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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career #21: Dual Career?
September 22, 2008 - 10:26pm

There's almost too much important news these days to choose something to blog about. The economy, the election, the weather -- all of these defeat me, though I read and think and talk about them constantly. The news on the career and family front is related to these bigger issues, of course, but it is coming in, lately, in smaller, more manageable chunks. Some of those chunks relate, at least tangentially, to a question Jeanne raised a couple of weeks ago on the Career Coach segment of our shared Mama, PhD blog. She said then: "I would like to hear from other mothers who started a new position in a new place with kids and hubby in tow — challenges, opportunities, strategies?" Well, Jeanne, that was me fifteen years ago -- and the news I'm reading recently suggests that maybe things haven't changed that much.

Chunk #1: the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford has issued a report on dual-career academic couples. (Inside Higher Ed reported on the study a month ago.) You will not be surprised to hear that partner hiring is still a hot issue in the academy, and that the best practices are still being worked out. You will probably also not be surprised to hear that partner employment has been identified as the first or second most significant reason for recruitment failures, in two different studies. Furthermore, according to the executive summary of the report, "the number-one reason women refused an outside offer was because their academic partners were not offered appropriate employment at the new location." So partner hiring matters, especially to institutions seeking to increase the representation of women on their faculty.

Chunk #2: Scott Jaschik reports here in Inside Higher Ed on a recent symposium on gender, education, and careers held at Columbia University Business School, where top scholars in all three fields discussed the gender gap in the highest reaches of academe and other professional arenas. Although women enter most professional pipelines at equal or higher rates to men, they stall out earlier--especially, if they have children, in the academy. Scholars have identified a number of factors related to women's altered career trajectories, but among the issues are the lack, in many academic careers, of "flexibility in schedules, 'transparent career paths,' and 'predictable milestones' on the path to a career."

Putting these two reports together creates a feeling of déjà vu for me. Fifteen years ago, I moved my family across the country so I could start my first tenure-track academic job. My husband had not yet finished his Ph.D.; my daughter was three. When I asked about child care near campus, I was given a couple of phone numbers of other parents, who commiserated and told me their stories, but had little else to offer besides sympathy. When I asked about jobs for my spouse, I was told he could send his resume to local community colleges. The tenure requirements for my position were somewhat vague and seemed to shift a bit from year to year; when I finally came up for tenure I still wasn't quite sure what would be required.

Of course, things turned out fine for me, so I'm not complaining. Things weren't much better at any other academic institutions at the time; jobs were scarce in English (that much hasn't changed) and I was grateful for the position. My husband took the opportunity of a forced year off of teaching to finish his degree, and my daughter ended up in a perfectly acceptable day care center not too far from campus. (I think we found it in the yellow pages.)

Fast forward fifteen years, though. There still isn't day care on my or many other university campuses, though task forces and study groups abound. Adjunct pay at local community colleges is still exploitative, and my husband chose, instead, to patch together a series of one- and three-year positions when they were available, and to stay home with the kids or find other kinds of work when they weren't. I'm starting to see some discussions of partner hiring, but so far, as the Clayman report suggests, "institutional approaches to couple hiring tend to be ad hoc, often shrouded in secrecy, and inconsistent across departments." Like many young untenured faculty, I was never quite sure I was working enough, never quite sure what "enough" would mean, so my husband sacrificed his career to provide me flexibility. We've been lucky in that we could manage on my salary, much of the time, and that there were occasionally positions available for him as well. But it's not a path I would recommend. It was fraught with anxiety--both financial and professional -- and that anxiety was really harder to deal with than the daily demands on my time (which were, of course, not inconsiderable).

I welcome the studies and the symposia that IHE reports on so frequently; I welcome the more open environment in which my contribution to Mama, PhD occupies a prominent space on my vita and this blog provides me and others a place to share our stories. And I hope that the next fifteen years bring even more changes, so that my daughter and my son can, if they choose, tread a different path than mine.


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