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Also appears in Confessions of a Community College Dean)

A new correspondent writes:


I'm wondering if you or your readers can shed any light on the issue of
women being pregnant while on the job market. Every academic woman planning
to become a mother has to weigh the timing of a pregnancy very carefully,
and the general assumption is that you never want to be pregnant while
you're on the job market. When you think about it from the perspective of
the woman, however, we're often weighing many issues that can conflict with
each-other: for example, whether a pregnancy is more feasible during
graduate school--even with dissertation writing and teaching--than it is
when you've gotten a tenure-track job, the question of when we can count on
having health insurance, and the possibilities for any maternity leave. Most
of the time, I think women try to time pregnancies so they can deliver a
baby at the beginning of the summer and extend their time at home, but the
timing of the (lengthy) academic job market process kills this possibility
since anyone getting pregnant in the late summer would be very visibly
pregnant during job interviews.
My main question is how much a pregnancy factors into a hiring decision. I'm
going on the market this year and have thought about waiting to get pregnant
with my second child until next year, but that makes no real sense to me
because then I'll have to go through the rigors of my first year while
dealing with all the variables of pregnancy. Plus, I'll be older, there's no
guarantee I'll find a job, and I don't really want to wait. Having already
had one child, I feel that taking a summer off to be with a newborn before I
start a full-time job would be so much better than taking the following
summer to do it, when I'm bound to have more responsibilities in a new
department. I know that there are a lot of factors that go into any woman's
decision to try to get pregnant, but for me this job-market question is a
big one, so any help would be appreciated.

Nope, no hot-button issues here! I don't have a general theory of academic fertility, but I can offer a few points, and I'll just ask readers who've negotiated these issues themselves to chime in with what they've found.

The easiest point first: it's illegal to hold pregnancy against a candidate. That isn't to say it never happens, or that it's always possible to determine what's going on in someone's head, but the law is on your side. It could be tough to prove in any given case, but you would be well advised to make notes of any inappropriate comments someone on the other side of the table happens to make. From a manager's perspective, the nightmare scenario is someone on the search committee saying something stupid to a candidate who wasn't going to win anyway. That gets ugly fast, because then the burden of proof is on the employer to show that its own boneheaded conduct was harmless. Typically, a committee stupid enough to say something out-of-bounds is also stupid enough not to keep really good records of how it made decisions. Good luck defending that in court.

In terms of trying to 'time' pregnancies so children are born in time for summer break, I'll just gently mention that not every couple conceives the first time out. Given the brevity of summer breaks, missing by just a couple of months could upset the apple cart pretty drastically. If you happen to hit the perfect time of year, congratulations, but I wouldn't advise building a plan that depends on it.

As unpredictable as fertility can be, the same can be said of the academic job market. You might get a great gig your first time out, or you might not. You might land a one-year position somewhere, so you're right back where you started next year at this time, but a little older. People have been known to hop from temporary job to temporary job for years.

In terms of how search committees view pregnancy, the best I can say is each committee is different. Ideally, none of them will consider it. And that's almost certainly true at the first screening stage, when the committee is just winnowing down the slush pile to pick the group to invite (or call) for first interviews. At that point, they simply wouldn't know. Once they've seen you, it may be impossible for them not to know.

Based on the demographic information I've seen over the years, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more research-oriented places are likelier to balk than the more teaching-oriented ones. But that's painting with a very broad stroke – as they say in the NFL, any given Sunday.

If you're at an interview, and you're at the point at which there's simply no way not to notice, I'd advise owning the issue and asking upfront about maternity leaves and the tenure clock. If you're not clearly showing, it's entirely your call what to do.

More broadly, I wouldn't advise making either decision – job or pregnancy – contingent on the other. Live your life, and let the chips fall where they may. There's no perfect time, and there never will be. If anything, waiting for the perfect time may push you to a point at which the issue is suddenly and mercilessly moot. This profession can be unspeakably inhuman in any number of ways. A little pressure on it to remember that people are complicated isn't a bad thing.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? What have you seen?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.


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