a man academic’s CV do we wonder if he has had time to get kids among all the productive work? As we are visiting a partnering university or department, do we knock on men colleagues’ doors and tell them they are working too hard and ought to go home to get their wives pregnant instead? At national meetings, do we grab men colleagues who we’ve never met before, and ask if they have kids, and tell them they’ve probably only made it to where they are ‘cos they haven’t got kids? [yes, I have witnessed all of these, with the difference that both the target and the instigator have always been women]

To me, being a clinician academic is a job like any other. I have a choice over my level of ambition, and I see my productivity and progress influenced by a range of factors: how hard I work, how good I am, how lucky I am, who I work with, and how facilitative and supportive my personal life circumstances are.

I also accept that if I want to be a very successful clinician academic AND have a life outside work, then I will have to figure out a way to manage that, and it’s not easy. But all that is true in most fields, and is true for men and women.

It seems to me the myth that women who succeed do so by sacrifying family (while men succeed because they are talented) is alive and well. The logical application of this myth means that women who succeed must have either sacrificed family or stopped being women. It’s like ‘being successful’, ‘the choice over whether to have children or not’, and ‘being a (good) woman’ cannot exist simultanously.

Sadly, and frustratingly, in my experience women are actively keeping this myth alive through how they treat other women. I say, let’s kill it off already.

Ps. There are some good, practical descriptions of what it really takes to be an academic and a parent, e.g. check the link

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