Thursday, April 9, 2009

What are the limits of "family friendly" workplaces?

I was disturbed into posting by Damn Good Technician's reaction to her husband's PI setting aside a room for his children to spend time in after school during his work day:

DrDGT's PI is moving his labspace within his university - the lab just moved from one building to another, and they're moving again this fall. His PI had a discussion last week with the rest of the lab about blueprints & lab rooms. Evidently, his PI told the lab that one of the rooms they were promised - a room meant for some delicate equipment - is going to be used for his kids. Yeah. Seriously. His PI's wife told him that she thinks it would be "best" if he dedicated a whole room in his lab to his kids, such that when they hang out there after school a few days a week, they have their very own room in which to reside.

WHAT?? This is wrong on so many levels. First off, that a spouse could dictate to their faculty member spouse how to allocate space in their lab is fucked up - unless you're the Jans or something, this seems beyond the pale. Second, it is wholly inappropriate for a faculty to cordon off lab space for their own child care purposes. The university is not granting him space for his kids have a place to color three times a week; he's getting space to run a lab. Lastly, you're making it perfectly clear to everyone who trains under you that you are not committed to getting them the best lab space that you can - now this delicate (and might I add fucking expensive) equipment is going to be stuck out on a bench somewhere, getting dusty, abused by other labs, etc etc.

I was utterly floored when DrDGT told me. Can faculty do this? 'Cause, shit, if that's possible then I want DrDGT's lab to have a foosball room with a keg in it.
Reader, how do you react to that idea?

I don't think she or any of her commenters realize just what they are demonstrating: they ARE BEING the people whose first impression of a scientist having their family around is inappropriate.

If the PI was a woman, would they/you feel differently? A single mom without access to a good daycare? If the children were younger, still dependent for food and naps on their mom and dad? Why should the school-age children of a father have any different set of circumstances available to them? Why can't every scientist with kids have something like this available to them? Why does across-campus or far-away daycare access factor into this, when dumping your kids off in the care of someone else does not solve the problem of the struggle to balance family/work?

Having a room to set aside for your family is EXACTLY what would make science work for parents. Sometimes day care just doesn't cut it: you want to be near your children, available to them if they want to spend physical or emotional time with you. But you need them to not be right in your office, or they constantly distract you from the work you are trying to get done. This situation sounds perfect as a way to help balance family and science, and every institution should try to offer this to their PIs.

I'm sad that it provoked such outrage from the people who want to be understanding and inclusive, and I hope you guys will realize that this is a perceptual prejudice, and by holding fast to that reaction you are being the people that you think of as the enemy.

Frankly, lab member "inconvenience" regarding a piece of equipment or some yards of bench space should not trump support for scientists with families. We will only move forward and increase representation of women when this kind of thing is less appalling to everyone.

28 comments:

Ambivalent Academic said...

Arlenna - I think that providing some space for family is a great step towards making this whole science thing better for everybody.

However, I don't think it's appropriate to have kids in the lab space, which was my major objection. An office annex seems like a much better choice. It's nice that the PI is making an effort to be flexible, but it's scary that s/he would be willing to compromise safety of kids and working environment for critical equipment in this way. From what DGT said, it sounds like an impending disaster to me, but then I don't have all the details. I also wonder whether other lab members would be allowed/encouraged to have their kids use this space (or hopefully a more appropriate one) as the PI's kids will.

Comrade Physioprof said...

As far as I can tell, no one is saying that having safe space for children on campus is a bad idea. What they seem to be saying is that a powerful PI using his power to unilaterally commandeer what is intended as lab space solely for *his* children is a bad idea.

Becca said...

I saw how it was going down. My response was based on the assumption that DGT wasn't going to be completely swayed.
I initially wrote a comment about how if this setup puts the PI's mind at rest to the point he writes better grants and gets more funding/space, he is absolutely prioritizing the success of the people that work for him, and it should be seen as such... but I didn't want to get into the argument about how likely that hypothetical is. I hate it when I chicken out on calling bullshit.

AA- if you're planning the allocation of labspace at the blueprint stage, it is safe to assume the room is not yet an unsafe lab.

Arlenna said...

You're both reading more into the post than I did--I just read at face value how she characterized the situation: the PI is using one of the rooms for the kids, the critical equipment is being put somewhere else instead. The PI is never characterized as powerful, and nothing is said about whether anyone asked about their own kids spending time there or not.

My problem is that the automatic reaction is "it's outrageous that you would try to have your family in your workspace at the expense of equipment." WHY is that so outrageous? Only because of tradition, convention, etc. I f we are going to change the face of science, THIS IS THE KIND OF THING WE HAVE TO GET COMFORTABLE WITH.

Of course kids shouldn't be near dangerous stuff, but this is a separate room being set aside so that they WON'T be near dangerous stuff, messing up experiments or getting in anyone's way (other than by making it so the room can't have lab stuff in it).

