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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Redefining Academic Careers
December 8, 2008 - 7:02am

Last week I promised to write about the “male” career model. I want to begin by reasserting my prior advice to young ambitious women, to “do whatchalike” and try not to worry. But it is apparently true, aas The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, that “women in academe, no matter how many hours they worked, reported fewer children than women in all other professional fields.”

According to 2000 census data, 52 percent of male professors have wives who work part time or not at all, while only 9 percent of female professors have partners who work less than full time.

Marriage rates reveal the same paradox. Of those professors who achieve tenure, 70 percent of men are married with children, compared with only 44 percent of women. But women win in the singles category: Twenty-six percent of tenured women are single without children, as compared with only 11 percent of tenured men.

On an individual level, one has to be willing to recognize one’s own human limitations, and to be optimistic enough to move forward, knowing that smart ambitious women really do have a lot of options and that if A doesn’t work out, B and C will come along, even if it’s impossible to imagine in advance what B or C might be.

As a group, however, the statistics are against us. Especially those of us in the humanities, and especially the humanities folks in fields (English, the modern languages, philosophy, classics. . . ) that don’t have an acknowledged parallel non-academic job track for PhD holders. And, as Libby Gruner points out, the NYT’s advice (to women) to think of careers as a “lattice” rather than a “ladder” doesn’t really apply to tenure-track academia. I do tend to agree with Dana Campbell that academia is changing. Sloooooowly.

But I think that the “non-traditional ways to stay in academia part-time and full-time” that she mentions aren’t positive changes for the most part. Rather, they’re the effect of more graduate programs, less public funding, and fewer tenure-track job lines. There have always been people teaching in community colleges part-time, or even full-time — but many, if not most of them didn’t have PhDs and hadn’t invested years and thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in getting degrees that are — let’s be honest here—research-based. The fact is, and I speak as someone who has chosen that career path myself, that part-time academic work, at present, isn’t research-based work; it’s teaching. And you really don’t need a PhD to teach freshman composition.

That said, the up side of those unfortunate changes is that the profession does, I think, find itself redefining what “an academic career” means, and expanding its view of higher education in more democratic and less masculinist ways. Sloooooowly. To be honest, I’m a little suspicious of the fact that public funds for education started drying up right around the time that blacks and women started moving into educational arenas they’d previously been kept out of. And while the part-time or teaching-focused academic track is, or should be, a perfectly legitimate and honorable branch of the profession, I’m leery of the fact that this argument often seems to be offered (I do it too) as a possible solution to the real problem mamas with PhDs have achieving tenure.

I think the Papa PhDs are the ones who will make or break this shift. Either men, especially men with children, will join us in pushing for more flexible career models (and please god, a renewed commitment to public funding for higher education?) — which will shift the tenure-track model to one that’s more accommodating to the twenty-first century working-parent model — or we might very well end up with a broader definition of an “academic career” that includes both boy jobs (tenured, research-based) and girl jobs (contract- and teaching-based). Sure, there will be women on the boy track and men on the girl track. But unless the parallel truths that married women with kids are far less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts, and that tenured men are more likely to be married than tenured women, change, I don’t think we’re going to be able to avoid acknowledging that it’ll be the ladies weaving lattices while the men are still out there climbing the ladders.

The Career Coach welcomes questions or issues for discussion.

 

 

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