Motherhood

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The Author

Kieran Snyder (Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania) has spent the last decade leading teams of software designers and engineers. She is also a mother who has written two recent articles for Slate magazine. (Where does she get the time?) Here is her description of those articles:

Last week I published an article in Slate that looked at gender and conversational interruptions in preschoolers. It was a follow-up to an earlier article I’d published, also in Slate, about gender and conversational interruptions in the corporate tech setting. Taken together, the two mini-studies draw a line between the girls who learn not to interrupt in childhood and the frequently interrupted women that they become.

Hate Mail Regarding the Follow-Up Article

She has also written a recent follow-up piece to those articles in response to some particularly negative comments she received. Ms. Snyder notes:

The corporate tech article had many thousands of Facebook shares, significant Twitter activity, and lots of discussion around town … Most of the several hundred direct messages that I’ve received about it have been encouraging …. The children’s article has had much less pickup. Although the topic and dataset are quite similar to the tech study, fewer readers have discovered it, and those that have are mostly not sharing it the same way …

Yet, despite being less widely circulated, the article on children has generated hate mail! She has been called: “a dumb mom who should go back to playgroup; a bitch who should learn to shut up; just another dumbass mom who thinks she’s a “scientist;” and more. She notes that these are not questions about methodology or the sample size—reasonable concerns she agrees—but specific attacks on her as a mother. For example: “As loath as I am to given much credence to the “data” compiled by a mom with a vested interest in the topic watching her kids play; or, It’s bad enough so many of these things we read about are based on small scale studies of college students motivated by extra credit, now we have parents doing “studies” on their kids. Too bad this woman’s ego outweighs her professionalism.”

On hearing all this I read the article and found it quite tame. Why then evoked such a reaction? Synder notes that there is much criticism of the anecdotal nature of her data regarding preschoolers, but none regarding the women in the tech article. This despite the fact that, “The datasets for both articles are quite similar and have similar weaknesses. If anything, the child dataset is somewhat stronger because some of it is validated by an independent judge.” A major difference between the two articles is that the article about pre-schoolers “highlight[s] the fact that I am a mother several times throughout the article.”

Her Response 

Could it be that her being a mother is the source of much of the vitriol? Perhaps. As Snyder says: “People hear tech and they think interesting.People hear mother and think go back to playgroup.”  Maybe that explains a reader who calls her a “dumbass mom who thinks she’s a “scientist.” But why do many readers make the connection between mother and professionally unqualified? Snyder suggests “It’s probably for the same reason that the tech industry where I work famously asks people, “But would it work for your mom?” as a way to evaluate whether a product design is acceptable for unsophisticated users.” (This is particularly amusing in our family. I’m a humanities scholar who can barely turn my computer on, while my wife is a senior database developer with an M.S. in mathematics. My kids, who work in software, ask: “Would it work for dad?”)

Snyder notes that she is proud of being a mom, just as she is proud of being a linguist, and of her software career and marathon running. But being a mom, contrary to the critics, doesn’t detract from or invalidate her other accomplishments:

… becoming a mom made me better at my job, not worse. I am a better manager in terms of both delegation and empathy. I have less time, so I prioritize more effectively. That benefits me, the individuals on my team, and the business overall … Becoming a mom has also developed my specific professional interests. Like the way that having a kid of my own has taken me back to my roots in empirical linguistics and child language development, which has in turn led me to apply those same statistical techniques to studies of gender in the tech workplace where I spend most of my time.

She concludes by noting that,

Moms I know who have left corporate tech careers to raise their children include public advocates for the Chicago school system, journalists winning awards for their coverage of domestic abuse, and founders of educational nonprofits. All of them have taken their professional skills and applied them in domains motivated heavily by their motherhood. Any one of them has enough rigor to take your “dumbass mother” and shove it.

Reflections

Regarding the data itself, the criticisms are unfounded. Snyder states that “The data here is only directional, and as with the adults in tech study, needs further investigation.” That is a significant and conscientious disclaimer. We might also remember that Jean Piaget’s groundbreaking theories of cognitive development—probably the most famous ever done—were developed after “careful, detailed observations of children. These were mainly his own children and the children of friends.” I conclude that Synder’s results, while provisional, need to be carefully considered. 

Regarding the disparaging remarks about motherhood, we must be careful. There are racists, bigots, misogynists, and more in this world. Hatred seems to be an essential element of our existence, and out-group hostility is a well-known phenomenon. In this case, I would guess that the confluence of at least three factors explains the vitriol directed toward the article about children.

First is misogyny. For reasons that would take a dissertation to flush out, many men see women as sexual objects or things to dominate or keep in their place. The biological and cultural roots of these attitudes are, to say the least, complicated, and I don’t have the time or expertise to investigate them here. (And yes there are women who don’t like men too.) Moreover, some men are simply annoyed by successful, smart, competent women—jealousy is endemic to the human condition. Snyder has a PhD from Penn and has worked in some of the best high-tech companies in the world—enough to make the most talented man or woman envious. But there is no doubt something leftover in the mammalian male brain from millions of evolution that predisposes men to more aggressive talk and behavior.

The other reason has something to do with motherhood. In the contemporary Western world we often make the assumption that full-time mothers are not as smart or competent as career women. If a woman could make a six-figure income at work, why would she stay at home? Doesn’t that violate our notion that earning money is the measure of a man or woman? The conclusion many draw is that she can’t make such an income—that’s why she stays at home—although that is obviously not true in Snyder’s case. Quite frankly, in the US today, the role of motherhood and parenting has relatively little prestige compared to making a large income. At first glance though, I surmise that something about consumerism and materialism plays a role in denigrating parenting in general. It is hard to measure the value of being a good parent.

The final and most important reason for the heated responses to Snyder’s post probably has to do with what I’ve been writing about in my recent posts–people’s inability to believe what they don’t want to believe. If I don’t like the implications that follow from little boys interrupting more than little girls—boys should cease and desist or men should think more about abusive language—then I’m not going to believe it. I’m not sure what follows from Snyder’s very mild observations but some, probably men, were threatened. When our cherished beliefs are threatened, most of us dig in.

All this reminds me of a quote from William James, which I long ago committed to memory.  “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”

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