'Academic Motherhood'

Authors discuss new book about how women in academe balance their work and family responsibilities.


October 9, 2012

Do colleges support professors who are mothers trying to balance their parental and professional responsibilities? Every few months, there is a debate prompted by a campus controversy or a new study. Two scholars of the issue have written a new book, Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family (just published by Rutgers University Press), based on surveys, interviews and extensive research. The authors are Kelly Ward, chair of educational leadership and counseling psychology at Washington State University, and Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas.

Via e-mail, they answered the questions below about their book. They also said they wanted to stress that "tenure-track women faculty with children are making it work. In contrast to the prevailing belief that tenure-track women ought not to have children (or to delay children until after tenure) we interviewed women who didn't wait and who are living happy, productive lives as both professors and mothers. The position offers flexibility and autonomy along with its unending workload and there are strategies that women can use to help them succeed in their multiple roles."

Q: In looking at academic women at different stages of their careers and at different ages of their children, where did you find academe as a whole to be doing a better job at promoting a family-friendly environment, and where did you see the greatest weaknesses?

A: There is no question that being on the tenure track is intense and that the probationary period is stressful. There also is no question that taking care of an infant is a time-consuming task -- and mothers often bear the brunt of those duties. Time is a precious commodity for new mothers and for faculty on the tenure track and the tension comes from trying to fulfill one's multiple roles well within existing time constraints. Despite this pressure, tenure-track women faculty with young children find joy in their multiple roles.

Mid-career is a little easier for academic mothers in that the career is more established and the tenure hurdle is behind them. Parenthood becomes a little easier as well. Family concerns shift from diapers and breast-feeding to carpooling and school activities. Faculty concerns shift, too. No longer is earning tenure the goal, now women are engaging in more service and more advising and are beginning to think about promotion to full professor. Mid-career women faculty are more settled and less stressed -- but they aren't always making the kind of progress towards promotion as we might like. They still need attention and support from their institutions and this is often lacking. Because the tenure process (and babies) is so time-consuming and stressful, there is a tendency for people and institutions to not focus on what happens next -- but being a faculty member and being a parent are lifelong commitments.

Q: What were the most striking patterns you saw by type of institution?

A: It is important to note that there were more similarities than differences across institutional types in terms of how women faculty managed their work and family roles. However, each institutional type did have a different pinch point that is worth noting.

Research universities: Most strikingly we think our findings contradict the strongly held belief that tenure-track women at research universities have the most difficult time balancing work and family.  While it is true that women faculty at research universities have to maintain an active record of scholarship, they also have a lot of built-in support systems to facilitate this that are often missing at other types of institutions. Faculty at research universities tend to have access to graduate students and/or postdocs; they have senior colleagues to serve as role models; they have offices to assist in funded research; and, they have a teaching load that recognizes that research is a major component of their job.  Having clarity about what is required for tenure and the resources to get there helped faculty navigate the rigors of tenure at research universities.

Community colleges: Community college faculty were a pretty content group. Their roles tend to be clearly defined and many of the women, having worked in other settings including business, the military, K-12, had some sense of comparison to help them understand that faculty life is flexible.

Liberal arts colleges: Faculty at liberal arts colleges had to figure out how to be a presence at on-campus events and be a presence in the lives of their own children. Many worked at schools that marketed a "family friendly" environment to students, where family was intended to mean the relationship between faculty and students. In this metaphor, female faculty are supposed to be like "mothers" to their students and play somewhat of a parenting role. This can conflict with one's one familial demands when these professors are now mothers to their own children. Many of the academic mothers we interviewed at liberal arts colleges were unsure how much time is enough time to spend on campus.

Comprehensive colleges: In general, comprehensive colleges and universities were a difficult institutional context for women in our study. Many of these colleges, which had a history of being teaching oriented schools, were striving to increase research expectations. The difficulty was that at many of these schools there were not the built in support systems to facilitate research productivity. It is important to understand the negative effects of a striving comprehensive were not unique to women, as every tenure track professor was affected, but having a child seemed to magnify the problems faced based on time factors alone. This was not the case at every comprehensive institution -- some seemed complacent or content about their original missions and maintained a teaching orientation. At these institutions, the experiences of academic mothers were more like that experienced at liberal arts colleges.

