Women with children last

January 21, 2000

Latest research shows that babies are designed to learn from their parents. But academic mothers who wish to play an active role in their children's early development must too often sacrifice their careers to do so. Alison Gopnik demands change.

In the past 30 years we have discovered more about how babies learn than we did in the preceding 2,500 years. In How Babies Think, we describe how babies and very young children know more about the world around them and learn more in the first three years than we would ever have thought before. Babies are not blank slates or unconscious, passive bundles of sensations and reflexes.

Psychological experiments show that children under three already think, make predictions and draw conclusions. They actively try to make sense of the world. And the adults who care for babies play a crucial role in this learning process.

The new research shows that care for young children is much more than just a matter of changing nappies and making peanut-butter sandwiches. The research shows that parents - and siblings, friends, babysitters, etc - are designed to teach as much as babies are designed to learn. But just as babies learn through their everyday play with everyday objects, parents teach through their everyday care.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is baby-talk. Grown-ups spontaneously and unconsciously change their voices when they speak to babies. Put us in front of a baby and out comes that slightly embarrassing, high-pitched repetitive song. This speech is designed to give babies just the information they need to figure out the sound system of their language. We teach babies just by caring for them and playing with them.

Brain research complements this picture. Babies' and children's brains are extremely flexible and active. They change in response to information from the outside world and they change much more than adult brains. In the first few years of life our brains make many more new connections than they will later on and they then "prune" unnecessary connections. Both activities are crucial for learning.

And yet, this new scientific appreciation of the importance of early learning and teaching comes at a time when young children and their parents are under more pressure than ever. Human societies have always had to figure out how to combine raising babies with other kinds of work. In a hunter-gatherer or agricultural culture, grown-ups and children all live, work and learn in the same place at the same time.

But that solution cannot work in a post-industrial age. The solution of 30 years ago, a mother alone with her children in the suburbs and financially and socially dependent on a bread-winning father, does not work either. But we do not seem to have hit on a solution. Caring for children is badly paid or not paid at all and has about the same status as slinging hamburgers. I think this explains the pervasive uneasiness in the midst of our economic boom, even among the middle classes. When a good as fundamental as time with our children is so out of reach, prosperity is bound to seem hollow.

Governments could help. My colleague Patricia Kuhl, a speech development expert and professor at Washington University, was one of six scientists who advised Bill and Hillary Clinton on these matters at a conference in the late 1990s. In the United States, babies are an election issue for the first time. Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Bradley have all endorsed publicly supported child care. But governments alone cannot solve the problem. Workplaces will have to change, too.

Ironically, universities, the very institutions that have led to our new understanding of early learning, are among the worst offenders. In Britain about 8 per cent of professors are women - fewer than one in ten. It is now widely recognised that many female academics in Britain are paid less than their male colleagues. It is an inequality that has still not been addressed.

In America the proportion of female professors is higher, but many of the difficulties they face are the same. About 35 years ago my mother's thesis supervisor gave her a failing mark on her oral exams. Afterwards he explained that she had done well, but because she was the mother of four children, it was obviously going to be impossible for her to have a scientific career and be a mother, so he was failing her now. She would thank him for it later. My mother insisted on taking the exams again and went on to become a PhD and a professor - and have two more children.

Although universities are no longer quite so explicit, they are still telling young women - and men - the same thing.

The career structure of universities was designed at a time when almost all the faculty had high-quality, inexpensive, dedicated, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, child care providers. They were called wives. The result is that the career structure in British and US universities is now in direct conflict with elementary facts of human biology.

The standard academic career involves an extremely long, badly-paid and insecure apprenticeship, in which we expect faculty to work harder than in the entire rest of their careers. We are all familiar with the pattern of academic burn-out that results, we almost expect that academics, and particularly scientists, will slow down radically once they get a secure academic job.

This pattern is disastrous for women. Women are forced to choose. They can have children during their graduate school/post-doc/short-term contract apprenticeship, thus adding an enormous extra responsibility to an already very stressful time. Or they can wait until their academic career is established, a decision that often limits or precludes their ability to have children at all. Sterility should not be the price for becoming a professor.

The problem has become worse in the past 30 years as the apprenticeship has lengthened and the demands for early productivity have intensified. It is, of course, almost equally difficult for young men who are married to academic women or who wish to rear their children themselves.

This pattern is also deeply irrational. There is no particular reason why we should front-load all the burden of a 40-year career on the first ten years. In fact, studies suggest that the career pattern of successful academic women is often the opposite of the pattern for men. Rather than burning out, many women hold their own early on, but do their best work later in their careers after their children have grown up.

Academic culture is rife with similar irrationalities. One of the glories of an academic life is that we see how extraordinarily diverse, not to say eccentric, people with very different talents, personalities, working patterns and styles can all produce excellent scholarship and science. We all know the colleague who writes from three in the morning until eight or who devotes hours to a deep knowledge of the Tarot and still produces brilliant work.

And we tolerate a wide variety of ways of getting your work done. But this tolerance does not seem to extend to the eccentricity of having children. In my university the standard time for faculty meetings is 4pm-6pm, a half-hour after all the local child-care centres close. And, in many departments, it would be much more acceptable for a faculty member to leave early because he had opera tickets than because she had to pick up kids. Faculty routinely work at home, but when a graduate student with a baby proposed that she could do her data analysis at home her supervisor accused her of "letting down" the lab.

This situation is not just damaging to women and children - it is damaging to science and scholarship. While there is a majority of women in graduate programmes in psychology in the US, for example, women are still a small minority of assistant professors. I am constantly visited by female students, often the most brilliant students in the department, who are having second thoughts about a scientific career because they want to have children too. I encourage them to stick with it, partly because I selfishly want to read their papers in years to come. I point to my own life and I tell encouraging stories about writing my thesis while my first baby played at my feet, or about my pregnant job-talk at Berkeley.

But I am uneasily conscious that my success is largely a matter of sheer luck. I could as easily point to the lives of women who loved science just as much but were stuck for ever in the adjunct positions and part-time jobs of the academic netherworld. Or I could point to the women who loved children just as much but found, after tenure, that they could not get pregnant after all.

The changes we need to make in universities are not especially difficult or costly. We could easily adjust the career structure. Providing an on-site, high-quality university nursery would cost much less than one MRI facility.

Simply recognising that having children is a fundamental part of the human condition could provide an important pay-off in keeping excellent young women - and men - in the profession. More, universities could be a model for the rest of society. We academics should not just tell the world that caring for young children is important, we should show them how to do it.

Alison Gopnik is professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. How Babies Think, by Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), is published on January , priced Pounds 20.00.

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