Soft power and parenting

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Caravaggio, “Madonna of the Rosary”

Being a parent imposes restraints on soft as well as hard power.

Networking is a term that’s overused and rather nebulous. Being well-networked is understood to be better than being poorly-networked, but exactly what parameters define the state are less clear.

For scientists, if publications and grant awards represent an individual’s hard power, then networking helps determine their soft power – contacts in both political and administrative circles as well as scientific ones, a presence on funding boards and editorial panels, name recognition, influence, goodwill.

It’s crucial too to recognise that while networking is usually presented as an external activity – how well-connected someone is within their national/international research community and the scientific world at large, it is also conducted internally. Networking affects the standing that an individual enjoys within their own institution, and this context is possibly just as important as the external one. Are they known outside of their own department? Are they a presence on the campus? Do their colleagues in other sections of the faculty have a sense of who they are and what they’re like?

Establishing this kind of profile is especially problematic for parents, who are usually limited in terms of available time and struggling just to maintain or build their hard power. Research, teaching, and the acquisition of third-party funding are already likely to consume the limited amount of time a scientist-parent has left available.

What therefore gets sacrificed (assuming you haven’t chosen, Biblical style, to sacrifice your child) are soft power opportunities – seminar attendances, dinners with visiting speakers, seminar invites, conferences (especially the longer ones), Retreats – all of the community-related activities that add up to the generation of a visible profile both inside and outside your institutional home.

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Caravaggio, “Sacrifice of Isaac”

It’s one reason why you can be producing good work, or even having relative success in research terms, but still remain relatively isolated or something of an unknown quantity outside the narrow margins of your own group. Such isolation in network terms can make a difference when decisions such as tenure or grant funding come down to fine margins. The social relationships that might have been formed or impressions that could have been made in soft power scenarios are absent or not proximal enough to pay off. 

It’s not all doom and gloom for parents though. As is so often the case these days, technology can help compensate for a lack of a physical presence, and also assist both in terms of building a profile, and in maintaining contact with people that it might now be difficult to interact with in person. There are some easy institutional changes that can be made too – having visiting speakers give their presentations in the mornings makes attendance feasible, something that’s not the case when seminars start at 5pm or later. Scientific dads should be encouraged to take extended parental leave in order to reduce the gender difference in terms of time off after birth. Establishing an institutional creche and kindergarten or any kind of childcare support helps parents maintain a productive work routine without giving up a work-life balance. And as always, fostering awareness and communication as a means of creating a sense of solidarity and support is both uncomplicated and essential.

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From “Hard Boiled” dir. John Woo, starring Chow Yun-fat.

In fact, under the right circumstances it can even be possible for parents to turn the tables – in places where there is a strong cohort of young scientists who all have children of a similar age, this can create a good enough sense of community to make childless peers feel left out of the networking opportunities at collection time!

What other simple redresses can be implemented to improve scientific parents soft power opportunities? Let TIR know.

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