Faculty work differs by institutional type and therefore where people work matters.

Q: The idea of family-friendly policies for women (and men) who are professors is hardly new at this point. Were you surprised by the extent of the challenges facing many women?

A: To some degree, we were surprised by the lack of awareness of the existence of policies and the hesitancy of women to use a policy even if they knew it existed. When we started our study, it was not unusual for campuses to have very limited policies and for the policies to not have been used. We asked faculty in the study what policies were available and we often heard in response (especially when we interviewed the early career faculty), "nothing." Fortunately this changed throughout the course of our study. When we interviewed the women mid-career we heard about policies with more regularity. We also found that in the time that lapsed from the start of our study to the end of our study the policy environment had shifted. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was established in 1993, so when we did interviews in the late 1990s that was the primary focus of policy discussions. We found that many of the women in our study were the path makers. It was their experiences having children that prompted change on many of their campuses and prompted the creation of more family friendly policies. Campuses have progressed with having policies, but we were still surprised what how rarely people used them. Faculty were definitely uncertain about the sensibility of using policies while they were trying to get established on the tenure track.

Q: What are your top recommendations to institutions that want to be more supportive of academic parents?

A: Greater transparency! The biggest thing campuses need to do is not just have policies, but to, more importantly, let people know they can use the policies. We refer to this as a "culture of use." Campuses need to make faculty aware of policies and let faculty know they can use those policies without fear of professional or personal retribution. This requires a cultural shift on behalf of all members of the campus, not just the faculty in need of the policy. Policies have to be known, easy to find, and useable.

In addition to promoting family-friendly cultures we also recommend the following as some things to consider with regard to policy and its use.  

  • Tenure and biological clocks click simultaneously -- campuses need to be aware of this biological reality for most women.
  • FMLA is not enough -- it's a start, but it's not enough to have as a default. Family-friendly policies must be more comprehensive.
  • Parenthood is not just a women's problem -- men and women are both dealing with work and family concerns, although women do have unique needs based on the physical realities of pregnancy, child birth, and breast-feeding.
  • Move away from "making deals" -- equitable policy environments grant all faculty access to policies. Success at navigating work and family should not just be a matter of personal agency.
  • One size may not fit all -- recognize that people are different and babies are different and people may need different forms of accommodation. Modified duty policies help chairs to provide accommodations.
  • Engage in work and family conversations proactively. We found a lot of chairs were fearful to talk to pregnant female faculty in their department about taking leaves. Letting people know about policies and their use requires conversation.
  • Review policies and practices and repeat often to make sure they are relevant, up to date, and effective.

Q: What are your top recommendations at the departmental level?

A: Departments matter -- they set the culture and climate for faculty. The department is really the most important place at an institution because this is where the work gets done and this is where the review and evaluation process is most intense. Department chairs set the tone with their colleagues about policy. Senior men and women colleagues also play a prominent role in the review process and in creating an open environment. A positive work/family culture starts at the department level.  One of the things we learned is that departments (and institutions) need to think about faculty needs and how they vary throughout the career. A lot of time, energy and policy are focused on pre-tenure faculty, but departments should think about how to support their faculty throughout the career. If we want women to progress in their career the focus needs to be holistic and ongoing and not just end once people get tenure.

Q: What is your best advice for women starting their careers in academe who have or plan to have children?

A: We get asked this question all the time. The biggest focus for people trying to get established as professors is timing. We often get asked, "When should I have a baby?" And we respond, "When you are ready." There is no right or wrong time to have a baby. It's also not a decision that is easily controlled (contrary to popular belief). So that is our first piece of advice. Once people have a child and are in a faculty job we offer the following bits of advice,

  • Ask for what you need.
  • Find allies and support.
  • Do your work.
  • žSet reasonable priorities.
  • Manage time wisely and efficiently.
  • Plan and anticipate.
  • Be a good colleague.
  • Pay it forward.
  • Take a life-course perspective -- you won't always be "junior" and your children won't always be babies.

We want to stress that is you want a child and an academic career, it is doable and there is joy in the job and in parenting. There are women doing it every day who make it work in different institutional types and different disciplines. If you want to have a baby and an academic career you can do both and be happy and productive and sane.  

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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