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    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Subprime Faculty?

Are women really less committed to academia? 

June 13, 2013

There’s a theme to this week’s posts, aren’t there?

I find it fascinating that one the same day that my blogging colleague Matt Reed makes an argument against the characterization of (certain) college students as “subprime”, people are making the serious argument that women should be discouraged or even prohibited from pursuing PhDs and careers as MDs in the comments here. The reason? Women have kids and families and thus work “less” than men, indicating a lower return-on-investment for all involved.

The word “commitment” is bandied about (in Reed’s piece, it’s “motivation” in the comments). Reed has pointed out in the past that if we wanted to improve a college’s retention and graduation rates, we’d only admit those students who are “most likely” to be retained and graduate. Same could be said for PhD programs and even hiring professors. Why hire women (or old PhDs or POC or long-time adjuncts, or, or) if the statistics prove that they are less “committed” to the job?

Channeling my brilliant colleague Tressie McMillan Cottom, we might need to ask the question that maybe there are structural pressures that cause this lack of “commitment” in certain populations (as opposed to, say, biological essentialism). Tenured Radical, in a post that addresses the same kinds of issues, shows just how far we have yet to come in academia in terms of a woman’s ability to take time off for the purpose of birthing children. Note I didn’t even say “raising” children, in this case, just simply birthing them. The comments are a mix of horror stories about women having to return to teaching scant days after giving birth, or how peer-pressure from the department or institution caused them to forgo taking any time off for fear of their later tenure-bid.

Myself, I received six weeks of leave at half-pay, using a mixture of accrued sick days and vacation days (we were fortunate that we had, because of our union, sick days and vacation days; we have sick days but no vacation days where I am now). If you had to use up all of your sick or vacation days if you had a high-risk pregnancy and were on bed rest, there would be nothing to use once the baby was actually born. There was also some question when I first started the job if my new insurance would cover the pregnancy (was it a pre-existing condition? I never understood, but I had to provide proof of my pregnancy and previous health coverage when filling out the paperwork). When I returned to work (thankfully, my husband was able to stay home with the kids), I had nowhere to pump breast milk; I didn’t have a private office, so I pumped on the floor of a bathroom stall between classes.

Academia has not bent-over backwards or radically changed their policies and practices when it comes to the issue of families (and I expand this to include adoption or caring for a sick parent). I don’t think it’s very much of a coincidence that these types of activities are often carried out by women. This hurts men as much as it impacts women, as they are left either without options or shamed into not asking if their needed at home. My own husband (who is on the tenure-track) is often told he is lucky that he has a wife to take care of things at home, with the assumption being that this frees him up from those mundane and distracting concerns.

My commitment to the academia has to be earned. I have written before that claims of “loyalty” (or commitment) often facilitate in not outright encourage the exploitation of our labor, or that the institution demands a heavy commitment and shows little in return. That so many women (or other groups) are not professors perhaps doesn’t speak as much to us being “subprime” but institutions that insist on continuing to treat us that way. Loyalty and commitment, as they say, is a two-way street. 


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