Is Your Husband a Worse Problem Than Larry Summers?

Linda Hirshman looks at the stay-at-home Moms of academe and says they need to start using their real power.

December 9, 2005

In my recent article, “Homeward Bound” ( The American Prospect, December 2005), I propose that the low representation of women at the highest level of the American government and economy is due in substantial measure to a steady stream of educated women deciding to leave full-time work. Recent analysis of the opt-out revolution reveals that the only group of mothers not continuing to raise their work-force participation despite economic ups and downs is mothers with graduate and professional degrees. Their numbers are flat and have been for several years. Their decisions matter because their careers, if realized, would be influential. Their decisions are a mistake because they lead them to lesser lives, by most measures, and because these decisions hurt society. And their decision is not freely chosen, even if they “chose” it, as it is made in the context of an ideology that assigns childrearing and housekeeping to women, an ideology that, interviews reveal, they themselves accept.The solution will not come from employers, who have no motivation to change economically productive behaviors, nor from the government, firmly in the hands of conservatives, who believe in the ideology. Instead, I recommend that women start by refusing to play their gendered role, preparing themselves for lives of independent means, bargaining from this position of power with the men they sleep with, only looking for help to more distant sources as a last resort.

The readers of this Web site would largely fall into my definition of highly educated people, even though academics do not normally earn salaries as large as similarly educated people in more conventional market positions. And this site has devoted substantial space to the subject of the advancement of women’s careers and the role of the reproductive family, which also inspired my American Prospect piece, reflecting a widespread debate in the academy. Does my analysis apply to the world of Higher Ed?

Straight off I confess I did not interview many academics or former academics. My data included the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, the media reports of anecdotal evidence, my personal experience as a university teacher, and my interviews with the couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times on three Sundays during 1996, which sample did include a couple of academic women. After I wrote, I reconfirmed my data against the findings of economist Heather Boushey regarding highly educated women, although her failure to break out full- and part-time work makes her findings of questionable relevance to mine. The academic literature, however, includes a rich trove of data about the matter. As one would expect from a world of researchers!

For example, the American Historical Association reported that although in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, 11 years later, as one would have expected some of that cohort to have raised the percentage of full professors closer, if not fully, to 39 percent, the full professor ranks were still only 18 percent female. In 2003 over 45 percent of Ph.D.'s were women, while only 36 percent of the hires at the University of California were women. Judith H. White writes in Liberal Education that “while in 1998 women made up 42 percent of all new Ph.D. recipients, the portion of women faculty in the senior tenured positions at doctoral research institutions had reached only 13.8 percent -- up from 6.1 percent in 1974.”

The same article reports that careful studies out of Berkeley show that academic women having children within five years of their Ph.D. fail at tenure vastly more often than men in the same parental position. Academic women who have children later succeed at tenure just as much as childless women do. But findings from the 2001 Journal of Higher Education ("The Relationship Between Family Responsibilities and Employment Status Among College and University Faculty") also suggest that the employment of women in non-tenure-track positions is attributable in part to their marital status. Although a smaller share of women than men junior faculty are married (67 percent versus 78 percent), being married increases the odds of holding a part-time, non-tenure-track position for women but not for men. This study suggests that married men faculty and male faculty members with children are also benefiting from their marital and parental status in terms of their employment status.

This is very valuable data. One of the hottest debates in gender politics today is whether women fail at work compared to men more because of workplace hostility and discrimination or whether they fail more because of their “choice” to take their financial support from their spouses and tend the babies or the husbands and the home fires. But common sense tells us that something besides marriage must be at work. Nancy Hopkins’ groundbreaking study of resource allocation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifted the veil on an ugly part of what goes on -- plain old discrimination, conscious or unconscious.

