Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Are Children Career Killers?

Full 06162014 motherseries green

It's Day Three of our series on pregnancy, motherhood, and the academy. Stay tuned tomorrow for the final piece. Monday: Sarah Kendzior asked, Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School? Tuesday: Rachel Leventhal-Weiner described the myth of The Perfect Academic Baby.

At a conference several years ago, I dined with a female senior scholar. We discussed her panel and mine, and eventually our talk turned to our children. She had a teenager; I had a toddler. We swapped stories, then phones, so we could see pictures of our respective progeny.

Later at the conference, I ran into her again. Out of the blue, she mentioned children once more: “Stop at one,” she told me. “Otherwise, your career will be over.”

I was speechless. I just nodded and aimlessly walked through the conference hall pondering her “advice,” which was equal parts frustrating and terrifying.

This was neither the first nor the last time a fellow academic would offer counsel on my reproductive plans or my parenting. A male scholar explained that I wouldn’t be a real parent until I had more than one child. (Never mind my nine months of pregnancy, 10 months of nursing, and full year of sleepless nights: I was an amateur in his eyes.) Tellingly, though, many of the warnings came from women. At my previous university, for example, a senior scholar once pulled me aside to say that I’d soon have to choose between a family and a career. She’d put her career first and forcefully suggested that I do so too. Mother or academic? From what these colleagues told me, it was one or the other.

This talk of choices always seemed disingenuous to me. I knew mothers and fathers on and off the tenure track (mostly off, in the case of the former). But clearly there are academic parents, so why is motherhood in particular viewed as a problem? Why is academia so inhospitable to mothers?

Is it just the bad luck of poor timing—the fact that the labor-intensive grad-school and tenure-track years are also the times when women are most likely to start families? Not exactly. True, juggling an academic career and a family is hard, especially in the early years. And those of us who become mothers in academia often find ourselves negotiating the high cultural expectations of “serious” scholar and “good” mother, roles which don’t coincide neatly. Supposedly, serious scholars put career and research first, while good mothers prioritize family above all else. Mother-scholars, then, are caught in a bind of conflicting expectations. Is it any wonder so many of us leave?

What’s more distressing to me, though, is what happens to those mothers who stay. Motherhood goes hand-in-hand with second-tier positions, according to Mary Ann Mason. Mothers are an astounding 132 percent more likely than fathers to end up in low-paid contingent positions, note Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden in Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, which documents the impact of children (and marriage) on the professional lives of academic women. In The New York Times, Mason put it bluntly: “For men having children is a career advantage, and for women it is a career killer.”

Children are career killers. This short phrase hurts me every time I read it. As a mother and a scholar, I find Mason’s assertions hard to confront. Here’s my academic life, reduced to an unfortunate statistic.

As if that weren’t depressing enough, Mason and her co-authors report that few women ever climb to the top of the academic ladder. Those who do become deans, provosts, or presidents are less likely to be married or to have children. Only one out of three women on the tenure track becomes a mother; and tenure-track women are more likely to remain single within 12 years of receiving their Ph.D.’s. Meanwhile, 73 percent of male scientists on the tenure track are married with children. (Women off the tenure track, on the other hand, tend to be married and have children at rates close to academic men.)

Mason and her co-authors blame these gender discrepancies on the rigidity of the tenure clock and the lack of formal family-friendly policies at many institutions (though the percentage of universities with such policies is increasing). Academia, after all, was once populated almost entirely by men who were the sole earners for their families. Senior faculty and administrators are still mostly men, but today’s graduate-student population includes a majority of women—women who face different challenges, like negotiating dual careers and struggling to achieve work-life balance. In other words, times and demographics have changed, but the expectation that academics will worship at the career altar remains the same.

Read Do Babies Matter?, and you’ll get a clear sense of the challenges mothers in academia face, from graduate school to retirement. The data come fast and furious. Mothers with children under the age of six are 21-percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children. These same mothers are 16 percent less likely to wind up on the tenure track than fathers. A married woman’s odds of getting a tenure-track job is 12-percent lower than that of a married male peer.

This is troubling because the same data show again and again that marriage and children are generally a boon, rather than a burden, to men’s careers. Married fathers are far more likely to get tenure-track jobs and tenure than everyone else. Men simply don’t have to pick between having a family and pursuing a tenure-track career. Children are only career-enders for women.

Is there an innocent explanation for the discrepancy? Could many academic mothers just choose to devote more time to the home than academic fathers do? Possibly, but I’m not convinced, and neither are ex-Cornell University researchers Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik.

In a 2007 study, they found a pervasive and significant bias against mothers in the workplace, no matter how qualified or productive they are. First the authors had participants rate equally qualified female job candidates—some mothers, some childless—on the basis of fake résumés that contained clues about their status. They found that the mothers were perceived to be less competent and committed to their jobs than the single women, and the mothers were less likely to be hired. Those mothers who were hired were offered salaries far lower than single female candidates with the same qualifications. The authors also had the participants rate equally qualified male candidates. The fathers were rated as significantly more committed to their jobs than the single men. Fathers were offered much higher pay than non-dads, too.

If academic mothers’ careers truly are fettered by the extra demands of parenting, we’d likely see a similar effect on academic fathers, right? Instead, we see the opposite effect. This suggests that the bias against mothers and for fathers has more to do with gender stereotypes than reality.

So to say this baby penalty isn’t about gender is not only inaccurate but misleading. And to suggest that gender bias doesn’t exist because some women don’t encounter it ignores the structural components of sexism.

But if this bias persists, how do we counter it?

Mason and her co-authors recommend a series of family-friendly policies and procedures to help academic mothers and fathers on the tenure track, including childcare, accommodations for childbirth, tenure stoppages, and the ability to shift between full-time and part-time roles. That’s all well and good. I want universities to commit to family-friendly policies that support women and men, because academia should make space for caregiving in whatever form it takes. Parenthood shouldn’t be an impediment to an academic career.

That said, family-friendly policies for tenure-track faculty aren’t enough. For one thing, there’s a stigma that's still attached to using them. For another, the vast majority of today’s academics are contingent workers who often lack access to those policies or, for that matter, any decent benefits at all. For instance, I was offered unpaid maternity leave at my previous institution. Losing half of my lecturer’s salary was a serious financial blow for my family; that was part of the reason I decided to leave.

I no longer work at a university, and now I have two children. I obviously ignored the stop-at-one “advice” I’d been given. My departure from the university had little to do with the second child, though unpaid maternity leave did affect my decision to quit.

One more child didn’t kill my career. I left because I was tired of gender bias, the absence of family-friendly policies, and the grind of contingent work. Telling women scholars not to have children—or not to have more children—might seem to some like an attempt to counter gender inequality. But really, it just perpetuates that inequality. Instead, we should work toward making academia a more family-friendly workplace, for scholars on and off track.

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