Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Brooke Harrington (professor of sociology, Dartmouth College) spoke with Clare McGranahan (associate director of communications) about the disparate levels of support provided to parents and caregivers in the US compared to Denmark, and why the devaluation of care work in the United States harms academic institutions and society broadly.

Parents with their children stand in queue waiting to get inside Stengaard School north of Copenhagen, Denmark, on April 15, 2020, after the new coronavirus lockdown. (Photo by Ólafur Steinar Gestsson / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by OLAFUR STEINAR GESTSSON/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)

Clare McGranahan (CM): You selected a photograph of a mother and child waiting in line to enter a school building in Denmark, which was taken in April 2020. Could you explain why you chose this image for the time capsule?

Brooke Harrington (BH): Like many women in science who have been taking on even more caregiving responsibilities than usual due to the pandemic, I’m being crushed professionally by having to hold down two full-time jobs simultaneously. I always did caregiving at home, but I was supported by an institutional environment that included a public-school system. And before my child was old enough to go to public school, because I was fortunate enough to work in Denmark, I was supported by another set of parent-supporting institutions. From the age of about eight months, childcare is available to everyone in Denmark at a sliding-scale fee based on your income. I don’t believe I ever paid more than $200 a month, and that was when I was at the top of the income scale. I made more than the average Dane as a professor.  

I’ve often said that my entire career has only been possible because of those Danish parent-supporting institutions. Now that I’m back in the US, I feel that more acutely than ever, because none of those family-supporting institutions exist here. I envy my friends and colleagues in Denmark, who were able to send their children safely back to school in April, whereas my child, who is 10 years old, hasn’t been able to attend face-to-face school or even have a playdate in going on seven months now. He’s suffering because of that, and my work as a scientist can’t get done because I have a child who needs me not only to raise him but also to teach him—what a public institution that my tax dollars pay for used to do.

Not for nothing, but Denmark is one of those countries run by women—like New Zealand, like Germany—that have had the best results with the coronavirus pandemic. The reason that this picture could be taken, and that Denmark could open its schools safely as early as six months ago was that they have sane national policies to deal with the pandemic. In the US, we’re stuck in our houses for nearly seven months, and they’ve been back in school and back to normal life for six months.

That just kills me. It kills me for my kid. And think about what this does to the kids. This is going to be part of their generational experience. I mean, if I can name drop Karl Mannheim and his work on the problem of generations, the pandemic is going to mark children living through this era the way the Depression marked my grandparents. Except that in some ways, living through the Depression strengthened a lot of community bonds, at least for my grandparents.

But with the pandemic, we have a collective generational experience of isolation. People were already worried about children losing social skills because of too much screen time and too much time playing video games. What is it going to do to children if they have to go through another six months the way my son has lived for the last six months? There’s no more face-to-face school, no more playdates. Kids are now experiencing other people as dangerous, as potential disease vectors. I’m sure I’m not the only parent thinking about the long-term effects this will have on children.

CM: How do you think the shutdown and lack of support for caregivers will affect higher education and research in the long term?

BH: There have probably been at least three dozen articles published in major international outlets, both mass media and scientific publications, over the last six months, all pointing to the same thing: if you have young children right now and you’re trying to do science, whether you’re male or female, your career is getting screwed. And our institutions are not taking it seriously or even acknowledging it in most cases. And to the extent that they’re acknowledging it, they’re privatizing a collective problem.

I’ve seen reports on Twitter of universities telling faculty members that if they do have childcare responsibilities at home while they’re supposed to be working, they should quit. One of my colleagues in a different department just tweeted a few weeks ago that when he said on a Zoom call that he had to leave a faculty meeting to pick up his child at daycare, one of his very senior colleagues said, “Well, if you’ve got this kind of problem, you should just take a leave of absence without pay for a year.” As if it’s a completely bizarre thing to need to pick up your child from daycare. And this was said to a very promising, respected, tenured male scholar, so the devaluation of child-rearing generally and caregiving work generally hurts everyone.

