'Faculty Fathers'

New book seeks to shine light on the challenges dads face while trying to balance their home and work lives.

December 1, 2014

There’s a reason that most of the faculty work-life balance literature focuses on being a mother in academe: It’s hard. And Margaret W. Sallee, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, isn’t trying to diminish that truth with her new book, Faculty Fathers: Toward a New Ideal In the Research Universityout now from State University of New York Press. Instead, she’s trying to add other, key and increasingly balance-seeking voices to the conversation – those of faculty dads. Sallee bases her anecdote-heavy manuscript on interviews with 70 faculty dads across disciplines at four research universities, along with interviews with a handful of administrators who focus on professor work-life issues.

The feelings and experiences that emerge aren’t homogeneous; they differ by discipline, institution and, of course, individual. But there are patterns nonetheless, all of which suggest -- as Sallee asserts – that the still-gendered university continues to “favor and indeed perpetuate ideal worker norms and hegemonic masculinity.” Male professors at all four institutions said that their regular work hours and other fixed responsibilities encroached on time with their families. And while institutions had family-friendly policies for major life events, they said, there were few to no such policies to help them find everyday balance.

At the same time, many male professors said they received negative feedback when they asked to take extended time off following the birth of a child, even though they believed such requests from women colleagues would have been “expected and accepted.” Some men said that other attempts to make time for family resulted in significant penalties, such as the failure to earn tenure or questions about their masculinity. These dynamics resulted in some men feeling reluctant about using family-friendly policies, and in their making decisions that were best for their careers, but not necessarily their families.

Sallee’s portrait isn’t all negative, however. Some professors reported embracing the scheduling flexibility that can come with being a professor, and setting strict boundaries around their personal time. “Generation X” professors have achieved particular success at “eschewing” the ideal worker trap, Sallee says, with some (perhaps surprisingly) pre-tenure professors saying they don’t work after 5 p.m., or on weekends, or that they take on at least 50 percent of the parenting at home. Most of these professors were in dual-career couples, compared to their more senior colleagues who tended to have had stay-at-home spouses early in their careers, suggesting a practical need to take on more work. But their choices seemed to signal shifting cultural norms, too. Some junior professors celebrated the emotional “intimacy” achieved with their children, even though they said they recognized it came at some cost. As one professor said of not working on weekends: “Some of the senior professors have said they really don’t think that that’s appropriate, and I’ve pretty much told them that I would rather not get tenure than not know my kids.” Still, he added, “I guess not everybody can make that choice.”

For the many people who can't make such a choice, Sallee recommends a series of changes institutions should make to “redefine the ideal” employee. She says that gender-neutral family leave policies mean little if men don’t feel comfortable using them, so colleges and universities must “put faith” in male faculty members’ genuine desire to take on more work at home. Institutions also should stop assuming that only those professors who work the most hours can be the most productive, since it’s not always the case, she says.

Gender parity within specific disciplines won’t guarantee gender equity, Sallee adds, but it can’t hurt – so universities should keep adding women to those fields where their numbers are few. And institutions need to keep building “supportive campuses,” which include such “structural supports” as child care and tenure clock extensions, and such “cultural supports” as hosting family-inclusive events and talking often about the importance of family life and related policies.

Sallee answered some specific questions about Faculty Fathers for Inside Higher Ed via email: 

Q: Why did you want to research and write about faculty fathers?

A: The impetus for this project came from personal experience. I grew up in a family that challenged gender roles — my mother worked full-time before many mothers did and my father was a faculty father who was very involved in my upbringing. He drove carpools, he cooked dinner every night, he helped me with homework, and so on. I assumed this was what all fathers did. Only as I got older did I realize that my experiences were outside the norm. And, as a faculty member myself, I am well aware of the many challenges any professor — of any gender — faces navigating the demands of work and family. So I wanted to study faculty fathers to understand the experiences of men like my father and what role universities play in shaping the degree to which men can be both productive academics and involved fathers.

Q: What were your major findings?

A: Men took a variety of roles with their children. There were a few fathers who were minimally involved in their children’s care. About one-third were heavily involved and the remainder were somewhat involved. Most wished they could have been more involved, but they received messages from their colleagues and department chairs that parenting was not masculine, but rather belonged in women’s domain. Parenting was not just contrary to the academic identity, but contrary to the masculine identity.

However, there were significant differences by campus as well as by discipline. Men in the humanities and social sciences, for example, were far more likely to report being involved with their children than men in the sciences and engineering. In part these differences were due to the structure of work in each discipline — men in the humanities and social sciences had more flexibility in where they performed their work and could work from home, while men in the sciences and engineering tended to need to be present in their labs to conduct research. The gender composition of the disciplines also affected the degree to which men felt able to balance work and family; men in the humanities and social sciences, which have a higher proportion of women than many other disciplines, were more likely to report being able to create time for family than men in the male-dominated science and engineering. In short, the culture of each set of disciplines sent different messages about appropriate gender roles and the compatibility of balancing roles as fathers and professors.

