University of Manitoba - Faculty of Arts - Dean's Blog - June 16, 2008
Dean's Blog - June 16, 2008

Babies and the Academic Life (I)

A couple of years ago I was asked to participate in a workshop at the Canadian Political Science Association Annual Meetings in which doctoral students nearing the end of their program could ask career advice from grizzled old veterans such as myself. I came prepared for the usual questions about positioning oneself in the job market, balancing research and teaching, and becoming a good departmental citizen without being overburdened by service duties.

Instead, to my surprise, one young woman started things off by asking me point-blank: “When should I have a baby?”

Well, I didn't have time to consult Dr. Phil or Oprah on the topic, and so this was the best answer I could come up with:

"Whenever you want! Seen from a career perspective, there really is no perfect time to have a baby; but if you want one, anytime is great. Remember that there are no guarantees that everything will go as planned, and exactly when you want it to. So you should just go for it whenever you are ready, and hope for the best."

Frankly, this suggestion remains my best effort still. (If you’re interested in how some other people answer the question, you can read some responses from a query of members of the University of California system.)

Having gone through it myself (several times and at various stages of the career spectrum--from graduate student to dean), I appreciate the sensitivity and importance of the decision about when to have a baby, if at all. This is an intensely personal matter, and I believe that any choice should be respected and valued (even one as seemingly irresponsible as mine!)

As a matter related to the academic workplace, however, I fully realize that the baby calculation is an especially tricky one for female academics.

This last option might make sense career-wise. Evidence from the United States suggests that having babies "early" (within five years of their PhD) tends to bump women off the tenure-track, while academic women with "late" babies are as successful as childless women (though still not as successful as married men with children).

But does waiting until you have tenure make sense personally? The average age of a doctoral graduate in Canada is 36. If you add the usual time to tenure to that figure, you can see how waiting to achieve tenure might narrow far too much the window of opportunity to have a family. (While this figure is inflated by the instances of individuals in some professions returning in mid-career, the late age of our PhD graduates has led some commentators to wonder if our programs are too long and our students starting too late.)

In any event, the baby question is huge among younger faculty members--male and female. Of course, this issue is not unique to those in the academy. People of all walks of life have to make this same call about when to have kids. While others may not have to factor in the long time it takes to get the qualifications necessary to start in their profession, more and more women are delaying motherhood until they are better off financially and more secure in their careers. According to Statistics Canada, the average age of a Canadian mother is now 30, and more than one-third of births to women in their thirties are first-borns. Clearly, this trend comes with certain implications, both for the women involved and society as a whole.

Still, it is often generally presumed that those who wish to pursue a professional career path are the most likely to delay having children, since earning a position in the professions requires a great deal of investment in education and in early career development. Professions such as medicine, with its grueling residency system, or law, with long hours for young associates scrambling to make partner, are all heavily "front-loaded" with the most demanding schedules and extreme workloads in the first decade of employment. This might give us some idea of why professional women might not be rushing to have babies early and often.

Compared to these professions, academia might be seen from the outside to offer an enviable lifestyle for mothers--with relatively flexible hours of work, greater freedom to work from home, and extended time "off" during the spring and summer months. But as those inside universities know, such is not the case. The commitment necessary to be a successful tenure-track faculty member can make it a challenge to find time and energy for motherhood (or fatherhood). Even the much-touted opportunity to work from home or to spend more time with the kids during summer is overstated, especially for those in the bench sciences or those who conduct field research. And again, the overall workload is very high in academia. The average full-time university professor works 55 hours per week. And before one gets that first job, there is the long haul (along with the relative poverty) of graduate school. (On average, it takes 70 months to complete a PhD in Canada, increasing to 80 months for those in the humanities and social sciences; and only about half [52%] of PhD students received a fellowship or scholarship that was their primary source of funding.)

Given this long stretch of training and apprenticeship in an academic system designed for a time when most faculty were men with wives who stayed home if there were any kids involved, female academics often realize that the "tenure clock" is too closely synchronized with their "biological clocks". This is one reason why so many academic women feel that they have to choose between career and motherhood.

Indeed, a new study from the University of Utah demonstrates that professors have fewer children than either doctors or lawyers, and that female professors have the lowest number of babies of all the professions. Although male faculty are 21 percent less likely than male doctors to have a baby in their households, female faculty are 41 percent less likely than are their female physician counterparts. (Female faculty members, according to this survey, are also more likely than their female counterparts in medicine and law to be divorced or separated.)

This research came out at about the same time as a major report, in anthropology, that finds male anthropologists more likely to have children than are their female counterparts yet less likely to suffer any career disruptions as a result. This study also finds significant evidence that women in academe shoulder a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for childcare, which causes them greater instances of career setbacks and of work/family stress compared to academic men.

To some, these and other studies raise the question: Does Academe Hinder Parenthood?

It will be to that question that I'll turn in the next blog entry.


Babies and the Academic Life (II)

Richard Sigurdson
Dean of Arts
University of Manitoba

Blog Archive
Send your comments to the Dean's Blog.

Babies and the Academic Life (I)

Babies and the Academic Life (II)