Arlenna said...

"You both" referring to AA and CPP, not Becca. Becca just didn't want to offend DGT, but this issue is hitting me close to my (hopefully near)future home so I had to speak up.

ScientistMother said...

Thanks for posting this Arlenna! I was shocked that DGT was pissed by this move. One of the great things about the lab I in now is that the Head research associated has ensured that all dangerous chemical usuage has been eliminated and has made it very child safe. My PI, head associate have fully encouraged me and our new mom post-doc to bring our kids. She has offered up her office for our kids to nap, brings in toys etc. Our whole floor happily plays with them. We would all love a room like this

Ambivalent Academic said...

SM - That is awesome!

Odyssey said...

There is another potential wrinkle to this. If this room is contiguous with lab space and has been designated by the institution as lab space, it may actually be a violation of Federal rules (if not laws) to have children there. I'm commenting here on the safety aspect - I'm quite sure the institution's biosafety officer would have a few things to say about this. And the OSHA people.

As a father I would love to have a dedicated room in my building where my kids could hang out (I know my wife would approve). Just not in the lab itself.

Professor in Training said...

As I posted over at DGT's pad, if the university is ok with it then the postdocs can't complain. If space is an issue and having additional equipment in the lab, as opposed to the space now designated for the kids, will impede their work, the PI needs to know (not that it will make any difference).

I don't have a problem with designated spaces for kids but I do have a major, major issue with kids having access to labs where hazardous chemicals and animal experiments are used/conducted. I've had to deal with postdocs asking to share my computer during the summer because their children were playing games on the postdoc's designated computer, having kids skipping around benches unsupervised and fiddling with my pipettes etc while I'm trying to work, and having postdocs tell their kids to come and watch me perform animal surgeries, sacrifices and tissue collections. All of these are completely and utterly unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

Are you out of your mind? No one is saying the PI's priorities shouldn't include his/her family. The PROBLEM is that it is totally inappropriate to bring in personal/family issues to the workplace. No one is telling the PI to sacrifice his family time for the lab. How about he manages his time so he can spend his family time AT HOME.

Arlenna said...

I'm going to reiterate my point here:

I actually don't care what the specifics of this particular guy are. My disturbance was related to the vehemence and anger created in the lab staff by this idea. That the very idea of having a room dedicated to this guy's kids was analogous to him getting to have a special lab room dedicated to his dog, or his antique model car collection, or a keg and foosball table.

THAT'S the attitude that makes me sad, and that I see as a barrier to progress in making science more amenable to having a family.

It may well be against policies, it may well be illegal, etc. But that's actually beside my point here--my point is that change needs to be supported from the bottom up as well as the top down, and that changing the scientific workplace is a two-way street. The policy/safety issues are separate from my concerns: obviously those are things that would have to be organized for specific cases. It's the overall potential support for family-relevant productivity that I think is being missed here.

DamnGoodTechnician said...

I mentioned at my place but I'll repeat it here - most of the postdocs in the lab have kids, but the oldest is about five and the rest are less than a year. They're clearly not able to be plopped down in a spare room unsupervised, so the only person who could take advantage of this room would be the PI - his kids are 11 and 13.

While I'm not going to say that I think this is OK, because I definitely don't, I (and the lab members too) would likely have had a vastly different reaction if this were broached in a different way. Let's say that the PI had said "We're going to designate this room as a lounge area, with a couch, maybe a little table & chairs, probably the coffee pot," and then his kids periodically hung out in there for a few hours before they went home with Dad, I don't think anyone would have said boo about it. Now if you come into the scenario saying "Wifey demands this! Kids get their own room!", you put everyone into a very hostile frame of mind.

I would also feel no different about this if the PI were an architect, or a small business owner, or a lawyer instead. Rearranging your workplace for your own convenience instead of for work just doesn't fly with me.

Arlenna said...

I still think of this issue as being far more important than just someone's convenience. Maybe for this one particular guy, that is the case. But for working parents of children, we HAVE to find ways to solve the problems of how to be there for your lab, your staff, your department and your kids so you can continue to be productive and effective as possible on all those fronts.

ScientistMother said...

DGT you're being way to inflexible. Flexibility is exactly what is needed in the workplace, FOR EVERYONE. Parents need it for assisting with balancing stuff as do non-parents. Thats the great thing about academia. you come in when you're most productive, the hours the are convenient for you. Many of the computer companies long ago started changing the workplace to be more convenient simply to recruit the best and brightest.

What do think google would say to this? They would make it work, to keep up morale and productivity.

Anonymous said...

