Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Tasha Mellins-Cohen. Tasha is the Director of Publishing for the Microbiology Society, and a member of the COUNTER Executive Committee and the UKSG Education Committee. Her industry expertise stretches from publishing operations and project management to policy setting, via technology management and business analysis.
“Officially, it’s because the other candidate was a better cultural fit for the organization. Unofficially, they think you are a maternity risk.”
That’s a direct quote from a recruitment consultant circa 2008, telling me that I’d not been offered a job. I can’t even begin to list all the problems in that statement, because there are just so damn many of them. My response to that recruitment consultant all those years ago was that (a) I didn’t want to work for such a bigoted company, and (b) I’m childfree by choice. Childfree, not childless: my life does not lack for children, they just don’t live in my house, eat my food, or require me to in any way be responsible. And by choice, not circumstance: I could have them, but have chosen not to after long and careful consideration of the options.
Let’s take a step back: I am privileged. My parents are hot on education, and pushed me to achieve my potential by sending me to a single-sex grammar school and encouraging me to obtain undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. I am white, middle class, and cis-gendered. I own property (okay, the bank owns it, but it’s my name on the deed) and have managed to pay off my student loans, credit cards, and car loans. Life is good! However, I can’t help but think that it would be easier, though not better, if I was a man – or if I stuck to the “Life Script”. You know, the one that goes school → university → job → marriage → babies. It’s not a bad script, it just doesn’t work for everyone. For example, while just 9% of English and Welsh women born in 1946 had no children, for those born in 1970 the proportion is 17%, and in Japan the proportion of women without children has risen from 11% for women born in 1953 to 27% for women born in 1970. The latest estimates are that one in five women in the US and Europe will enter menopause without having had a child. In many cases, higher educational attainment and higher income are associated with childlessness – the 2004 US Census, for instance, showed that nearly half of women with incomes over $100,000, and 25% of those aged between 40 and 44 who held a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification, were childless. We are a pretty significant minority, so in light of the recent amazing posts on The Scholarly Kitchen discussing diversity and inclusivity I feel it’s time to speak out for us.
I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for colleagues who are from a minority background, or who feel that the community would not welcome their true selves: it’s been hard enough just being openly childfree. There was the woman who thought that I should give her my holiday allowance so that she could spend time with her children, because I must be a driven career woman who didn’t need a break, and with no outside interests or commitments. The man who tried to diagnose me with both fertility problems and a psychiatric disorder, because there must be something wrong with a woman who doesn’t want kids. The many people who have stated that I must be selfish, depriving my husband and our collective parents of a baby. The endless comments from condescending well-meaning individuals telling me that I will change my mind when I’m older are tapering off as I edge closer to 40, being replaced with questions as to who will care for me when I am old. For reference, when I’m old enough to need care it’ll come from nursing home staff, but as I won’t have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on raising children, it’ll be a really good nursing home. There are plenty of other examples, but there is space only for one: the colleague who in all earnest explained to me that I would not be a “real woman” until I had borne children, becoming offended when, after fifteen minutes, I lost my patience and exclaimed that I wasn’t clear on why she thought that childbirth would make any change to my chromosomal make-up (I was considerably more profane at the time).
While it is utterly infuriating that adult women who’ve made a choice not to reproduce are generally held to be less mature, responsible, and sensible than their many compatriots who had children by accident or design, most of the time I treat people’s comments and attitude as a joke. I’ve developed my own form of conference bingo, which doesn’t include the things you might expect from business bingo – “thinking outside the box” certainly doesn’t show up – but does include things like “you’ll change your mind”, “it’s different when it’s your own”, “that’s so selfish”, and so on. For me, the best conferences are the ones where I don’t need to pull out the bingo card.
So why the blog post? Because I’m lucky: my childfree state is my choice, not something imposed upon me. When someone asks me whether I have children, and I reply that I don’t, the next question is almost always about why I don’t have them. The list of reasons is as long as my arm, and I choose whichever one seems most likely to cut off the conversation; “I’d probably leave it on the train” is a good one. But good grief, people! Can you imagine how hurtful that question must be to someone – anyone – who desperately wants to have children and can’t?
I showed this post to a good friend at an early draft stage, and she had this to say:
“Try being a single mother. I have been asked before how I would manage… my childcare is none of your business.”
You know, I can’t help but think that the world has us coming and going – whatever we choose to do, someone is going to think we’ve done the wrong thing. The moral of the story? Whatever your opinion might be, don’t give it unless you are invited to do so – and that includes asking intrusive questions. Let’s stop giving lip service to diversity and start practicing inclusivity instead.