Keeping Mommy on the Tenure Track

tenuretrackAs feminists, we are told to rejoice: At last, we women are taking our rightful place in academia. In the last thirty years, the number of women who are college students and professors has increased dramatically. While it is true that women have continued to make great progress in both educational attainment and career advancement, a few feel-good statistics cannot mask the reality many women face as they pursue graduate degrees and professorships: the pressure to choose between having a career in academia and having children.


Many professors have noted the disparity between male and female professors as well as between faculty members with and without children. Dr. Mary Ann Mason, J.D., Ph.D., professor and codirector of the Center for Economic and Family Security at Berkeley Law School, is determined to do something about it. Although 70 percent of male professors who achieve tenure are married with children, only 44 percent of female professors who reach the same status are married with children. Because of this, Dr. Mason advocates for greater flexibility from universities at the “front end of an academic career,” since the greatest demands on faculty are in their 30s and 40s, decades during which many women decide whether or not to pursue motherhood. Mason, who co-authored Mothers on the Fast Track, a book about balancing family and career, notes the importance of “having a very supportive partner, someone who gave them full economic and emotional support and took their career as seriously as they took their own” for moms who “made it.”


Mason has two children of her own and has worked hard to make the University of California as friendly as possible to parenting faculty. As a graduate dean, she learned that “getting the top administrators to buy into it is the most important thing,” especially when making changes intended to benefit working parents. She perceives an inherent gender bias in the academic system, especially in the sciences and engineering, in which women (both professors and students) are still a significant minority. “We’ve opened the doors, but then we make it impossible by closing them in a couple years,” she says, adding that “the cost [of pursuing a higher degree] is totally unsuited to a woman’s biology.”


Dr. Kristen Monroe, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality and a professor of political science and philosophy at the University of California at Irvine, noted the difference between the experiences of female and male professors. Monroe and three graduate students conducted interviews of 80 female faculty members, also at UCI. They uncovered overwhelming feelings of frustration with a system that does not seem to be unique to their university but is rampant throughout the entire academic community. For instance, many of the women who participated in the study described feeling “intense pressure… with regard to having children, raising them, and also caring for aging parents.” These women hesitated to utilize “policy options that might be helpful, fearful of how they would appear to male colleagues.”


Many of the women Monroe interviewed regretted choices they made in their personal lives in order to “avoid confronting colleagues with their need for more flexibility.” The women also expressed frustration with the way female professors are viewed in general. Faculty women were more likely to be given service projects that took up a significant amount of time but earned no credit or reward, while male faculty members were allowed time to do their own research and thus achieved tenure at a faster rate. Treatment of this kind would only be exacerbated if a professor became pregnant and requested leave before or after childbirth.


It is in the best interests of universities to ensure that all faculty members feel respected, appreciated, and supported. For many professors who are also parents, achieving tenure proves a difficult task to reconcile with the demands of family life. Pursuing tenure is usually a timetabled process that leaves little room for any absence. Some universities, such as the University of Washington, now supply an option to their faculty known as “tenure extension.” If a faculty member who just became a parent takes a leave of absence for six months or more out of a year, that year is not counted towards their mandatory tenure review. Policies like these benefit both female and male faculty who are parents.


Some universities also recognize that parents may face similar challenges and demands on their time while pursuing adoption. Calvin College, a small, religious school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one such institution. Faculty members who are eligible for the college’s health insurance plan are also eligible for reimbursement for certain adoption expenses. In addition to this policy, a number of schools also recognize the necessity of spending time with a child newly placed for adoption or foster care. They allow a similar amount of leave time for parents of a newly placed child under the age of five as they do for birthmothers. Yet according to students and professors at many other schools, not every college or university is equally understanding of individuals who become parents through adoption.


Dr. Jeanne Schindler, assistant professor in the humanities department at Villanova University, asks that universities “treat their faculty as whole persons with vocations that are more primary than their professional life.” Schindler, who welcomed her second child in May, thinks that parents are parents first and professionals second. A university that recognizes a faculty member’s multiple obligations will not only attract talented candidates but also enable its students “to see that the life of learning can flourish within the home” as well as in the classroom, helping to encourage the next generation of gifted academics.


Villanova provides childcare subsidies in a program to which faculty members can contribute before taxes. Schindler, however, paid more attention to the university’s alternate tenure track plan, similar to the policy at the University of Washington: “When the tenure review process takes place, the committee does not evaluate candidates differently according to whether or not they’re married with children. The difference would be that you can ask for the tenure clock to be stopped for one year after each child.” Schindler also observed, “Being an academic is fairly family-friendly — if you have two academics.” The fact that Schindler’s husband teaches in the same department has made creating alternating schedules relatively easy for the professional couple, who made a commitment to share the day-to-day care of their children.


In an educational system in which freedom of opinion and diversity of thought is prized, a subset of the population should not be made to feel that their persons are unwanted. Women’s natural differences from men and the innate challenges and rewards of motherhood should be valued as an asset to a university seeking a truly diverse and representative faculty. As Schindler says, “The task of the university is the cultivation of humanity, the humanity of our students. Part of what it means to be a humane and educated person is to be open to the truth from all these different experiences.” Women and men, mothers and fathers all enrich the life of a university by sharing “a different vantage point to contribute to our understanding of the truth.”


Truth and wisdom are what universities were created to discover. A day must come when no woman is excluded from or marginalized within the academic community because she has chosen to parent.