Arlenna, while I share the same opinion that kids/family should naturally be considered in terms of one's working conditions, I don't see how this is fair to the lab members. When they joined the lab (and presumably before that during interviews), they did not sign up for coming to a workplace that would be redesigned so only the PI's kids could hang out. Further, what about any kids belonging to the lab members? Why should only the PI get to have his personal daycare in the lab? Second, let's say for instance that everyone's kids could come hang out in this one room. Where is the responsible parent in this situation? Would you dare leave your kid unattended near a lab setting? This whole suggestion doesn't make sense. This is the reason for the reader reactions, not our "attitude."

Arlenna said...

"making it work" for families needs to be a two-way street. Like SM said: if this was Google, or some other progressive workplace, people would figure out how to make it work.

The PI probably didn't sign up to have lab members who had family needs either, but it's against the law for him to prevent them from working around their families as necessary.

Arlenna said...

And as I said on DGT's thread:

I grant you the objection to this dude! He sounds like a tool and if I was his postdoc, I would go into his office and sit him down and talk to him about how it was really creating problems for his group to have done it this way.

I have just found this to be an inspiration to think of this outside of the box of that guy's way of going about it.

Comrade Physioprof said...

I still think of this issue as being far more important than just someone's convenience. Maybe for this one particular guy, that is the case. But for working parents of children, we HAVE to find ways to solve the problems of how to be there for your lab, your staff, your department and your kids so you can continue to be productive and effective as possible on all those fronts.

This PI dude's ad hoc "solution" is *counterproductive* to the broader goal of improving the ability of *all* parents--not just PIs who get to designate entire rooms of their lab space for their children--in academic science to succeed. *Only* a top-down approach with institutional committment (i.e., enough fucking money and enough fucking space to provide fairly-priced on-campus child care for *everyone*) will achieve this goal.

Arlenna said...

That top down approach is essential to making it work, but we also need to prime attitudes and opinions from the bottom up to be supportive of change. Alot of the responses to the story about this guy were that it was outrageous, unprofessional and inappropriate to think of mixing kids and work, and that it should never be allowed. The knee jerk of that response is an insidious problem.

Hope said...

I wonder if, in addition to the other children, I could have my half-senile grandmother hang out in that room. It would enable me to spend more time with her, and it might be a nice break from the nursing home for her. Perhaps my labmate’s sick dog could also spend time there, so she could administer his meds every few hours. Or is it only people with children that should be accommodated?

Maybe the PI can use some of his funds to hire a sitter to supervise the occupants of said room. And I hope I’ll still be able to get my work done in the lab with the kids, grandma, and the dog next door.

I am all for giving everyone as much flexibility as possible so that they can manage the various facets of their lives. But when non-work concerns start to trump work issues in the workplace, then we have a problem. Sometimes the best thing to do–the honest thing to do, really–is to admit that one cannot do two things at the same time and choose one or the other.

Arlenna said...

Hope: wouldn't that be nice? To have all those working moms just admit they can't do both and choose one or the other. Is that really what you think people should do? Drop out of the tenure track while they care for their children, since they can't honestly do both?

I'm really surprised anybody would argue against the principle of accommodating tenure track parents of young children to keep working and keep up their productivity in any way manageable.

I think you're completely missing the point. Workable solutions mean mixing the work and the personal, and rather than getting all snooty about keeping the workplace "pure," we need to accept that something needs to FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGE about the way we think of "personal" vs. "workplace" in a way that might allow us to maintain a shred of professionalism (i.e. separate room for family needs rather than right in the office during meetings/grantwriting/etc.).

Hope said...

Arlenna, please don’t put words in my mouth. When a parent chooses to leave a child in a good daycare or in the hands of a capable sitter (which is not “dumping,” as you characterize it), or when a parent chooses to forego their career and stay home with the child, these are all valid solutions to the dilemma of not being able to “do two things at the same time.” This PI’s “solution” is really not a solution at all, for the reasons that several commenters have already made clear. I’m glad that folks over at DGT took the time to think about whether this move was actually a good idea, as opposed to cheering blindly for anything that purports to bring parents and children together in the workplace.

JaneB said...

I'm childless, but female and definitely in favour of supportive work places that help with the mix. That said, I am strongly against any unauthorised person - whether that's visiting friend, boyfriend/girlfriend of lab member, child, whatever - spending any extended time in the lab spaces. They are designated lab spaces for a reason, because certain activities go on there which are either sensitive to dirt/disturbance or are hazardous in some way or are expensive and require skilled handling. They are innately NOT spaces for hanging out or fiddling. Offices, maybe, OK. Occasionally and responsibly - friend arrived early for a visit and is sitting quietly surfing the net whilst lab member finishes up a task before leaving - OK, as long as it doesn;t interfere with anyone else. Children/pets/anyone who can't be trusted not to fiddle with stuff - no.

If I had enough space to create a common area, I'd do that, and I'd be perfectly OK for non-group people to use it as needed for occasional emergencies or situations that arise, we all know that happens and a humane workplace should accomodate that. We have one for the department, and it's useful. I try to keep lab space clearly distinct from office space, and people can use office space as they see fit within health and safety and common sense.

