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"Early Babies" Often Sabotage Moms on Tenure Track

A month-long winter break.  Three full months off in the summer.  A flexible teaching schedule and great benefits.  Based on these qualities, a career in academics seems like it would be a dream for mothers.  But new research out of Barnard College says the opposite is true.

The Washington Post ran an article this Sunday covering the findings, presented at the American Association of University Professors Conference in June.  The report illuminates the difficult choices faced by women in academia who want children, showing that for those who give birth, the tenure track often leads to the dreaded “Mommy Track.”

Because women generally are not awarded a Ph.D. until they reach their late 20′s or early 30′s, having a baby is something many academics put off in favor of securing tenure.  Tenure is typically bestowed between the fifth and seventh year of teaching, leaving many female professors in an age-range for high-risk pregnancy.

For professors who do have children on the tenure track, life is a major juggle.  The Post interviewed a mother who described working in “survival mode.”  Another said she was “no longer being invited to career-building speaking gigs” and a third said she was “never going to be one of those superstars.”

I spoke to an academic superstar, Kathy M. Newman, who is a tenured professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where she’s taught for the last 13 years.  She’s the mother of a 6-year-old son named Jacob and 3-year-old daughter named Casey Anne.  She says she didn’t specifically wait to have kids until she was tenured, but that it did happen that way – a happy accident, to be sure.

“Carnegie Mellon has an especially long tenure track, it’s basically nine years.  But there’s a promotion that’s very similar to tenure at the fifth year, and I had passed through that promotion before Jacob was born,” she says.  Newman considers herself “really lucky,” and says, “There basically was no maternity leave policy when I arrived at the school in 1997, but a group of amazing people pushed through this incredible policy which was 16 weeks of supported leave.”  So moms at Carnegie Mellon get a full semester off after having a child.  Combine that with a summer vacation and you’d almost think you were in Scandinavia at 6 months paid leave.

But Newman, despite having been supported by the University in her adventures in parenting, agrees that female academics suffer from “the freedom to work all the time.”  As de Vise said in his article for the Post, “The scholarly demands of the job — writing papers, applying for grants, pursuing research — are unending.” 

Newman says, “Getting tenure while becoming a mother is one of the most difficult things.  I really got lucky.  A group at Berkeley did a study that looked at the rates of getting tenure, they compared men and women – a woman who had a baby within the first 6 years of getting her Ph.D. had a greatly reduced chance of getting tenure as compared to the men whether or not the men had children.  They called this baby an early baby.”

Having an “early baby,” according to Newman, can be deadly for a woman’s career, and adds that to avoid this problem, her own graduate students are having children before completing their doctorates.  She says, “I actually think that’s not a bad way to go.  A lot of them have stay-at-home husbands, so they make it work on poverty wages.  But they don’t have the problem of the early baby that’s gonna torpedo their tenure chances.”

A 2005 Virginia Tech report echoes the notion that early babies force women out of academia.  It “found a disproportionate share of women among “voluntary departures” from faculty jobs; women represented one-fifth of the faculty but two-fifths of departures, and they were more likely than men to report feelings of intimidation, harassment and discrimination,” according to the Post.

And John Curtis, director of research and public policy at AAUP, backs up the notion that men suffer less in higher education.  He says, “research shows that parenthood has an opposite, positive effect on men’s abilities to move ahead in academic careers.”

Academia can often seem like a world apart, but in this regard, it seems to be as full of the same pitfalls working women in any career face.  Most working mothers feel, as one of de Vise’s interview subjects said, “One of the costs of working full time and parenting is that I don’t feel that I do either job as well as I could, or should.”

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