The Pregnancy Penalty

Unfortunately, many people still have backward ideas about the ability of women to succeed in academe after having children, writes Terri E. Givens.

February 27, 2019

A supportive environment for having children and caring for families should be an issue for all academics. Unfortunately, and based on what I have seen on Twitter in recent weeks, many men (and some women), including men in academic leadership, have backward ideas about the role of women and their ability to succeed in academe after pregnancy.

I became engaged in a recent thread on Twitter that indicated many academics still think that a woman can’t be productive after having a child. When a friend responding to a tweet described as “boorish behavior” toward a pregnant colleague, I was reminded of my own experience when I was considering having children in graduate school, in the late 1990s:

Tweet from Corrine McConnaughy: "After first kid -- while on the tenure clock -- very important senior colleague with whom I had never had another conversation invited me to chat. He used the opportunity to say 'of course you won't have any more kids before tenure.' I think he thought he was looking out for me."

Tweet from Dr. Terri E. Givens: "I was told by many senior faculty, even in graduate school, I should wait until after tenure to have a child. Many women advised against it. I'll never forget the APSA panel of senior women who told a room full of grad students that we shouldn't have kids at all and emulate men." Response from Phil Klinkner: "As chair I believe there are two things to say to a faculty member who is expecting a child: 1. Mazel tov! 2. What can I do to help?"

Fortunately, our colleague Phil Klinkner’s response was reassuring -- at least some male academics know an appropriate response to a colleague’s decision to start a family. Corrine felt that her colleague was truly trying to be helpful, but the advice highlighted the precarious nature of tenure for women hoping to have a family.

Unfortunately, the responses to our tweets indicated that many women had bad experiences with their colleagues. The original tweet, from a woman in economics, had set off a long thread of complaints and kudos about the ways that colleagues dealt with pregnancy and gender issues.

Tweet from The Lancet: "#LancetWomen: This week, we dedicate an issue to advancing women in science, medicine and global health. The collection highlights that gender equity in science is not only a matter of justice and rights but is crucial to producing the best research." Image shows the cover of the Lancet with headline "Advancing women in science, medicine and global health."

The thread traced back to a tweet from the Lancet journal, which had published an entire issue on advancing women in science. One article from the issue focuses on gender and ethnic diversity, with predictable findings:

Our study revealed that clear gender and ethnic disparities remain at the most senior academic positions, despite numerous diversity policies and action plans reported. In all universities, representation of women declined between middle and senior academic levels, despite women outnumbering men at the junior level. Ethnic-minority women might have a magnified disadvantage because ethnic-minority academics constitute a small proportion of junior-level positions, and the proportion of ethnic-minority women declines along the seniority pathway.

I got a real sense of the challenges women faced during my first American Political Science Association conference in 1997, where I attended a panel on women in political science. The panelists were generally helpful in providing information on the tenure process and how to advance in the discipline. However, the panel was not particularly encouraging, with several of the panelists suggesting that it was best to emulate male colleagues and that we shouldn’t expect any special treatment as women. After all, they had managed to be successful in a man’s world. I went up to one of the panelists after the session and asked if she had any advice about the best timing for having children. Her response was that there was no good time, but certainly it was better to wait until after getting tenure.

I was an older student, having started graduate school six years after finishing undergrad. I married my husband after my second year in grad school, and we were both very excited about the idea of starting a family. I had some concerns since I had been diagnosed with endometriosis in my late 20s. My sister had it as well and had a hysterectomy after having had three children.

As a comparativist, I knew I needed to get my fieldwork done before we tried to start a family, so it was only after I had been in grad school for almost five years that we started seriously trying to have a child in 1997. I got pregnant after almost a year, but 12 weeks in, after seeing a heartbeat, I had a miscarriage in the fall of 1998. The next year passed without any signs of pregnancy.

I started my first job on the tenure track in the fall of 1999, and we decided to get some help, although there were no clear reasons why we hadn’t been able to get pregnant. After a few tries, we were expecting a child by January of 2000. I was “lucky” that I was at a university that was on the quarter system, and I could easily take a quarter off when my son was born in September. Everything went smoothly, and my colleagues were mostly supportive.

When my husband and I moved to Austin, Tex., in 2003, it was with a bit of a surprise. My second son had decided it was time to make an appearance. I don’t want to call him an accident, since he was very much wanted, but the timing wasn’t the best. I don’t recommend moving across the country while six months pregnant. But we managed, and I had asked for my first semester off from teaching even before I knew I was pregnant.

My second child, Brandon, came a little early in September of 2003, and I felt blessed in many ways. He was a great baby, but I also was glad I didn’t have to worry about teaching or negotiating time off, since my university didn’t have a maternity leave policy at that time. It would take a few more years before the university was able to pull together a policy, given the lack of any state-level policy in Texas.

Sixteen years later, I have had a very productive and successful career, reaching tenure in seven years, despite having two children, changing jobs, taking on a director position and shouldering too much service. I was asked to be a vice provost in my first year in rank (2006) and still managed to get to full professor by 2014, with plenty of books and articles to support my application. I also lost both of my parents, a brother-in-law to cancer and a niece. As I noted in a column in 2009, life happens.

What is unfortunate is that women still bear most of the burden in caring for children and aging parents. I don’t only mean the burden in terms of time, but also the burden in terms of expectations for loss of productivity. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a healthy thing that we often exceed those expectations. What needs to change is the culture of academe.

We can’t say we want more diversity and more women in academe without also making policies that will allow for the life events that still disproportionately impact women. Existing policies that help somewhat, such as taking time off the tenure clock, and increasingly, offering actual maternity and paternity leave. But many disparities in the way that institutions implement those policies remain, as do questionable attitudes among some male faculty and even some senior administrators.

For example, a colleague at another university mentioned that when he was told he would have been the first to take paternity leave, he chose not to take it. Even when there are supportive policies in place, the attitudes toward those who take advantage of them can be problematic.

Academic leadership needs to take responsibility for working on the cultures in their institutions by modeling a positive attitude toward women and families, with a focus on implementing supportive policies. I hope that more will be like Phil Klinkner and the many other colleagues I had who were supportive and even provided meals or helped with research when I was having children. It’s 2010 and high time that women and men should be able to have both children and a rewarding career.


Terri E. Givens is a professor of political science and consultant. She is a former vice provost at University of Texas at Austin and former provost at Menlo College.


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