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Not 'news' to anyone here, I know, but scary article about motherhood and academia

(242 Posts)
MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Mon 17-Jun-13 15:53:30

I thought this was interesting, though hardly surprising. I find it quite a big concern given how much research we're constantly being shown, that 'proves' women are all [insert stereotype here]. This article looking at why so many women don't progress in academia - and in particular why mothers don't - perhaps gives a good reason why we might take some research with a pinch of salt: it's largely done by men and childless women.

MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Tue 18-Jun-13 20:23:43

Happy losers, then. smile

UptoapointLordCopper Tue 18-Jun-13 20:24:21

We happy few. smile

MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Tue 18-Jun-13 20:28:08

We band of buggered.

No, wait, I've wandered onto a different topic.

bigkidsdidit Tue 18-Jun-13 20:45:05

Yes not a very tactful post grin


I know a LOT of dual academic couples and in every single case it is the woman who has gone part time or soft pedalled her career post DC. Perhaps we should examine why we do this even when we start out at an equal level when we get pg?

MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Tue 18-Jun-13 20:49:43

Yes, I do accept that is a genuine worry. I don't think this particular brand of woman-blaming is the greatest solution.

I don't know how general it is, but something I worry about is PND or other conditions you couldn't predict after the birth. I wonder how many people end up going part time as a response to circumstnaces, rather than planning it from the off?

Xenia Tue 18-Jun-13 21:01:15

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MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Tue 18-Jun-13 21:03:56

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UptoapointLordCopper Tue 18-Jun-13 21:16:46

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AutumnMadness Tue 18-Jun-13 23:04:41

bigkidsdidit, sorry about the papers. I feel your pain. I hope you got yourself a big G&T and are sitting somewhere outside now enjoying the summer evening.

UptoapointLordCopper, I really admire you for publishing while working part-time. And your situation sounds great to me. I think quality of life is just as important as promotions. No, it's more important. Some will say that this is women not being ambitious enough, but I will say that this is women being sensible and not chasing heart attacks.

UptoapointLordCopper Wed 19-Jun-13 08:02:14

I would say that some equate ambition with material gain, and some equate ambition with social status, and some equate ambition with climbing the ladder. I equate ambition in how much I can get people to pay me to do what I like. grin

badguider Wed 19-Jun-13 08:09:43

I bet there are some male academics out there who wish they could change their hours and step back a bit to spend runs with their families but due to the same sexism that holds women back that would be seen as even less acceptable for a man than it is for a woman.

GrimmaTheNome Wed 19-Jun-13 10:11:36

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PromQueenWithin Wed 19-Jun-13 10:17:40

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marfisa Wed 19-Jun-13 10:36:39

I agree that the situation is far worse in the US than it is here. Not that conditions in the UK are perfect, but in the US it's awful. I had a tenure-track job in a big state university in the US and as a state employee, I was entitled to two weeks' paid maternity leave. Two weeks. The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed under Clinton's administration, was a big deal because it enabled women to take a whole 12 weeks off after giving birth if they wanted it (unpaid leave of course). There are ways to negotiate more time off if you're an academic - you can use accrued "sick leave" or use valuable research/sabbatical leave for motherhood. But the attitude is very much that after having given birth, you need to be back at work as normal as soon as possible. Oh, and childcare options are much more limited as well; it's very hard to find nurseries and childminders (my university had a nursery, but they would only take children once they were potty-trained. So no babies or young toddlers).

I could tell a whole string of anecdotes about young women academics being told off by senior colleagues and heads of department for procreating (and older women academics can be dreadfully sexist to younger ones in this regard).

I know one high-flying academic couple who relocated from a small, prestigious US liberal arts college to the UK, because they had had one child in the US and found the logistics of work/parenthood so difficult that they felt that if they stayed in the US, having a second child would be impossible. So now they are academics in the UK with two children.

The UK system of 6 months' paid mat leave (if you're been working for your employer long enough) and 12 months if you want it is something that I and other American women find amazing. Yes, taking those breaks can still have a negative effect on your career, but at least your right to take them is enshrined in law.

I have a huge gap on my CV now due to having moved to the UK for family-related reasons and not had a full-time academic post - instead I had a badly paid part-time post and two DC in part-time childcare. In the US, I think my career would effectively be over. In the UK, however, I just managed to get a very nice full-time post (it's not permanent, but still, I'm over the moon about it). The hiring panel "bought" my argument that I took time off from research for motherhood and am now ready to plunge into intensive research again. I know I'm very lucky, as posts in my field are few and far between, and the future is still uncertain, but so far I have found UK colleagues to be very supportive of combining work with family, in a way that my most of US colleagues never were.

