27/08/2013 13:24 BST | Updated 27/10/2013 05:12 GMT

Nobody Asks Whether Men Can 'Have it All'

Last November, I wrote here as a Women of the Future Awards shortlister, arguing that science should not be considered unfeminine. As nominations open once more for the 2013 awards, I have taken the next step in my scientific career and will be starting a PhD in theoretical physics this October.

I've become increasingly aware that women in science are haunted by the question "Can women have it all?" i.e. "Can women manage both a successful career and a family?" But men have been "having it all" for centuries without anyone batting an eyelid!

The assumption of course, even in 2013, is that a male scientist has a wife who will take care of his children while he ploughs ahead with his career. But this need not be the case. In some families, the husband provides the bulk of the childcare. Other couples choose to split it 50/50. The choice lies entirely with the parents themselves and should not be affected by societal pressures or assumptions.

But too often childcare and the running of family life are still seen as primarily the mother's responsibility. Mothers who return to work immediately after having a baby, leaving the baby in the care of their husband or another family member, are labelled "bad mothers". The term "bad father", by contrast, is very rarely used. The crux of the matter is this: both parents have equal responsibility for childcare. This seems completely obvious, but I'm not convinced that society has caught on. For example, some would argue that if both parents decide to pursue their careers full time and hire a nanny to take care of their baby, the baby may be damaged. I'm not sure whether or not this is true, but if it is, the father and mother bear equal moral responsibility for the decision. If you want to label her a "bad mother", you have to label him a "bad father".

Even those who do accept that both parents bear equal responsibility for childcare are prey to subconscious prejudices to the contrary. The image of a caring mother cradling her baby or playing with her children is common, but similar images for fathers are much rarer. I suggest a simple thought experiment: whenever you think, say or hear anything about parenthood, say it again with the genders reversed and see how it sounds. For example, when someone starts complaining about "career mothers putting their work before their children", ask them what they think of "career fathers putting their work before their children". (This is actually a good trick for any gendered statement about any topic!)

Until society holds mothers and fathers equally responsible for childcare and family life, men and women cannot be truly equal in their careers. How can a woman perform as well as her male colleagues when, unlike them, she also feels obliged to take a year off work after the birth of each child and does all the household cooking? Of course, some women freely choose to do this (and so do some men), but this choice should be theirs alone, not made under the pressure of societal expectations. "Having it all" should not mean "having to do it all". "Having it all" should mean that all couples are allowed to plan their childcare in the way that best suits them, respecting both partners' equal rights and responsibilities both to their careers and to their children.

Francesca Day was shortlisted for the 2013 Women of the Future Awards.

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The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 13 November and is hosted by Real Business in association with Shell.