Small Wins: A Mothers’ Group in the Academy

When Tina Cheuk discovered firsthand that academe can still penalize women in their childbearing years, she founded a network for positive change.

July 6, 2017

My breasts ached as I wandered around campus looking for a lactation space.

I scoped out my options. I could pump at my open cubicle. I could pump in the restroom. I could check to see if the conference room was available. Or I could walk 15 minutes across campus to the nearest lactation space. For me, time and convenience were of the essence during my first week of classes as a doctoral student at Stanford University.

When I asked our WorkLife offices to see if there were any possibilities of creating a new lactation space, the responses I received were demoralizing. I was told to cover the windows in the conference room with paper, create a “Do not disturb” sign for the door and reserve the unlockable room for my lactation needs. I wasn't quite ready to announce to the entire building -- my future colleagues -- that I was a mother, much less a nursing mother who would be pumping regularly in a space designed for learning.

I thought surely there would be an accessible lactation space within the education school. A majority of the student population were women in their childbearing years. Some of these women were mothers. And some were new mothers, like me.

I knew I was making a political gamble in my request for a lactation space. I wanted to be remembered for my scholarship, not for pushing an agenda for nursing mothers.

My adviser and I reached out to our dean to see if there was anything that could be done. Again, sympathy did not solve my problem. The priority of one lone female graduate student wasn't going to determine how space would be allocated. The message I got was loud and clear: this was my problem, not the institution’s.

The next summer, I channeled my frustration and anger toward action. I didn't want another new mom to feel marginalized and humiliated -- to worry about being walked in on midpump in the conference room -- twice, as I was. Or worse yet, to pump where people defecated.

With initial funding from the university, I co-founded a network called Mothers in Academia, borrowed from Mari Castaneda's book with the same title detailing experiences of mothers fulfilling various roles in the academy. Our group brings together a network of experienced mothers, expectant mothers and allies to advance our voice, share ideas and solve problems. We talk about complex issues, emotions and professional questions around working and learning as mothers.

I was no longer a single narrative amid a sea of graduate students. Nationally, little is known about the parental status of graduate students, as inquiries about motherhood are prohibited in applications and interviews. Even though women earn more than 50 percent of the doctorates awarded in the U.S., trends in faculty salaries have not achieved parity, and the representation of women in science and engineering fields stubbornly lags behind men. The "motherhood penalty" is alive and thriving in the academy.

Over the past two years, our community has grown to over 150 members representing all seven schools at Stanford. Each of us seeks a connection and a place of belonging in our roles as mothers, caretakers and scholars within the academy.

Our interests and needs are varied yet our conversations center on ways the university could better support our needs during this intense professional period of our lives. It was through this community that I heard even more disheartening stories related to pumping on campus. There were mothers who gave up pumping altogether as the daily stresses of finding a safe, clean and convenient place to pump became too great a barrier.

During these meetings, we discussed our career trajectories and considered how to adapt to the clock-stopping policies related to pregnancy and child care. In a recent study about economics departments, researchers found that “adoption of gender-neutral tenure-clock-stopping policies substantially reduced female tenure rates while substantially increasing male tenure rates.” The evidence is similarly grim for mothers in STEM fields. Researchers found that married mothers with Ph.D.s in STEM earn significantly less than men with and without children.

So what can be done? First, know that if you are a mother in the academy, you’re not alone. Thinking about the problem can be overwhelming and perhaps defeatist when you know your time and energy could better be invested in your research. That's not to say that one student couldn't radically transform decades, if not centuries, of norms and policies that have created the institutional culture that exists today.

I have taken the approach coined by organizational behavior professor Debra Meyerson and see this work embodied by the notion called “tempered radicalism.” I am embracing small victories by continuing to speak out about issues pertinent to the lives of mothers and, more broadly, all parents in the academy. The journey toward change requires incremental steps. I have leaned heavily on resources organized at The Pregnant Scholar, a website tailored to students, faculty members and administrators who study or work in higher education with an emphasis on Title IX rights.

It has been three years since my initial inquiry about a lactation space. The administration, as well as our Title IX office, are now taking a more active role in allocating new spaces for nursing mothers. Our network of graduate student mothers continues to share stories and advice. At the same time, we are building consensus on key issues related to parental needs that we can work on in the upcoming years. We have much work to do in our journey forward -- reshaping practices and policies so that we can move toward greater gender equity within the academy.


Tina Cheuk is a Ph.D. candidate in education and a co-founder of Mothers in Academia and the Student Parent Alliance at Stanford University. The author would like to acknowledge support received from the Marjorie Lozoff Fund and the Diversity and Inclusion Innovation Funds for this work.


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