One in four women in political science have delayed starting families to pursue academic careers, and those who combine the two often hide that they are pregnant or nursing to avoid hurting their job prospects, a new study shows.
“It’s an unfair expectation for women to do that, because there are so many options available for women to be able to balance an academic life and motherhood,” said Angela K. Lewis, author of the study, which appears in the April edition of PS: Political Science & Politics.
Perhaps most telling in the report is the prevailing assumption that those who try to combine a career in academe with starting a family will face serious challenges. About one-quarter of the survey’s 349 respondents, or 23.9 percent, said they delayed having children to hunt for jobs -- some claiming they “never even considered” the idea of starting a family until they had firmly established themselves in their departments. Other respondents said they waited until they had gained tenure.
Lewis, associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, bills her study as a “first look” at the issues pregnant and nursing women in political science face when attending job interviews. Lewis points out that the anecdotal evidence from the online survey may be more alarming than the numbers themselves.
Although only 14.9 percent of respondents said they attended job interviews while pregnant, the report notes that “Several women on the market hid their pregnancy during their interviews for fear that it would be used against them.” One respondent canceled all upcoming interviews after attending one “‘because the interview process was so exhausting. I wasn’t sure I could make it through another 2-day gruel.' ” Another respondent was upfront about her pregnancy only to have it become a central focus of her interview, with three different faculty members asking questions about it.
“ ‘The best way to interview is nonpregnant and ringless,' ” that respondent said, adding she was only able to land a job after she kept her family secret during the interview process.
Only 4.9 percent of respondents said they waited to search for jobs because they were nursing, and in general, nursing mothers had fewer problems during interviews. Those who reported negative experiences were often those who had hidden the fact, causing complications when they needed breaks to pump breast milk.
Lewis said the findings confirmed some of her suspicions about women in political science.
“[A]s a field we’re not doing well when it comes to this very first step in hiring women academics,” Lewis said. “If we can’t get this first step correct, we can’t really think about dealing with problems down the line.”
Lewis became pregnant one year before going up for tenure review. Thanks to a precedent set by her department chair, Wendy Gunther-Canada, Lewis said the idea of a female tenure candidate having a child “wasn’t so far-fetched” at UAB’s department of government.
“[T]he tone of the department is determined by whether or not someone is blazing the trail for you,” Lewis said. “If it’s not a child-friendly department, they’re not going to have a clue about understanding what having a family means to someone who is a professor.”
Gunther-Canada, who had a daughter shortly after she was granted tenure, said her own experiences juggling her career and family caused her to become more involved in helping colleagues deal with work-life issues.
“When I had interviewed for the position when I came to the university, I was told by the university that no one had had a child before tenure,” Gunther-Canada said. “While it didn’t impact my decision, that was not something that I would have expected anyone to say to anyone while interviewing.”
In many cases, departments become aware of potentially child-unfriendly policies -- such as lacking sick leave and paid time off -- only after a faculty member raises the issue herself, Lewis said, which has created a disparity between departments with effective policies and those lacking them.
“We need to tell more of the success stories ... of women who have successfully navigated the tenure track as a mother,” Lewis said. “We need to hear more about women who do it well -- or at least try to do it -- and don’t have that expectation that we have to wait.”
Taking a step back from her research, Lewis asked, “should it even be a concern of the department?"
"We’re only supposed to be judged on our work, and not what we do in our personal life.... As long as the person is meeting the requirements of tenure, it shouldn’t matter when they have a child.”
But as long as pregnant or nursing women -- or any other group with decreased mobility or needs for frequent breaks -- report facing issues during job interviews, Lewis said institutions could consider changing how they schedule campus visits. In addition to allowing for more breaks and providing information about child care and accommodation up front, colleges and universities should also educate their faculty and staff on appropriate questions to ask during job interviews.
“If we approach the interview process from the perspective that we should be considerate of all applications... we can cover women who may be in these situations,” Lewis said.