In addition to pushing a lot of women out of science and professional careers, this sends a really powerful message to the men who have taken seriously the idea that they should take on caregiving work equally to women. They’re receiving a whole host of messages now saying, “You’re a chump if you do that; you will be socially sanctioned if you do that.” Not only is this pandemic setting back women in the professions and in science for maybe a generation—those are other people’s words, not mine—it’s also setting back household gender equality by punishing men for trying to do the right thing, for trying to raise their children or do other caregiving work. It’s insidious.

If I had the power to make public policy, one of the first things I would do is recognize that caregiving is not a hobby. It’s not like raising prize chinchillas. No offense intended to chinchillas—they’re very cute—but human beings are complex, and they’re often very demanding. If you’ve ever cared for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s or for an infant, it’s draining. It’s a work of love, but it is work, and systematically devaluing it and treating it as some sort of unspeakable private hobby or diminishing it by calling it a work-family balance issue, well that’s bullshit. It harms all of society. And it pushes out of science, and the professions generally, exactly the kind of people we need—people with empathy, people who care about others, people who have a good visceral sense of what it means to be part of society, because you can’t have a society without care.

Denmark has institutionalized that in their public policy, and that’s why I picked this picture. It symbolizes to me a lot of what I’m regretful of having left behind: a society that acknowledges the value and importance of caregiving—not just child-rearing, but all forms of caregiving.

There’s a general societal issue here. The US is rapidly going the way of countries like Japan, where caregiving is generally treated as a devalued form of work. That ends up putting professional women at a huge disadvantage. And professional women are rational beings. Many of us say, “Well, if I’m not going to get social support, if my caregiving work is going to be devalued and heaped with contempt, then I’m just not going to do it.” So the birth rate in America is falling precipitously. Who’s going to pay the taxes that keep the lights on and the government running? You need people of working age. Either you open the doors more to immigration, which is the German solution—which more xenophobic societies have rejected out of hand, and the US seems to be going in that direction—or you support caregiving work, and not just with lip service.

This is not to devalue professionals, especially in science, who don’t have children or caregiving roles. This isn’t a fancy way of saying, “People who reproduce are better than those who don’t.” It’s just to call attention to a widespread institutional problem that is particularly acute in America and which is bound to run into pretty serious conflict with this country’s status as one of the leading academic centers in the world, if not the leading academic center.

A lot of my research concerns transnational professionals, so I’ve been looking closely in recent months at the statistics about Nobel Prize winners and the top people in a variety of fields, from the physical and natural sciences to social sciences to medicine to law to accounting, and the United States is still a magnet for the brightest people in the world. That’s one of the reasons that the US keeps walking away with the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes every year. Most of the people who win those prizes are immigrants—they come to us for our excellent scientific infrastructure for our great universities.

But they’re going to come less and less, not just because of the horrendous national response to the pandemic, but because many of these people also have caregiving responsibilities. If not young children, then elderly parents or family members with disabilities, and they look at our total absence of support—in fact, the contempt—many institutions and individuals have for caregiving. And they say, “You know what, I love my children, I love my elderly parent with dementia, I love my disabled parent or spouse. I can’t bring them to a country where it’s going to be a constant struggle to do my job and care for them the way they deserve to be cared for. I think I’ll stay in my country, where those two things are seen as compatible, or I’ll go to another country where there’s support for both of those aspects of my life.”

I personally know people who have made that call, who have not accepted wonderful, high-prestige, highly paid jobs in the US precisely for this reason. I’m not sure people, especially within academia, realize how badly this is hurting us.

CM: What do you hope future researchers take away from this image?

BH: I hope that they are shocked by the devaluation of care work in the US. I hope that future researchers who open the time capsule think, “What were these people thinking by devaluing care work so extremely? Institutions in the United States in 2020, especially scientific institutions, should have supported their scholars—women and men both—who are caring for family members.” That’s important work, and these people are basically being shoved out of science or told that their roles as caregivers have no place in their professional lives and no value to their professional colleagues. I hope that will shock the people. I also hope the world will be very different in a good way.

This conversation was conducted on September 28, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.