How do male scientists balance the demands of work and family?

Academia remains heavily gendered, thanks in part to historical stereotypes that assert men are suited to solving complex problems and ready to put “great works” over other concerns such as community or family. Psychology and sociology have shown how this disadvantages women working in these fields, particularly if they wish to have children.

A new study led by Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University takes a different approach, looking at what this world is like for men. From the 73 male scientists interviewed, four groupings emerged. A minority (15 per cent) indicated they saw a fundamental incompatibility between raising a family and success in science, and as a consequence intended to forgo childrearing entirely. A second group (30 per cent) saw no such incompatibility… as long as you have a wife to raise the kids full-time. These “Traditional Breadwinners” were slightly older (average age 47) and more likely to be full professors.
 They were quick to accept that the family duties performed by their wives were key to their own career success. Some recognised their fortune and the compromises their partners made, whereas others saw the spheres of science and family as separate and inevitably gendered. To the question “Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?”, one responded “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”
But norms about working and being a father are changing, with more men wanting a greater role at home and more career opportunities for their partners. This study suggests that while some male scientists are prepared to follow through on this with action, the egalitarian commitment of others is more theoretical. This latter group (22 per cent) are “Neotraditionalists”: they are opposed to the idea that their working partners ought to devote themselves only to childcare, but when tensions arose between work and home life, these men presumed that their own (male) career ought to come first. They often took pains to distance themselves from having caused these tensions. One characterised his wife facing a career break during the early years of childrearing as “her issue”. Another stated that “there’s more expected of the women in terms of family life”, and a third that women were the ones “burdened” with childcare. This fatalism was a common theme of the Neotraditionalists: the situation is unfair, but what are you going to do?
How about reducing your own work activities to accommodate the career of your female partner? This was the strategy taken by the final group, the “Egalitarian Partners”. These men (33 per cent of the sample) were likely to be together with another scientist, and saw each career track as equally important. In their interviews, they spoke of concessions made by both sides, and the recognition that other colleagues were outpacing them. Their language also betrayed awareness that their decisions were not in line with their gendered role: one qualified his decisions by saying “I’m trying to be a sensitive new age guy”. Data exists that suggests fathers are not expected by most managers to actually use organisational work-family policies such as crèches or shorter work-time; the true egalitarians are going against the grain, or even “acting female” by placing family as equal to or more important than their devotion to the Big Questions.
Without greater societal efforts to overhaul institutional sexism, these challenges may remain for the Egalitarians. Non-child-rearing men are more likely to reach positions of power thanks to the extra time and energy they can devote to their work, and they may see less cause to introduce systems or drive cultural change to support those men who want to be an active partner in the home, however large their number may be at entry level. As a consequence, Damaske concludes, “the academic science pipeline may begin to leak young men as well as young women, increasing the overall loss of talent in academic science.”


Damaske, S., Ecklund, E., Lincoln, A., & White, V. (2014). Male Scientists’ Competing Devotions to Work and Family: Changing Norms in a Male-Dominated Profession Work and Occupations DOI: 10.1177/0730888414539171

further reading
Childless women are the most productive staff of all, study finds
Girlie scientist role models could do more harm than good
Why female business owners are less successful but just as satisfied

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.