Friday, July 10, 2009

Academic Women Suffer When They Have More Than 2 Children

The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 10, 2009, has a poignant article in the Workplace section, B16-19 (in print) titled, "Is Having More than 2 Children an Unspoken Taboo?" by Robin Wilson. Interviewing women in many different academic fields (but not librarians), Wilson finds

...a very small number of academic women with three, four, or more children. In academe, where having even one child can slow down success, trying to manage multiple kids can be a career-stopper.

Women with many children are seen by their peers and supervisors as less than serious about their work in a profession that often expects nothing short of complete devotion. Even administrators who consider themselves supportive of female professors with children may question the wisdom of those with more than one or two. (snip)

Managing both a career and several children can be a challenge for any professional woman. In academe the prospect seems particularly perilous. True, an academic career can be flexible -- at least after tenure. But the dozen or so arduous years spent earning an PH.D. and building a career makes academe one of the less friendly professions for women with children, say researchers who study the issue. (snip)

In a 2006-7 study of 8.400 graduate students on nine University of California campuses, only 29 percent of the women and 46 percent of the men said they considered research universities to be family-friendly places for tenure-tack professors to work.

Meanwhile, a national study of about 5,000 professors in chemistry and English, completed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University in 2002, found that female professors had an average of only .66 kids each. The average American woman by comparison, has about two children.

Yet another study, conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the university of Utah, found that academic women were 27 percent less likely than doctors and 17 percent less likely than lawyers to have babies. It also found that male professors fathered fewer children than their male counterparts in those other professions. (snip)

Academic women, meanwhile, are well aware of the harm that having children can do to their professional lives. In the national study of English and chemistry professors, 26 percent of women — double the proportion of men — said they had fewer children than they would have liked in order to achieve academic success. "The cultural line in academe is that one child is acceptable, maybe two, but three are not," says Marc Goulden, a Berkeley researcher who has completed several studies on academic women and children.

Julianna Baggott knows full well that the third child is often considered the third rail of academe. That's why, when she is asked how it feels to be a professor with five children, she has one word: "subversive." Ms. Baggott's husband stays home to watch the kids, but that hasn't made her feel any more comfortable about her large brood. She displays no photos of her children in her office in Florida State University's English department, and she never tells colleagues that she can't make a meeting because of the children, who range in age from 14 to 2. "I just say, 'I'm sorry, I have a conflict,'" she says.

"Academia assumes that a woman, once she has kids, is not going to be able to maintain her career at the same level," says Ms. Baggott, an associate professor. She just earned tenure and has written 14 books, including six for children. "I'm a workaholic," she says during a cellphone interview between stops on a West Coast tour for one of her latest books, The Prince of Fenway Park (HarperCollins, 2009).

Some women say it is academe's focus on the mind, not the body, that makes being a pregnant professor — or one with kids — so unusual and unwelcome.

"In academia, the mind/body split is operative," says Nicole Cooley, an associate professor of English at the City University of New York's Queens College and a contributor to Mama Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). "Academia's grounding in the clerical tradition means that a lot of your identity is your intellectual work, and you don't sully yourself with domestic arrangements and bodily things."

Andrea O'Reilly directs the Association for Research on Mothering at York University, in Canada, where she is an associate professor of women's studies. The idea that mind and body don't mix in academe is more than theoretical, says Ms. O'Reilly, who has interviewed 60 academic women with children. "Academia is a very competitive environment. You're supposed to be this cutthroat go-getter, and your work is your life. You're not supposed to be encumbered."

Women with several children say colleagues and supervisors alike are not shy about sharing their scorn over the women's ├╝ber-fertility. Two years ago, when April Hill, an associate professor of biology at the University of Richmond, had her third child at age 38, one administrator remarked, "Aren't you a bit old for that?"

Elisabeth R. Gruner, an associate professor of English at Richmond who contributed an essay to Mama Ph.D., says: "There is a distaste that you'd want to spend a lot of time with little kids — an idea that you may not be very smart."

Saranna R. Thornton, who heads the economics department at Hampden-Sydney College, was at a picnic with faculty and staff members nine years ago when she shared the good news that she was expecting her fourth child. A senior administrator looked at her and asked, "Don't you know what causes that?" Ms. Thornton even got quizzical looks from close friends and colleagues, who asked her why she was having another child. (The short answer, for Ms. Thornton and several other women who spoke to The Chronicle: They simply really enjoy children, sometimes much to their own surprise.)

Georgia Frank, an associate professor of religion at Colgate University, says she senses an attitude from some in academe that anyone who has more than two children has surpassed an invisible quota. "There is something greedy about going for just one more," says Ms. Frank, whose own children are 15, 12, and 7.
There is a lot more to this article, including some fascinating pointers on how the successful women have made it work. On the other hand there is one heartbreaking story of a young woman who had to throw her career away on the verge of tenure when she accidentally became pregnant with her sixth child -- she knew she could not balance that and manage the career as well. The women interviewed often acknowledge the stress of balancing work and home, as well as the joys of their children. One woman, who chairs the English department while nurturing her three children, aged 10 - 17, does not want to give her young women students the misimpression that, "You can do this, no problem." She suffers from three autoimmune diseases, and has had marital problems at times. She is quoted in the article: "I don't want to send the message to young women that there aren't costs and there aren't risks." But I think they also want to convey hope, along with their warnings. It's a very poignant article, and one that should make women angry.

1 comment:

Marie S. Newman said...

This is indeed a poignant story, and I'm grateful to Betsy for posting it on OOTJ. I received the summer 2009 issue of the Smith College Alumnae Quarterly this week, and was touched by the feature it ran on professors emeriti, all of whom I remember very well. One of them, English Professor Emerita Elizabeh Gallaher von Klemperer, graduated from Smith in 1944, joined the faculty in 1952, and retired in 1993. Her husband was also a member of the faculty (and my adviser). This is what she had to say about trying to combine family and an academic career: "I began teaching in fall of 1952. When I got married after my second year, people said, 'Well, of course, you'll stop teaching now.' Faculty members felt having a family confused your professional life. 'If you're going to be an academic, be an academic,' they said. 'If you must have babies, at least have them during the summer.' Which, in fact, I did." She goes on: "When I became pregnant, I had to go to a part-time position, which made me ineligible for tenure, and meant I was up for reappointment every year or every other year, rather a precarious situation. Later, I worked very hard to help get legislation through that made it easier for women faculty member coming after me. By 1969 or 1970, students themselves were lobbying for women faculty's rights." The irony is, of course, is that Smith was and is a women's college.