University of Manitoba - Faculty of Arts - Dean's Blog - July 8, 2008
Dean's Blog - July 8, 2008

Babies and the Academic Life (II)

In my previous blog entry we saw that academics of both sexes have fewer children than their counterparts in other professions and that female faculty have fewer children than their male colleagues. I ended with the question: Does Academe Hinder Parenthood? I could have also asked: And if so, does it matter?

Most who take up this issue agree that the pressures and practices of academia make it difficult to balance family and career, especially during the early career period when academics must prove themselves worthy - first by earning a doctorate, then by landing a tenure-track job, and finally by achieving tenure. In light of this, many conclude that universities should implement a broader range of family-friendly policies, especially those which would make things easier for their female academic staff who have the greatest difficulty balancing family and academic work.

The specific challenge faced by female academics is of course due largely to their unique role in biological reproduction and the bearing and nursing of babies, which takes away from the time and energy that can be devoted to academic work during the crucial early career period. Mind you, not all obstacles faced by academic women are biologically determined. For instance, many women find that they must shoulder a disproportionate burden of domestic labour. Their male partners - be they academics or not - tend statistically to do less when it comes to caring for children, tending to family health, cooking and performing other household services. Hence, if academic women want to have and raise children, they can't count on as much domestic support as their male colleagues tend to get from their female partners. Obviously, this will make it more difficult for academic moms to succeed in demanding tenure-track positions. It is this realization which adds to concerns about whether one can realistically handle the simultaneous demands of academic career and motherhood.

Before you jump on me for painting an outdated picture of the sexual division of labour in enlightened academic households, let me assure you that this portrait is consistent with research findings from the field. One study investigated the influence of gender and tenure status in academicians’ experiences of balancing parenthood and an academic career. Results revealed significant differences between men and women when it comes to family-work conflict, but no significant difference between tenured and untenured faculty. Women reported greater academic and family stress as compared to men, and were more likely to perceive insufficient support both at home and at work. Gender can also be seen as a contributing factor in academic divorce. Sadly, the difficulties finding a happy work-life balance are part of a larger complex that has led some observers to speak of the Quiet Desperation of academic women today.

These findings would not come as a surprise to the best-known expert on the topic of academics and babies, Mary Ann Mason, former Dean of the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley and lead investigator in the Do Babies Matter? research project. (See Part I and Part II.) She finds that more women than ever are entering academia but that a shocking number of them leave the professional career track before becoming tenured, usually due to their decision to become mothers. (This is sometimes called the "leaky pipeline".) Very few who opt out can return to the tenure-track. Instead, they tend to take on part-time or non-tenured positions. Men, on the other hand, do not drop out as often (and if they do, it is seldom for childcare reasons).

As Mason puts it, "married with children" is the success formula for men, but not for women. This is partly due to the fact that male faculty are more likely than female faculty to have a spouse who does not work outside of the house full-time, allowing men to spend more time with work and less time with childcare. Additionally, most academic men have non-academic spouses, while a large percentage of academic women are partnered with other academics.

But does this situation require that universities put in place ameliorative measures, as Mason and others recommend? For example, should we have: extended parental leave policies; reduced teaching for academic mothers; parental tenure-clock stoppage; part-time tenure-track positions; re-entry to tenure-track; subsidized daycare; etc.?

One negative answer comes from the author of Infinite Injury, a rather quirky blog by a Math PhD student. His analysis of Mason's position on gender equity and academic babies leads him to conclude (incorrectly in my view) that her argument is fallacious. The gist of his rejoinder is found in this passage:

The arguments given about the problems for women with babies in academia all focused on the extra time and energy women put into childcare. Now if women put more effort into children simply because they find raising children more rewarding (relative to men) the fact more women than men drop out to raise children is actually the desired outcome. It’s what would result from perfectly fair mutually beneficial trades. On the other hand if you think that the extra effort women put into childrearing isn’t the result of fair deals then the target should be on encouraging women to put less effort into childrearing, not making the unfair division of labor slightly less bad for women.

This is rather superficial, but perhaps there is something to the notion that women who opt to have children in spite of the potential risks for their academic careers do so on the basis of valid value preferences. Surely there are always trade-offs in life, and both women and men may choose to pursue family-oriented goals at the price of not realizing their full potential as academics. (For instance, by taking on overload teaching year after year to help offset the lost income of their stay-at-home partners.)

Conversely, many academics simply place a higher value on their professional lives as researchers and teachers than they do on their personal lives. For someone willing to spend most of his or her 20s and 30s holed up in a lab or an archive exploring every intricacy of an often arcane research question, family life may not offer as much reward as the life of the mind. Perhaps that is why many academics simply don't feel that they are sacrificing anything important to them by not having children (or not having as many as their non-academic counterparts).

Indeed, another astute blogger, Quirky Economist, responded to the recent findings noted above by asking not only whether the culture and institutions of academia are largely incompatible with parenthood but also whether the type of people who become academics are less likely to want kids. She elaborates:

The question of why academics, particularly women, have fewer kids is not trivial because it affects whether we see this as a problem (which implies it needs fixing), or simply an interesting empirical correlation. But even if there is something about academia that makes it harder for women who want kids to have them, does that alone suggest changes should be made? This is one of those areas that I really struggle with as a feminist and an economist. The feminist in me wants to say that women should be able to have it all; the economist in me knows that there are always trade-offs. The feminist in me wants to say that no woman should be discouraged from doing what she wants professionally because she also wants kids; the economist in me believes that if having kids is more important to some people than others, then those women should choose jobs that allow them to have the life they want, rather than requiring the jobs (including bosses and co-workers) to accommodate the women. And of course, the idealist in me wants to live in a world where no matter what your decision, you are supported, not judged for it…

How should we respond to these observations? I'll turn to this question in my final entry on the topic of academics and family.


Babies and the Academic Life (I)

Richard Sigurdson
Dean of Arts
University of Manitoba

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Babies and the Academic Life (I)
Babies and the Academic Life (II)