Australian PM: PhDs are a women's excuse to not have babies

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was recently giving a speech about the nation’s aging population and the problems it will cause. Seems like a serious topic that needs discussing – but it got interesting when he met Nina Funnell, researcher and reporter.

Arguments were made about superannuation and the strain on healthcare. But there was a deeper message: young people (women in particular) are failing in their civic duty to reproduce. Apparently, gen Y is to blame for the inverted population pyramid.

There were hundreds of people in the room but only a handful under 30. As one of the under 30-crowd, I shuffled nervously, hoping no one would recognise me – and my empty womb – as the deeply unpatriotic and traitorous felons that we are.

After Rudd came off stage, he spoke to me and the few other under-30s (we had congregated for strength in numbers). He extended his points about the problems with the ageing population and the financial problems gen Y will incur when the baby boomers become pensioners.

At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the “excuse” that “all” young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I’ve come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.

…I can’t imagine how a politician, someone who should theoretically be a master of political correctness and choosing his words carefully, would say something so horrendously stupid. Yep, women choosing to further their education is really just an excuse to get out their Ultimate Duty of Making Babies. Not because of, you know, the pursuit of knowledge, a passion for research, the desire to teach others, the excitement of discovery, the satisfaction of exploration, or the joy of personal fulfillment. Nope, it’s because we don’t want to patriotically pop out babies for the motherland.

Another annoying part is that multiple factors make many women feel like motherhood and academia just don’t mix. How can you balance morning sickness with field work? How can you do lab work with dangerous chemicals that you’re not allowed to use? How are you expected to write your thesis when you’re taking care of an infant? These are all daunting challenges.

Are women getting their PhDs with the nefarious plan that they can use these things as excuses to avoid reproduction? Of course not. Plenty of women want to have children, but put it off because they feel it’s impossible in the current academic environment. The solution isn’t to stop women from getting their PhDs. What we need to do is develop ways to make motherhood easier for academics. Make day cares more available at Universities. Make pregnancy leave a viable option for grad students. Take pregnancy into account when evaluating publications when I woman is up for tenure. Encourage men to spend more time with their children, rather than assuming that’s mom’s job.

Many women have survived grad school and motherhood simultaneously because they had appropriate accommodations. This should be a cause Rudd can rally against: I mean, all he wants us to do is breed, right? He won’t care if we happen to get a little smarter at the same time.