Conventional wisdom has it that mothers in academic careers have a tougher time than women without children in winning tenure.
Now, a new research paper  called “Mothers in Pursuit of Ideal Academic Careers” published by the American Sociological Association has found otherwise. The study examined the careers of a group of sociologists and found that women with children are more likely than childless women to end up in what the researchers define as the “ideal career,” which they said is a tenured job including “high scholarly productivity in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles and books.” Not only that, they are as likely to end up on that career path as are men with or without children.
The findings, said Roberta Spalter-Roth, a co-author of the paper and director of the research and development department for the sociology association, are as surprising as they are important, and have implications for institutions where a stereotype might exist of mothers not being viewed as serious scholars.
The survey’s message: Departments and universities should get serious about academic mothers (or, at least, those in the field of sociology) and have flexible policies to help them.
Spalter-Roth said universities have a duty to provide resources to academic mothers, and work with them informally to gauge their needs. “Not all schools, administrations or department chairs are cognizant of these needs. They have to look at the policies that exist and what other schools have done,” she said. “The administrators and department chairs have to take a positive role here.”
The survey, which used data from 600 sociologists who earned their Ph.D.s in 1996-1997, shows that 35 percent of women sociologists with children end up in an “ideal career” while only 22 percent of childless women have similar careers. The study suggests that mothers might be more adept at balancing work-life pressures. It quotes one academic mother as saying that having kids made her more efficient because she did not have time to procrastinate. Not only that, these mothers with ideal careers were also more likely to be satisfied with their home and work life than those mothers who have “alternative” or “marginal” careers. The researchers define alternative careers as those that are more focused on teaching, while a marginal career involves teaching as an adjunct faculty member.
The study found that the majority of mothers in tenured jobs did not use work-family policies (only about 35 percent use them) such as unpaid family leave, modified teaching loads or a tenure clock break. “Other researchers suggest this is because they are afraid that their academic reputation will suffer as a result of a professional culture biased against caregivers,” the study said. “Administrators have to be more inventive with policies to fit the situation,” Spalter-Roth said. “Women continue to feel that their careers will be put on hold if they take family-related leave.”
The biggest changes needed are efforts to change prejudices and stereotypes, she said. “If there is thinking that women with children are not going to do this or they are not going to work as hard, it is going to have a very negative effect,” Spalter-Roth said.