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Mothers in Higher Education

Mothers in Higher Education

May 6, 2011

As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself feeling thankful for the many gifts I have as a working mother in academe: two healthy daughters who teach me lessons in patience and learning on a daily basis; a wonderful partner who supports my career and takes on his share of responsibilities; and a highly coveted tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal arts institution.

You could say that I am living the dream that my own mother had for me. While I was growing up in the 1970s, she told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be or do anything that I wanted. As we know, this was not true for her generation of young women; they were expected to marry young, stay home, or work a traditionally “female” job, if the family needed the extra money. Employers did not offer flex time, nursing rooms or telecommuting to help women succeed as working mothers. But women then could see what would make work environments better places for women, and by extension for their families, and after decades of demands, laws passed and workplaces changed.

So, here I am -- my generation’s version of a “supermom,” complete with an employer that offers a family-friendly support structure. My academic department mentors me and works around the hours I need to be home with my family. The provost hosts dinners where families are invited and child care is provided. My tenure clock was stopped for one year when my daughter was born, and the college has an arrangement with affordable day care close to campus.

Still, throughout higher education a gender gap persists, and like the generation before me, I can see a vision for an even better work environment for all parents. As most working mothers will tell you, when we look beyond the appearance of the so-called “supermom,” there are some serious doubts about how far the feminist movement actually went. I am acutely aware that every minute I spend researching and writing is a minute away from my young children. On the other hand, I fret that every faculty and committee meeting I miss because my kids are sick is an invisible strike on my tenure packet. I dash from meeting to teaching to grading to home. And I often ask myself: Is all of this scurrying worth it? What will I tell my own daughters when I talk to them about their professional options? Can they have it all working in higher education?

I contend that the answer is yes, but only if several changes take place.

1. Eliminate the university system’s glass ceiling: Though at least 50 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the United States are female, fewer women than men are employed in the top of the academic hierarchy. A 2008 report by the American Council of Education stated that only 37 percent of chief academic officers are female.

Women are also paid less and are less likely to gain tenure. AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy John Curtis reports in his article, “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment,that, “After four decades of efforts to fully involve women in the academic workforce, only 42% of all full-time faculty are women.” Fifty-five percent of all part-time faculty are female; fewer full-time women faculty have tenure (34.6 percent) than men (48.6 percent). What’s more, only 28 percent of full professors are female. As these women age, they will live on less and have fewer health care options than the male students with whom they studied in graduate school.

If a woman wants to have children, things will get even harder. A study that looked at a National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients found that women with children were 38 percent less likely than men to achieve tenure. At the same time, women with children are the majority in non-tenure-track and part-time positions, perhaps because women think the demands of raising young children preclude full-time employment. It is hardly surprising that female professors are less likely to have children than are male professors.

The reasons for these outcomes are many and complex. To understand the factors and to get at a real solution, we need to start a real and sustained conversation about discrimination, diversity and gender stereotypes in the profession. We must confront what is wrong and develop new industry guidelines for judging and tracking performance.

The benefactors of an equitable and flexible promotion system will be not only future female professors, but also future students and faculty of both genders. All will enjoy a more engaging and dynamic environment of higher learning, because the best minds — men and women alike — will have equal access to tenure and promotion.

2. Develop better family-leave policies as the standard in higher education. Whether a faculty member gives birth or adopts a child, it is a joyous but hectic occasion. It is only natural and humane for family life to come first. Yet family-leave policies vary widely among institutions of higher learning, and recent research notes that when leave policies do exist, they are often under-used. This is partly because policies can be confusing and women fear being “mommy-tracked.”

The Committee on the Status of Women in Political Science argues that parental leave should mirror any and all benefits given to people facing illness and injury and that “[t]here should be little disagreement about this leave being paid leave.” These policies would be available to both mothers and fathers, though women would perhaps benefit more as research shows that women on average bear a greater share of child rearing and household responsibilities.

In addition to extending the tenure clock, many institutions, reduce teaching loads and give a professor additional, or “modified” administrative duties such as extra student advising or conference planning, the semester after giving birth. But this particular policy — i.e., reduced teaching expectations and added service requirements — is not always effective. Anecdotal sources suggest that these policies might exist to prevent allegations that women are getting special treatment. What is less understood is that these duties can be burdensome and overwhelming during a period that is already exhausting and stressful. If they are absolutely needed, policies on modified duties need to be flexible, equitable and understood by senior administrators, as well as by deans, department chairs and faculty members to avoid mixed signals. If we want women to succeed in this profession, it is essential to continuously examine and re-examine these policies.

3. Offer on-site accessible and affordable child care. Few studies exist about child care availability to the professoriate. A 2008 report by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education states that after visiting six top universities, “One looming issue on all campuses we visited was child care — the lack of affordable, quality, on-campus child care. Many want it; few have it.” In addition, day care centers that are university supported may have long wait lists and are, therefore, not universally available to all faculty members at the institution.

I think this partly explains why many women decide to take lower-paying, more-flexible jobs in the short term. What we fail to recognize is that, in the long term, women will probably not make up those lost years in publishing and scholarship. Colleges and universities must ensure that all professors and staff in higher education know that their children are in good hands while they are working. To attract and maintain the top professors, universities must commit even more funds to high-quality and affordable day care on site.

As Mother’s Day approaches, working mothers are thankful for the progress that previous generations have made on our behalf. But we must challenge the status quo and address the gender gap in higher education. We owe it to the next generation of families.

Bio

Stephanie McNulty is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

 

 

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