Remember BBC Dad?
In 2017, Professor Robert E. Kelley was doing an interview with the BBC when his 4-year-old daughter popped into his office for a visit. Seconds later, a little sibling comes zooms in on a walker, and then Mom scrambles into retrieve the kiddos. Kelley doesn’t stand up, prompting the world to wonder Is he wearing pants? It’s the new nightmare for work-from-home parents.
But it’s also sweet and likable and reminds us that we all have personal lives outside of our professional ones.
But also, if Robert E. Kelley had been a mother and not a father, we might have seen a different reaction (especially for that moment when he swats his daughter away without looking at her).
The motherhood penalty is well established in scholarship on gender and work. It’s the punishment that women face for being both mothers and workers. It includes everything from lower starting salaries to lost yearly wages to lost career opportunities (which translate into lost lifetime earnings and thus lost pensions, 401K contributions, and social security benefits) to the perception of lower levels of competency.
In contrast fathers benefit from the fatherhood bonus, including being more hireable and receiving higher wages.
Here is an illustration of the difference:
A child falls ill at school. A parent is in an important meeting when the school calls to insist that the child be picked up immediately from the school nurse’s office. The parent apologizes for leaving the meeting early, then leaves. What do the parent’s coworkers think and say about the parent after the parent’s departure?
It depends on the gender of the parent. Men are often hailed for being “good dads.” They get credit for simply meeting the demands of the school and the needs of the child. In contrast, women are more likely to be criticized (even if it’s not said aloud) for failing to take their job seriously, for allowing their kids to get sick, and for not having a back-up plan that would allow them to keep working if the school demands that their child be released from school for the day. For the same action, a father is a good parent and provider modeling healthy work-life boundaries and a mother is a bad mother and an employee who’s not dedicated.
Mothers have to navigate this reality all the time, and having our bosses, colleagues, and students in our homes as we remote teach only makes it worse.
Right now, folks are finding a lot of humor and solidarity in seeing our human foibles on the screen. I get it. Your cat is cute (though some of us find its anus a little less adorable that you apparently do), and your children are even MORE adorable. The dirty dishes in the background and toys on the floor do tell us that you’re a real person, just like the rest of us, and your untrimmed hair and wrinkled clothing let us know that you are here to work, not put on a fashion show.
But the thing is, some of us can afford to present ourselves as family- and pet-friendly, low-key slobs.
For others of us, that kind of self-presentation results in our being seen as incompetent. We have to present as more professional than you to still be considered less professional than you.
Women, especially mothers; people of color, people with disabilities, and fat people*—these are people who will be judged as unfocused, not dedicated, and incompetent if they show up with hair a mess and children screaming in the background.
If you DON’T fall in those categories, consider the way you are exercising privilege when you present to your students and colleagues online as um… highly relaxed, let’s call it.
This isn’t a post to shame folks who do have screaming kids or a dirty house in the background. The fault isn’t theirs that things are hard right now. The issue is top-down, created by administrators who do not understand that remote meetings, especially those involving video, are a privacy violation.
It is a reminder that bias don’t go away when we teach remotely.
*Fat positivity movements use this term without any negative connotation, preferring it over normative terms such as overweight or obese, a language choice I affirm and employ throughout this blog.
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