Thursday, April 19, 2018

On Babies in the Senate And On Child Care Expertise

It can be enlightening to  read two or more random news stories one after the other.

Today, for instance, I first read the story about Senator Tammy Duckworth's infant daughter, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, and the rules in the US Senate which until now have barred children from the Senate floor:

Maile’s arrival was the product of several months of behind-the-scenes negotiation in the hidebound Senate, whose rules until Wednesday barred children from coming onto the Senate floor. A few months after Ms. Duckworth announced she was pregnant, she asked Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, to help her engineer a rule change, necessary because senators are required to vote in person.

So it was that on Wednesday, senators voted unanimously that, henceforth, both male and female senators will be permitted to bring infants up to age one into the chamber. In an institution where a fair number of members are in their 80s, this was a monumental change, hardly as simple as it might seem.

The hilarious part in the debate had to do with diaper bags:

In one exchange about whether to allow diaper bags on the Senate floor, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) cluelessly declared them obsolete.
“They don’t use diaper bags anymore, they’re disposable diapers,” he said. As evidence, Inhofe added, “I know, because I’ve got 20 kids and grandkids.”

Contrary to Inhofe’s self-proclaimed expertise, diaper bags are still used every day by millions of families across the country. As the Associated Press noted, “Diaper bags are generally used to carry clean diapers and other supplies when parents and babies go out.”

So.  Then I chanced upon a story about Harvey Karp, a pediatrician turned into what the New York Times calls "this generation's Dr. Spock," a widely admired expert on how infants sleep.

I have nothing against Dr. Karp or Dr. Spock and I'm sure that their advice has been useful to many, many parents. 

But notice how expertise, even when it comes to tasks as rigidly female-coded as infant care, is so comfortably accepted as male*. 

The New York Times piece on Dr. Karp mentions that he has not had an infant of his own and in that sense lacks hands-on experience.  I'm not at all sure that a female version of him, even if an equally accomplished pediatrician, would be credited with an expert status under those circumstances.  The standards of parenthood are different for women.

Something similar applies to gastronomy.  The vast majority of meals on this earth are prepared by women, but almost all the famous chefs are men, and few view that as extraordinary. 

One** reason for both of my examples is that women are doing most of the childcare and cooking work privately inside households, and those chores are labor intensive.  The time spent doing them is then not available for creating publicly visible and glorious careers.

And experts need those careers, to be viewed as experts.


*  As I wrote, there's nothing inherently wrong with men being experts in infant care or child-rearing, and in an ideal society (with lots more sharing of domestic tasks) probably half of all experts in the field would be men.  The problem, rather, is in the fact that almost all the foot soldiers are women while the generals are not.

**  There are other reasons, too, including the fact that we are all still much more comfortable with male expertise.