But. My colleague next door has a child and is a single parent. And whenever that child comes into the building, he's sent to see me. Which means coming into my office, fiddling with stuff, wanting to get drawing supplies or play with something or have my attention (and I have samples, equipment, scissors etc. in my office, it's not a child-safe space). Sometimes my colleague just wanders off to deal with something and leaves the child here, or lets him play with his toy cars in the corridor or whatever. I like the child, but... at work I have work to do. And I want to get it done so that I can go home. I am so tired of my childless-female status leading to assumptions about wanting to meet/play with/amuse other people's children when I'm at work.

I have no problem with my neighbour occasionally popping in with her child after school or whatever, to pick stuff up or do a short task, but I don't want her right to do that to infringe my right to a safe workplace or to override my right as a PI to run my lab to certain standards of health and safety, which is what part of this debate is about.

Child-parking space at work... how do the kids feel about this? At 11 and 13, being dragged along to the office and dumped in a room to 'amuse themselves' on a regular basis is hardly putting them first, it seems to me. They'll be being 'dumped' in front of the ipod or playstation or whatever, presumably - or is the PI really always going to be available to them at the drop of a hat to help with homework etc.? In which case, doesn't that contradict the idea that the PI will be able to work as normal? Seems to me that either the PI and his kids would be better off with flexible working practices which allow him to work in his study at home around his kids supervisory needs, or that he's actually not available to them when they're at work (because he's, I dunno, working?) so they aren't supervised or (and call me cynical...) that other members of the group will be roped in to interact with the children in some circumstances.

Whilst I agree that flexible thinking is important and welcome, I do NOT like the argument presented here that the specifics of a situation should not be considered when responding. I read the original post and responses through the information given - PI imposes this idea on designated lab space and on group without discussion: PI presents idea as responding to his wife's needs (er. the voices are telling me that I need to be able to come to work in my pyjamas every day and never go to meetings. will my boss buy this argument?): PI will be displacing delicate expensive equipment into unsuitable location and therefore affect the work of the entire group. Given that information, I did not feel that the responses were inappropriate.

Arlenna said...

Hope, you're putting words into my mouth too:

"This PI’s “solution” is really not a solution at all, for the reasons that several commenters have already made clear. I’m glad that folks over at DGT took the time to think about whether this move was actually a good idea, as opposed to cheering blindly for anything that purports to bring parents and children together in the workplace."

I am not "cheering blindly," in fact I thought very carefully about the aspect of this issue that I responded about, and described carefully in this post and other parts of the discussion about what I thought of the specific vs. the otherwise parts of this.

And JaneB, I respect your response but you're also missing my message.

I have already firmly and repeatedly established that I am separating the details of this situation from my response because the story (and the kneejerk responses to it of "children+workplace=inappropriate" from the trainees) highlight a DIFFERENT problem than what any of the commenters addressed. The problem of glass houses, stones, and maintaining perspective on what kinds of changes to our perceptions about this stuff need to happen before real acceptance and change can develop.

JaneB said...

Sorry for misreading you - perhaps partly because it didn't seem to me that this WAS outside the box thinking, since workplace creches, after school clubs, having a common room in the building (and the sporadic parking of visitors and relatives in same), and having kids/quiet dogs in offices for periods when there's a breakdown in arrangements or the kid is off school and the parent needs to do an hour's work (and even children drawing quietly in the corner of classrooms, if school is out and a parent-student is really stuck) are quite commonplace occurences around this department - but LAB SPACE is sacrosanct and kid-free. As ever, responses are situational!

Arlenna said...

See, my office is inside my lab and so are lots of offices in my building, also we don't have any common areas in the building where people can just hang out besides the lobby. So for us, it would have to be something like this where we used one of our little random rooms in the lab areas to set aside for this purpose.

Ultimately, this is not something that will be a particular problem for me since my office is huge and fairly private, but other faculty in my department don't all have their spaces this fortuitously arranged. We also have an awesome daycare that is very near my building (about a block away).

Arlenna said...

I should also clarify that I don't really think this would be a good long-term solution for school aged kids. They should be getting socialized, not hanging around their parents' work. But for babies, young toddlers, etc. when it is really hard to find adequate childcare for them but you still need to stay present in your job, this is something that might really work for people.

JaneB said...

Yeah, the organisation of buildings really amkes a difference to how you think about these things... in my post-doc deaprtment in Canada, each group had a big central lab that you entered from the hall, then all the offices were subsidiary rooms off that - not sure that was a good arrangement for ANYONE, what with random undergrads trailing through the lab looking for their TA and people constantly popping into offices in their lab coats/gloves which were meant to keep contamination OUT of offices... but in that sort of environment, having a 'safe room' would be very useful.