There is still lots of work to be done though. My DH is an academic too, quite a senior one, and he makes a big point of taking time off when the DC are ill, etc. Senior colleagues, men especially, need to create a culture within academia where scholars are seen to be making parenting a priority. Then junior colleagues will feel comfortable taking time off for their ill DC too.

bigkids said, "I know a LOT of dual academic couples and in every single case it is the woman who has gone part time or soft pedalled her career post DC."

That's so true. Damn. But increasingly I also know male academics whose academic spouses spend a few days a week working in another city (because it's so hard to find academic jobs in the same place) and those dads do all the childcare for those days each week. Or the same scenario with gender roles reversed. Not that a commuting academic has an easy time of it, but doing the whole morning/evening/bedtime routine with small children while one parent is away is not easy either.

badguider said, "I bet there are some male academics out there who wish they could change their hours and step back a bit to spend runs with their families but due to the same sexism that holds women back that would be seen as even less acceptable for a man than it is for a woman."


Sorry to have written such an essay. blush

marfisa Wed 19-Jun-13 10:40:39

And Xenia, you are so predictable, aren't you? You think that feminism is a one-size-fits-all set of choices. Amazingly, mothers (and fathers) do not all want the same thing. Some of us would rather get less publishing done and have less prestige if it means more time hanging out with our DC in the garden. Some of us would rather earn less money if it means that we actually care about/love/enjoy our work, to the extent that when we retire we will carry on doing the same research for the joy of it.

MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Wed 19-Jun-13 10:45:38

bad - I know for a fact that's true about male academics wanting to step back too.

I think unfortunately, in individual situations it can be easier for men. I think in lots of contexts there's still a certain amount of 'aww, how sweet' when men say they need to get up and pick up the baby, whereas for women it's more 'oh, leaving the meeting early hmm!'. But then I think if you're a man who does the sort of amount of childcare women often do, it's probably not better.

Potol Wed 19-Jun-13 10:52:32

Academic. Two years into a Lecturer's post. Spent a lot of time in the US. Husband also an academic. Offspring is 1.5 years old and I took 7 months mat leave. Yes, my research has slowed down because a lot of what I do requires thinking and theoretical insight (in the humanities) rather than just archival research and I have v little thinking time. DS is a reasonable sleeper but once he is in bed I do all the admin stuff/answering emails because I don't have the headspace to think about the theoretical stuff.

On the other hand, DH is super hands on and an equal parent and is the one to take off when DS is ill etc. We also try and tag team if a big deadline for a research grant or something is coming up by whisking DS away somewhere for the weekend to let the other one work.

I have a US PhD and the reason DH and I relocated was partly for family reasons but mainly because motherhood and academia in the US is virtually incompatible. First of all, both of us finding jobs within commuting distance of each other would be hard. Then universities barely offer mat leave. My friend went back at 3 weeks with her baby in a sling and would lecture like that. The tenure clock keeps ticking and there is no allowance for the sheer exhaustion and difficulty of the first year of motherhood. I read the article and sympathised with parts of it, but it was US centric.

Finally, in my department there are a LOT of male academics with children who do a substantial chunk of the pick up/drop offs. Most of their wives have less flexible jobs and so the department culture is one that is sensitive to working parents. It is interesting though that the change in attitude is because the four senior male professors have childcare duties. I wonder if people would be so accommodating if they were women. Somehow men being equal parents is to be 'celebrated' while we are 'just' mothers. Anyway, the upshot of this is that all meetings finish by 4/4:30 and people don't mind if there is a childcare related emergency.

marfisa Wed 19-Jun-13 10:52:39

I'm sure you're right, Malenky. For example, my DH has been known to take our toddler into work with him when he has a meeting and we're in a particularly tight spot. Apparently other staff members not in the meeting are "delighted" at the opportunity to look after said toddler for a little while. I find this outrageous... as a mum I would never dream of dragging one of our DC along to work and expecting other staff to entertain him! But there's something about a man with a baby that apparently makes other women keen to jump in and help. Supposedly. hmm

marfisa Wed 19-Jun-13 10:54:34

Interesting post, Potol. What you say resonates entirely with my experiences of working as an academic in the US and UK.

Potol Wed 19-Jun-13 10:55:42

X post. Yep. Male academics doing childcare is much less damaging to their reputation. My husband took my son to the lab for a whole day when I needed some work to be done over a weekend. I have never ever taken him into work. Wouldn't dream of it. And would worry it looked unprofessional. My husband said people complimented him on his multitasking abilities. Hmmm.

marfisa Wed 19-Jun-13 11:01:10

Yes, that's it exactly. Unprofessional mum = multitasking dad!

dreamingbohemian Wed 19-Jun-13 11:23:35

I kind of agree with Xenia's larger point though. Okay, maybe it's not on to criticise women at the individual level, but it is true that it tends to be women going part-time, sacrificing more of their career, etc and so on. You see this all the time on MN: 'my husband made more money and had more career potential so I gave up my job to look after the kids'. Fast forward 5 years and now that woman is screwed looking for work and totally dependent on the goodwill of her husband.

