Monday, November 10, 2014

Queer Eye for the Straight Marriage

The Women in Astronomy blog is committed to representing diverse perspectives on women in astronomy.  The below post is a response from the AAS Committee on the Status for Women in Astronomy (CSWA) reaching out to AAS Working Group for LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE) for guest contributions, specifically contributions from the LBGQTI perspective.  If you are interested in contributing a guest post to this blog, please contact Jessica Kirkpatrick

Today's guest post is by Dr. Jane Rigby. Jane Rigby is an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a contributor to Astrobetter, and a member of the AAS’s Working Group for LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE).

The other day after work, my wife and I were sprawled on the playroom floor, watching our toddler run in circles. I picked a strewn section of the paper and scanned this article.

Confused, I read it more carefully. Was this news? I could have titled the article “Man gets chores, work done”? Why was it leading the local section? To me, the most interesting facet of the article was that the attorney had deliberately chosen a lower-paying job with reasonable hours and a short commute. The rest -- “He cooks! He does laundry!” seemed so quotidian. I was boiling water for pasta, and planned to do laundry after the kid’s bedtime. Is it still newsworthy to profile a straight couple that shares household duties?

Shortly, this article answered my question, with a truly amazing quote:
“I never in my life made a tax return. I never in my life washed a pair of socks or cleaned a pair of shoes,” said one 67-year-old physics professor in a traditional marriage. When asked if having children is difficult to manage with being a scientist, he responded: “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”
My goodness, those are many of our bosses. Such attitudes help explain two phenomena I’ve noticed over my career:
  1. Junior female colleagues complain, in women-only settings, that their male partners don’t “help out with” housework and childcare responsibilities.
  2. Famous female astronomers and other successful women stress the importance of finding a supportive husband. Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” has a whole chapter on how to “Make Your Partner a Real Partner”, which despite the non-gendered chapter title, is about how to get your husband to do the dishes.
I’ve listened sympathetically to these complaints, nodded appreciatively at this advice, and kept my big gay mouth shut. Until now.

Since I’ve been asked to talk from a queer perspective about gender issues in professional astronomy, I thought I’d point out that gay and lesbian couples have very different approaches to family and household responsibilities, and that maybe our perspective could help. For a primer, please enjoy this thoughtful article from The Atlantic, contrasting how gay and lesbian couples divide household responsibilities with how straight couples divide the work. An excerpt:
“Same-sex spouses, who cannot divide their labor based on preexisting gender norms, must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what. In this regard, they provide an example that can be enlightening to all couples. Critics warn of an institution rendered ‘genderless.’ But if a genderless marriage is a marriage in which the wife is not automatically expected to be responsible for school forms and child care and dinner preparation and birthday parties and midnight feedings and holiday shopping, I think it’s fair to say that many heterosexual women would cry: Bring it on!”
This rings true to my own experience. At our house, the dishwasher is my responsibility, and the cat box my wife's, because each hates the other chore. I drop off and pick up the kid at daycare because it's near my workplace. Andrea gets our kid dressed and fed in the mornings because I wake up slowly. When our kid was a newborn, we did the midnight feedings in shifts, standing four hour watches, and sent the "off-duty mama” to sleep with earplugs in the spare room. We value both our careers, and our responsibilities at home.

In any given week, the division of labor isn’t 50-50, but in the long run it averages out. In our house, we have an understanding that the Hubble proposal deadline is a Special Time of the Year. I work late, I don't cook, I don't clean, and I'm a face behind a laptop. My wife understand the pressure, and picks up all the slack. I try to make it up afterward, by watching the kid so she can attend some Meetups in her field, and picking up the slack when she has big deadlines.

