Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Mother's Legacy

Today's guest blogger is Nicholas McConnell. Nicholas earned his PhD in 2012 and is now the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow at the Institute for Astronomy (University of Hawaii). His research focuses on supermassive black holes and giant elliptical galaxies.

This essay is about my mother. It is in part a shameless effort to earn family brownie points by "timely" blogging. Nonetheless, my mother's attitudes form one of the windows through which I try to examine gender issues in astronomy, and they inform my actions toward male and female colleagues. As I share her story I hope that others in this forum find common threads with their own.

I was born in 1984, the summer before my mother's final year of law school. She was working for The First National Bank of Chicago, who financed nighttime law classes for her and nine other employees. After graduating and passing the Illinois bar exam, she worked as an appellate court clerk, then as an associate lawyer for the firm Sidley Austin. In 1988 she resigned to take full-time care of me and my two younger siblings. She explains, "The old and sexist saying, 'The law is a jealous mistress,' is true. I wanted the impossible: to both pursue my career and to be with you all full-time. I focus too intensely on each immediate goal to be good at part-time anything." (In spite of this self-assessment, she did co-found the Chicago Bar Association's Part-time Woman's Network Committee.)

Yet when my parents divorced in 1992 Mom was forced to divide her time. To support us without leaving home, she ran a catering business out of our kitchen, worked as a caretaker for her acquaintances' children and pets, and took a part-time job at a retail store. By 1996 she felt the homefront waters were calm enough to network her way back into the law. After holding three positions with various firms, she was hired in 2005 by a Seattle-based insurance company, as their General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer. To recap, she achieved a senior executive position before my 21st birthday, in spite of an eight-year hiatus from practicing law. In her words, "I was the only woman of rank [in my company] in a conservative, male-dominated industry, on a conservative and overwhelmingly male-dominated management team."

It isn't obvious which of my mother's experiences in the corporate and legal worlds translate to a career in the physical sciences. Her general advice, however, is emphatic: "Be resilient. Growth, and survival to be able to grow, is particularly facilitated by a flexible, resilient approach. No one is ever going to love their job every day; no one is going to be understood and treated well every day." In the face of tumultuous events and opposition from different corporate figures, she is proud to have responded to her clients' needs without ever lowering her professional standards. Still, there is tension between her survival instinct and her lament that women still do not have equal opportunities. She acknowledges, "In the business world a woman must move fluidly from Plan A to B to C so that she retains the respect of her employer without jeopardizing her salary and benefits." Yet she insists, "When the women's liberation movement didn't get it done -- couldn't get it done -- our daughters needed to pick up the battle."

This the forefront of my personal struggle advocating for gender equality: understanding how my mother's legacy and my upbringing intersect my female colleagues' present-day circumstances and choices. Like my mother, I wonder how professionals in my generation should balance diplomacy and impatience. Is it acceptable to applaud gradual progress toward more supportive, if not actively equitable, work environments? In my position, the status quo can be insidiously alluring. I am approaching the most competitive phase of my career, and by the luck of my chromosomes I will not be hindered by overt or unconscious sexism. So on what grounds do I form and voice my own opinions, especially for an audience like the CSWA readership?

On this occasion, I consulted a familiar and trusted expert. How does she recommend I support women in my field?

"Two words: people matter. As you gain years of expertise in your career you can vote with your power -- hiring or mentoring or networking on behalf of somebody -- to do something that's fair. You will certainly support any woman that you love in her struggles, and you'll raise any children that you may have someday with the message that people matter. Gender doesn't count in those bigger messages."

I'm sure it will take more than one try for me to fully absorb this lesson. I'm thankful for all the ones I've received since 1984.

Epilogue: Earlier this year my mother concluded her job as General Counsel and moved back to Illinois. She is taking well-deserved time off and refurbishing our house while she re-establishes herself in Illinois. During my interview for this essay, she described how adapting her communication style for a business setting was one of her most consistent challenges. I will explore communication styles further in a future post.