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Academic workplaces are on the verge of becoming more inequitable for mothers. Here’s what they can do.

During the time of coronavirus, mothers are essential workers taking on additional roles and a major mental load. For those mothers working in academia, we are seeing growing concerns, challenges and obstacles. The glass ceilings, sticky floors, maternal wall, baby penalty and now a --let’s call it, “COVID-bind”—are showing that women are facing extra challenges, and fewer submissions to academic journals.

I study mothers in academia and have found that by and large, academic institutions can do more to facilitate their success. With student evaluations starting to come in, it’s becoming clear that mothers in academia are being judged negatively for having to teach from home during quarantine. Some mothers have confided to me that they have been noted as “unprofessional,” because a child entered the room, or they mentioned having a child at home who might make noise in the background. 

In our current global climate, these issues of inequity are of heightened importance. If not addressed, higher education institutions and individuals will find themselves back to “normal” with women and mothers facing greater inequity. 

So, what can higher education do? 

To answer this question, I reached out to scholars of motherhood in academia.

I spoke with Cheryl Matias—an Associate Professor at University of Denver and critical race scholar—who has spent years highlighting inequity in academia to push towards change. In fact, in 2018, the journal Diverse in Higher Education rated her one of the top 25 women making a difference in higher education. We started working together in 2015, when I asked if I could use her term, “motherscholar,” as the title for the ongoing arts-based awareness project I developed and continue to direct, The Motherscholar Project

Recognizing that universities and colleges will return to a new normal at some point, I sat down with Matias to talk about addressing issues of inequity for women and mothers in academia. I asked about three levels of the academic structure to try to understand what senior leadership, middle management, and individuals can do to create positive change.

When asked what senior leadership could do to address issues of inequity, Matias highlighted the need to provide institutional supports for motherscholars:

  • They need to not only understand the needs of motherscholars but institutionally support them beyond a mere knowing. 
  • For example, for research awards and funding, institutions should include available funding for childcare for motherscholars who plan to attend research conferences or who handle both scholarship and motherhood. 
  • Or, how about making it standard practice to offer childcare packages with job offers? 

When I asked Matias, what middle management can do in academia to address inequity for motherscholars, she emphasized class assignments, how to show support, and provide resources:

  • If this is the level of “Chair”, they need to support motherscholars who are balancing work and family life. For example, stop giving single motherscholars night classes, as some kind of punishment in order to control their scholarship or labor. 
  • Or, when motherscholars lead departmental functions, do NOT reprimand them for bringing their children. In fact, stop claiming it is unprofessional to have children present, especially if we are professors in schools of education. 
  • Instead of reprimanding motherscholars, perhaps chairs should honor motherscholars by coordinating a policy so that they can collaboratively hire a babysitter for large department functions. 

And when asked what individual academics can do to address gendered inequities in academia, in particular for mothers, Matias focused on the reactions and responses to these roles:

  • STOP praising men for doing what we, as motherscholars, do AND get reprimanded for doing. For example, if a male professor is holding a baby in class STOP praising him for doing what he is supposed to do and what we never get praise for doing. 
  • Instead, how about making it viral what motherscholars do. Like, how we go to conferences and juggle nursing in between sessions, drag our kids to the office so we can finish another manuscript or be present at a faculty meeting, while still being absolutely professional on campus. 

Lastly, I asked Matias if I was missing a question that would help articulate further steps to maintain, or improve equity, during this time and moving forward, and she spoke to an essential underlying issue:

  • Who will be accountable for sexist practices against motherscholars? 
  • In my experience women were worse when it came to tearing down other motherscholars. For example, the white female dean who easily accepts the white faculty and children but chastises the brown-skinned mothers.
  • How do we hold people like her accountable for her sexist (and racist) behaviors?

For this last question, we continued to talk further. While I’m highlighting the experiences and steps to address mothers, for others not fitting the ideal academic model, they continue to be disadvantaged.  So, what is a way forward in these uncharted waters? 

Well, one solution is to address sexist (and racist) behaviors in academic institutions is to return to improving diversity training, to become aware and be able to address unconscious bias in education. As Matias notes, it’s time to expand these trainings to develop “motherscholar and anti-sexism workshops.” Ultimately, for academic institutions moving out of quarantine, this is an important time to (re)develop and assign training expanding on diversity and unconscious bias workshops to incorporate lived experiences, including motherhood.


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