An aspect of this issue, which I’ve never had the courage to ask anyone, is why the expectations for straight men in our society are so low?:
Rob Hardies, the pastor at All Souls, reports that when his partner, Chris, successfully folded a stroller before getting on an airplane with their son, Nico, he was roundly congratulated by passersby, as if he had solved a difficult mathematical equation in public. So low are expectations for fathers, even now, that in Stephanie Schacher’s study of gay fathers and their feelings about caregiving, her subjects reported that people would see them walking on the street with their children and say things like “Giving Mom a break?” Hardies thinks that every time he and Chris take their son to the playground or to story hour, they help disrupt this sort of thinking.
I also really appreciate the reflections by Rev. Hall (Dean of the National Cathedral) about how his prenuptial counseling of same-sex couples has modified the way he counsels straight couples:
“Now when Hall counsels heterosexuals, ‘I’m really pushing back on their patriarchal assumptions: that the woman’s got to give up her career for the guy; that the guy is going to take care of the money.’ Every now and then, he says, he has a breakthrough, and a straight groom realizes that, say, contraception is his concern too. Hall says the same thing is happening in the offices of any number of pastors, rabbis, and therapists. ‘You’re not going to be able to talk to heterosexual couples where there’s a power imbalance and talk to a homosexual couple where there is a power mutuality,” and not have the conversations impact one another. As a result, he believes there will be changes to marriage, changes that some people will find scary. ‘When [conservatives] say that gay marriage threatens my marriage, I used to say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ Now I say, ‘Yeah, it does. It’s asking you a crucial question about your marriage that you may not want to answer: If I’m a man, am I actually sharing the duties and responsibilities of married life equally with my wife?’ Same-sex marriage gives us another image of what marriage can be.”
I should also share my reservation about the Atlantic article: I don’t accept the premise that it's the duty of gay people to teach straight people how to have respectful, egalitarian relationships. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy aside, it's not the job of LGBT people to be “Magical Queers”, selflessly helping heterosexuals have better lives. We have our own lives and priorities. That said, if we can help the rest of society be more fabulous without cramping our own style, I suppose we should. 

So, what can we learn here? Do heterosexual couples need to learn to better divide and conquer their housework? What impact would that have on success for women in STEM? Are many heterosexual couples already egalitarian, and the media haven’t kept up? What happens when astronomers who co-parent run afoul of senior astronomers who expect them to have a wife at home washing their socks? Does the LGBT community have important lessons to teach straight people about division of labor, or do we have to be nagged to wash the dishes just like everybody else? Should the queer community start teaching classes to straight couples? — “How to process like a lesbian” and “How to feed the baby at 3am like a gay man”. Are there hidden benefits to real workplace inclusion — that we may find role models in places we didn’t expect, to learn skills we didn’t know we needed to learn? 


John Johnson said...

I think this is an absolutely outstanding blog post. I learned and it reinforced things that I previously heard but need to learn better. I'm so glad to see contributions from a more inclusive group of women on the WIA blog! Is this WIA's first blog post written from someone from the LGBT community explicitly about the lives of LGBT women? Whether it's the first or third, I hope there are many more to come.

A couple thoughts come to mind after reading:

1) The issue that Jane is attacking but doesn't explicitly name is that of male privilege. The idea that there are "default" roles in a family is something that directly benefits men at the expense of women, and to the detriment of many couples in general. I think it's worth calling out male privilege by name, so I'll do so here: I need to do more stuff around the house instead of assuming my wife will handle it!

2) Another privilege that goes unnamed (at least explicitly) is heterosexual privilege, in that the articles cited are written with the implicit assumption that the audience is hetero and cisgender. As a straight male, I get to have couple's advice written with my marriage in mind by default. I get to think of my marriage as "normal" and I get to see my "setup" portrayed and reinforced all the time in popular media, discussions at university events, forms I fill out, etc.

Anyway, just thinking out loud. Thanks again for the excellent post!

Anonymous said...

This was a great article, thanks Jane!

I'll take slight issue with John's comment that this is a male privilege issue. Traditional gender roles often hurt men as well. It can be pretty stressful to be a family's sole source of income and have to make a daily long commute to a job you hate. That's not a privilege.

Moving forward, I'd love to hear suggestions for how to change academic culture to be more family friendly for everyone. I remember going to group meeting as a postdoc and announcing I would be taking some paternity leave and a senior faculty member "jokingly" asking why I needed time off when my wife was the one having the baby. He then regaled us with the tale of how he was back at work the day after his kids were born. I still have no idea how to point out that was inappropriate.