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Why Is Academia So Hard on Working Mothers?

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Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: Flexible schedule. Summers off. Casual dress. Friendly work environment. Academia sounds like the perfect field for working mothers. Yet as a recent study out of Barnard suggests, women who seek to be both professional academics and mothers often find themselves struggling to succeed in either role.

woman at school campus
The study highlights the typical academic timeline. In most fields, once a newly minted Ph.D goes on the job market, she will be up for tenure after about seven years (if she's in a tenure-track job). Since the average doctorate is earned at age 34, that means that a woman's most critical and challenging work years are also the same years she's likely to be trying to have children. 

Having a child is a difficult thing to pull off when you're in graduate school (after coursework, there's research and then a dissertation to write), and the task becomes even more daunting once one is on the tenure track. Teaching demands, requirements to publish, travel and present papers and the expectation of a book or major achievement in one's field ... it can all be hard to juggle with pregnancy, childbirth and the equally intense needs of young children. 

Women trying to balance families and careers in other fields may be thinking: Cry me a river. And it's true that achieving a work-life balance in any field takes effort. But for some reason, academia feels even tougher, perhaps because so many "professor mommies" assumed it would be easier. As the Barnard study indicates, women leave the profession -- or jump off the tenure track -- at a rate that far outpaces men. And it's not hard to notice that the most successful women in any university typically are childless, if not single -- while male professors are often patriarchs of large families (the better to lecture to). 

As the daughter of one professor and husband of another, I've seen this close up, and it makes me sad. Due to the nature of academic work -- the role it plays in shaping ideas in our culture -- something unique is lost when both sexes are unable to enter on equal footing. It may be that the tenure system is due to expire anyway (which would fundamentally change academia -- for the worse, I'd say), but until that happens, I'd like to see more women get the opportunity to pursue tenure without having to give up on their dreams of motherhood. 

Whether that means changing the timeline, providing better childcare or just continuing to chip away at a culture that still somehow feels as conservative as the 1950s (despite its reputation as a world of radicalism), I'm not sure. But I hope the smart women currently earning their Ph.Ds can get on it. My daughter's about to start college, and I want her to learn from as many women as men. 


next: Should Mothers and Daughters Be Friends?
71 comments so far | Post a comment now
Michelle September 10, 2010, 9:10 AM

“As the daughter of one professor and husband of another…”

Please clarify. Do you mean the “wife” of another?

Anonymous September 10, 2010, 11:45 AM

Part of the problem is trying to combine two careers. Academics often have to live where the job is and it’s hard to coordinate with a spouse.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I do know mothers who’ve made it in academia, but there are also moms who choose to get off the tenure track. I think part of the problem is that the gap is so big between the tenure track and adjunct professors (no benefits, paid per course at a level that doesn’t add up to a FT salary). At the same time, I don’t think getting rid of tenure would be good.

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K September 14, 2010, 4:05 AM

I am so thrilled to have an article like this in more mainstream media. I am a pre-tenure faculty & mom of two who sometimes believe she’ll earn an ulcer & an anxiety disorder before promotion & tenure. I often feel unsupported not only within higher education, but also with my friends outside of higher education who do not “get” this profession. By bringing this information to a wider audience, perhaps we can work to find outside support for moms in academia, too. Oh,and who gets summers off? I taught 3 classes and was swamped in grant-writing, research, and programmatic management. :)

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