(Breast) Feeding Frenzy at the University of Virginia

Harvard president Larry Summers quickly became a former Harvard president after he made the mistake of offering some accurate but politically incorrect observations about women and math. Paul Tudor Jones, a billionaire hedge fund manager, large donor, and University of Virginia trustee, recently made a similar gaffe on a panel on financial trading at the UVa’s McIntire School of Commerce. Fortunately, he holds no position from which an angry, morally preening faculty can fire him.

Answering a question about why there weren’t any women on the panel, Jones replied, “Traders must have extraordinary focus and commitment, working long hours and forgoing personal time. A lot of women opt out of such a high-intensity career, especially once they have children.”

Jones’s “inappropriate” comments predictably ignited the gases of political correctness that permeate college campuses today, but the firestorm was on the verge of burning itself out when the Washington Post obtained a video of the panel discussion and published some of Jones’s more incendiary comments:

… that it is difficult for mothers to be successful traders because connecting with a child is a focus “killer.” As long as women continue having children, he said, the industry is likely to be dominated by men.

As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it . . . .

That mother’s milk was like blood in the water, and the politically correct sharks were on it immediately.

U.S. News and World Report quickly published a piece by Susan Milligan proclaiming “Wall Street’s Misogyny on Display.” Never mind that Jones was not speaking for “Wall Street” and that it’s hardly “misogyny” to say that women aren’t always good at everything.

The Wall Street Journal’s Money Beat quoted Sheila Wellington, former president of Catalyst, a women’s leadership organization, and an executive-in-residence at NYU’s Stern School of Business, observing, “As far as I can tell, a mother is not lactating forever.” That’s a cute but irrelevant remark, since Jones meant that the emotional distractions and lack of intense “focus” produced by having infants and young children is the impediment to young mothers’ success, not the physical fact of breast feeding.

But The Hook, a weekly Charlottesville newspaper, deserves the booby prize for its headline, “Bosom-gate: Jones in doghouse for UVA remarks.”

Despite the titillation (and bad puns, including mine) of the (breast) feeding frenzy over Jones’s remarks, there is a serious issue that goes beyond either the misogyny or accuracy of Jones’s observation that women are less successful than men at high-pressure trading. As with all eruptions of political correctness, the issue is not what was said, but that it was said at all. As the Journal’s Money Beat quoted Kate Warne, an Edward Jones investment strategist, “It’s distressing if he thinks it’s okay to say those things.”

It is more distressing that the first response of so many inside and outside the academy to controversial issues is to invite those with whom they disagree to shut up.

Eighty-two members of the UVa faculty definitely do not think it was okay for Jones to say what he said. In a May 29 letter to Provost John Simon, they claimed that Jones’s comments were “false and injurious” and insisted that it is “imperative for the University administration to respond.”

Few if any university administrations these days need to be asked twice to demonstrate (at least verbally) their politically correct bona fides, and true to form Provost Simon responded immediately.

“Neither President Sullivan nor I agree with his statement that having a family disadvantages a woman’s ability to perform in the workplace,” Simon wrote. “His comments were of his own volition, he was not speaking on behalf of U.Va., and he has since issued a public apology.”

Having thus condemned speech he found offensive, Simon added that of course he couldn’t condemn speech he finds offensive. “As administrators, we are often called upon to condemn opinions different from our own,” he stated piously. “At a university, however, freedom of expression is fundamental to our mission.”

Jones of course had said nothing about “a woman’s ability to perform in the workplace,” except in the very particular and specific workplace of a subset of financial traders. Perhaps President Sullivan and Provost Simon, along with the art historians, psychologists, anthropologists, and English and history professors who signed the letter, have somehow amassed knowledge of the job realities and requirements of high-pressure financial trading and so have some basis to disagree with his statements that it is a hard field for new mothers. (It is interesting that no signatories are from the Darden School of Business, and only six of the 82 are in a STEM field.)

At least one not-so-courageous professor condemned Provost Simon’s response for lacking proper courage, as quoted in the Washington Post:

“This is a pretty extreme example of university officials being afraid to speak out because they don’t want to upset a major donor,” said one professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared it could hurt her career. “This is the price that a university pays for being beholden to a major donor. And it hurts.”

So far it hasn’t hurt enough to raise a demand to return Jones’s donations to the University.

Like the positions in the financial industry that Jones had in mind, academic jobs are also not without pressure, especially for young mothers seeking tenure.

That issue arose in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed discussing a new book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. “Do babies matter to academic careers?” it asks. The answer in “what may be the most comprehensive look at gender, family and academe ever published” is unequivocal: according to lead author Mary Ann Mason, professor of law at UC Berkeley, “At every stage, there’s a ‘baby penalty.’”

The authors quote “Jennifer,” a female neuroscience postdoc, who told an interviewer that “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do a tenure-track job, and people were very upfront with me about that when I had my child.”

Paul Tudor Jones was “upfront about that” as well, and look what it got him. The argument of Do Babies Matter? in short, is difficult to distinguish from what Jones said at UVa. There is, however, one huge difference: Academic analyses of the burdens of motherhood are celebrated in higher ed circles as progressive truth telling, while Jones’s almost identical observations are denounced as mindless misogyny.

Will UVa Provost Simon and President Sullivan now go on record either criticizing themselves or explaining how and why they disagree with Do Babies Matter? and its argument that, as Simon’s letter put it, “having a family disadvantages a woman’s ability to perform in the workplace”?