Q: What surprised you?

A: The most surprising finding related to participants’ productivity after becoming fathers. Some participants suggested that the type of work that they performed — and not necessarily the number of hours they worked — changed after becoming parents. They had less time to engage in sustained intellectual thought and many were less willing to take risks with their work. They picked projects that they knew they could finish, rather than necessarily explore a risky topic that interested them, which might not lead to a successful outcome. Because they were expected to be the breadwinners for the family, such risks — and potential failure — might prove too much for their families to bear.

Q: What are the key takeaways?

A: The major implications are that organizational culture matters — and that organizational culture has the power to either reinforce or reshape gender norms. For example, given that findings suggest that men in the humanities and social sciences felt more free to craft time to be involved fathers, this suggests that men in these disciplines both had more freedom to adopt a masculine identity that valued care-giving —and they worked in disciplines that reinforced such values as part of the masculine and academic identity.

Additionally, the presence of institutional policies is important. But, just because policies exist does not always mean that individuals feel free to use them. Institutions can create cultures that value caregiving by men and women by having senior leaders in the organization make frequent statements in support of work/family issues. Furthermore, organizations in which senior faculty and department chairs model respect for work/family integration (perhaps by using family-friendly policies themselves) may begin to challenge the entrenchment of gender norms and the separation of work and family. 

My ultimate contention is that the culture of the academy coupled with gender norms — present in both universities as well as society — creates an environment that discourages many men from being involved fathers and punishes those who are. Understanding how these cultural norms operate — and the consequences that they have — is the first step toward dismantling them. 

Q: You say in Faculty Fathers that work/life balance is often framed a women's issue. Why is that problematic?

A: If navigating the demands of work and family is always framed as a woman’s issue, this suggests that men’s experiences are not worth investigating. Furthermore, it stigmatizes men who struggle with navigating the demands of work and family, suggesting that men should either be able to effortlessly balance both or, in all likelihood, leave caregiving to women and focus their energies in the workplace.  Attending to work and family is a concern for men, too.

Q: Talk about some of the pressures the men you interviewed feel, both from work and home.

A: A lot of my participants felt pressure emanating from work. Many of them felt pressure to be the breadwinners for their families and to be professionally successful. As I discussed earlier, many also received messages from their colleagues that being an overly involved father was not just contrary to the academic identity, but contrary to the masculine identity. Many men wanted to take time off after the birth of a child, but were told by colleagues to do so would be problematic; however, they also felt that if a woman were to have a baby, she would be expected to take time off. (It is also important to note that this was not the case in all departments or for all participants, but for a significant group of them.) Until the importance of making time for family and career is valued for both men and women, men will continue to face such stigma. To alleviate these pressures, presidents, deans, and department chairs can send frequent messages that men and women should be encouraged to create time for family and role model the behaviors of doing so.

Q: Where do you see your book fitting into the literature on work-life balance among professors? 

A: My book introduces a focus on men into the work/family literature. ...There has been a significant gap in the empirical literature on the experiences of faculty fathers. It is important that their voices be heard. I think there is an assumption that work/family issues only impact women. They might impact women and men in different ways, but the challenges remain significant. 

There has been a considerable focus on faculty mothers — Kelly Ward's [chair of educational leadership and counseling psychology at Washington State University] and Lisa Wolf-Wendel's [professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas] outstanding work (including their 2012 book Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family) comes to mind. However, in addition to looking at the experiences of men, my book also looks at the role that organizational culture and gender norms play in shaping men’s ability to navigate their competing demands of work and family.

Q: Who is your intended audience? 

A: Faculty, university administrators, and graduate students. I hope that faculty fathers who read this book find comfort in the fact that others are contending with the same challenges. I want faculty mothers to read this book, too, as I think there is sometimes a mistaken assumption that men are not worrying about how to be involved at home and successful at work. Administrators can benefit from reading the book to think about the ways to support men navigating work and family. And finally, graduate students who are pondering careers in the academy can benefit from learning about the ways faculty navigate their personal and professional responsibilities.

Q: Did this research resonate with you personally on any level? 

A: Each of us working in the academy struggles on a regular basis to craft meaningful professional and personal lives. We can never give 100 percent of ourselves to all of our roles — nor should we be expected to. If I am spending all of my time working, I am not going to be much use to my family or to myself. If I am spending all of my time with my family, I am certainly not going to be much use to my work. We are more than just our identities as professors or administrators or students; we are each human beings with rich and complex lives off-campus. I always try to keep that in mind as I think about how I want to spend my time — and how I hope my students spend theirs.  




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