In this, I suspect the academy is worse than the world of finance and medicine and the like where my research subjects had worked before they quit. While no sane woman I’ve ever met claims that there are workplaces completely free of sex discrimination (it is, after all, only 85 years since the 19th Amendment!), research on gender reflects that the arena for discrimination is greater where there is not a clear monetary measure of productivity. So the world of the research university is a perfect playground for subjective opinion, including ideas about women’s proper roles, conscious or not, and the powerful lure of autobiography in each hiring committee member’s inaccessible subconscious.

But you already knew that. Nancy Hopkins and all the others have been telling you that loud and clear for what feels like 85 years as well. Is that all there is? I think not. In American Prospect, I did a Larry Summers and said that the male dominance of influential jobs is partly due to elite women’s decisions to devote themselves to childrearing and housekeeping, an opting out that is not new, but has not subsided, either. Most of the Times brides I interviewed didn’t take their work seriously and had been preparing to bail for years before their kids came. My experience in a very liberal classroom was that a lot of the female students were already preparing ... to prepare to bail. And I said it was a mistake for the women to do that and that they shouldn’t be looking for help from Jack Welch or Tom DeLay. Aw, hell, nobody from the Harvard presidential search committee was calling me anyway.  

Here again the academy may be different, but in this way, better. Women may not be as eager to leave academic jobs as their well educated sisters were to quit journalism, law and publishing. There are two reasons for this. One, the hours are better. While the business magazine Fast Company reports that a 60 to 75 hour work week is typical for business leaders, ladder rank faculty with children in the University of California study (according to their own self-reporting) worked 53 to 56 hours a week. Second, university teaching is really good substantive work, between the good students and researching things that interest you and making them real, even if just in a book (like some of mine) nobody reads but mom. So it’s understandable that women faculty are pressing universities to make it possible for them to have children and stay on track, through devices like extended tenure periods and the like. Moreover, the effort to extract help from the workplace may succeed better at Harvard than at General Electric, because, when clear, objective programs are proposed, nonprofits like Harvard are not up to their eyeballs in the Hobbesian world of globalized late capitalism, so it’s easier for them to yield a little.

But in the end, it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the gendered family in favor of putting so much emphasis on institutional programs or policies. The University of California reports that young faculty women with children work 37 hours a week on family care; if they are 34—38, they work a self-reported but staggering 43 hours a week on family care. Young dads work only two-thirds as much (25 hours); in the 34--38 age bracket the gap is even higher -- dads work half as hard as their female counterparts. No wonder, when the University of California proposed one of the many initiatives surfacing nationwide of flex time for tenure decisions, 74 percent of women with children supported the policy, but only just over half the men did. The statistics exactly mirror the difference between the dads’ family care hours and the mothers’.

Commentators on the California plan worried about the reduction in faculty productivity, especially in teaching, and the substitution of increasing numbers of serfs from the non-tenure track. Where such policies exist, it is overwhelmingly the women who take advantage of them. Stopping the tenure clock is one thing, but, as one of the commentators also asked, what will the promotion committee do when, years later, it looks at a CV half again as long for the man as for the woman? The women’s own reports of their domestic arrangements clearly show that the main guy in an academic woman’s path may not be Larry Summers after all -- he may be her own husband.

Here’s an answer to the commentators who worried about the reduction in faculty productivity and the length of male résumés. Since young faculty fathers spend two-thirds the time on family care that mothers do, why not simply require faculty fathers to produce half again as much (teaching, scholarship, whatever) at each step of the way that the faculty mothers do, rather than lowering the requirements for the women? Demanding of these pampered fellas that they work as hard, over all, as their female counterparts do would add a salutary dash of reality to their perceived superiority to women in the workplace, level the playing field and create some job opportunities for ambitious women who want to do a little extra. A modest proposal. In the end, I contend, the workplace will never be a substitute for women standing up for what they need in the reproductive family. It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash. As Mothers’ Movement Online’s Judith Stadtman Tucker said in an interview, “Women will take on the worst bastard in the world rather than ask their husbands to help out.”

A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,”  “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.


Linda Hirshman retired as Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University.


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