I think this is a particular danger in academia because of some aspects of the job. At the beginning you'll increase your chances of a job if you're willing to move anywhere -- how many men are willing to give up their jobs or even their careers to tag along? You have to do a lot of writing and conferences outside of normal working hours -- how many men are willing to step up with childcare, etc.?

Obviously some men are but this is not a traditional role for them. Normally it is the woman making these sacrifices.

Basically I think the problem is not just structural, but normative. Yes there are all kinds of policies that could be changed, but as long as there is this societal norm or trend that women's careers will defer to their husband's, we will still have a problem in academia. It's not that well paid, it entails a lot of sacrifice, and on a purely 'logical' level it will often come second best to a lot of other careers.

marfisa Wed 19-Jun-13 11:49:27

I totally agree, dreaming. Again and again I have seen academic couples who started out on an equal footing, and then the woman's career has slowed or stopped while the man's has carried on. It's an issue that has caused a lot of tension in my own relationship, despite the fact that I have a DH who is (in theory, at least!) totally supportive of my career. When we had DC1 and a long-distance commute was no longer feasible, I was the one who gave up my job. It was utterly terrifying. We negotiated arrangements where he was doing part-time childcare and I was doing part-time research even when I was not employed ANYWHERE and was not earning any money, because otherwise the career I had worked so hard for would have gone completely by the wayside, and both of us had to be committed to not letting that happen.

It was also hard though because I was struggling with my own split desires - before I became a mother I never would have guessed how much I would want to spend time with my DC, and how hard it would be to leave them with someone else. Don't get me wrong, I never wanted to be a SAHM (valid choice though it may be), but DH found it far easier to drop off a crying baby in nursery, knowing that the baby would be fine, and get on with his work, while I tended (and still tend) to find it very difficult. It's not just society imposing norms on me, it's a personal psychological struggle. It has got easier with DC2 though. grin I don't know whether it's a personality thing or a gender thing or both.

I still find Xenia's line of argument pernicious, though, because in the US especially there is a mentality that academia should make no allowances for parenthood. So the women academics who succeeded early on succeeded largely by behaving exactly like male academics: putting their work first and their family second. (Which maybe explains why they can be so horrible to younger women trying to juggle academia and motherhood.) That doesn't have to be the only way of doing things. To me, feminist academia means changing the model so that both mothers and fathers can devote more time to family life. Department lectures can happen during school hours instead of in the evening, both parents can do pick ups and drop offs, slowing down the rate of research when there's a baby in the family does not put someone's career into jeopardy. That's the model I would like to see.

dreamingbohemian Wed 19-Jun-13 12:12:27

I agree with a lot of that marfisa, and I'd like to see that model too.

And I do see the danger in Xenia's argument, but I guess as a half-assed constructivist wink I see her argument as an important transitional one -- to change norms, you need normative outliers. If you want to change the game, you need people on the inside who play it well, both to inspire others and to have the power to make changes. I actually like the way Xenia pops up to remind us all that there is a different way of doing things -- I mean, obviously you are free to disregard her advice for your own personal life, but it's good to have that reminder, I think. It's exactly what my own mother, a radical 70s feminist, would say.

I'm a bit of an outlier myself. My field is very male-dominated. When I go to meetings and confabs, do research team work, I'm always the only woman in the room. I'm hoping to do a postdoc in my department next year, again I will be the only woman on the team.

It is only now that I'm finishing my phd that I'm finding out that everyone assumed I wouldn't finish, because I had a baby midway through. Apparently I'm the first woman in the department to have a baby and still finish in years and years. I find that so depressing, and yet I'm kind of happy that I've bucked the trend and perhaps people won't leap to those assumptions so much, knowing at least one person who's done it.

But I never could have done it if I weren't married to an enlightened kind of guy, who is happy to split childcare and everything 50/50, who is willing to move around, who really has sacrificed so much -- and not because my work brings in so much money, but because it makes me happy. Like so many things, it really is the political AND the personal affecting individual outcomes.

bigkidsdidit Wed 19-Jun-13 12:48:15

I agree entirely, dreaming. I like Xenia's posts- she reminds us of the extreme which is worth hearing about, seeing as the other extreme (SAHM hood) is so widely talked about already.

It's not for me, I like leaving work early and having play time and tea and bath with DS, but I don't think anyone should take it as a personal attack.

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