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Parenting again

3 February, 2009

Parenting again

Well, the question of how parenting affects academic careers, especially those of women, has surfaced again. There’s a discussion here, at Crooked Timber on whether parents should be hired. It’s sort of a follow-on from Harry Brighouse’s earlier post, which addresses an article sadly behind the CHE firewall. I’ve done this from both sides, and I have to say, there’s no way that parenting doesn’t accentuate the problems many women have in academia. Get pregnant (or, in my case, start raising a pre-teen), and people start to write you off.

There is a perception that people will be distracted by parenting. It’s worse for women than men. Or at least it has been most the places I’ve worked, and was definitely the case in my R1 grad department. Woman gets married, profs start to worry. Woman gets pregnant, and there’s a subtle shift in the kinds of opportunities the student is guided towards. As it happens, I have a bunch of medievalist women friends who have kids. They mostly started having their kids while on the tenure track. But I think we medievalists are a little bit anomolous — medieval history is one of the first places to have let women into the club (no pun intended). But I don’t know that it’s that much easier for us. My advisor was certainly very supportive, but I think much of the rest of the department despaired of me — and some washed their hands of me — when I stayed abroad and became a non-resident, new parent student.

And you know what? grad school with kids is hard. Grad school while working with kids because you’re out of fellowship is harder. Getting back on the job track when the parenting and supportive wife thing has required that you step off for a time? Even harder. I wouldn’t recommend it. And I know that I’m damned lucky to have landed a job. I’m still worried about my T&P (although that will be true till I have the paper in my hand, even though I know I’ve made it past hurdle 1). And I work at a fairly family friendly university.

Or at least SLAC seems very friendly to faculty families. Our top two administrators have young children, and they regularly bring them to campus events. Most of my colleagues with kids have little trouble scheduling around them, and one colleague interviewed for and got her job while pregnant with her second child. When there were complications, she was given a reduced load. I have a couple of male colleagues who regularly leave campus early and work three-day contact weeks so that they can share in the child care. Parties generally include people bringing their kids of whatever ages. It’s very family friendly.

I really do like that. In so many ways, it counters what we are hearing in the Chronicle. I think one of the reasons it works is that we are a ‘teaching’ campus. Service and scholarship are important for promotion, but not as much as at research-heavy campuses. I wouldn’t trade it. And I agree with everything that Harry and many of his commenters, especially Kieren and Magistra, say.

So why write anything? Well, first, I think you should go read the posts over there. But second, I’m now in a different postion. I’m single, with cats. So now I’m finding that people can’t make it to meetings, because they have kids. They can’t show up at non-course-related events, because they have kids. If kids are our of school when we aren’t, then classes sometimes get cancelled. Not all the time, but enough that it’s noticeable. And you know? lots of things do require faculty attendance — job talks, guest lectures, meetings, workshops. So frequently, it’s those of us without children who pick up the slack. It’s as if our ‘free’ time is less important. And some of my colleagues with young children are actually able to find more time to write, because they can often arrange things at home so they can supervise kids and write. The important thing is that they are home. So, for example, when students come to the department to ask an advisor for help, they end up on my doorstep. The bodies who are on campus working are also the bodies that administrators, students, and even sometimes parents can find.

I know, I’m grousing. And I really prefer working in a place where people can parent. And part of this really is our own fault — we are all aware that women (and more recently men) with families tend to get screwed. No one wants to rock the boat and say, “hey, this is your choice, but you also took a job with stupid requirements when it comes into having a life.” But one of the things that I think hasn’t been mentioned (and usually is in any such discussion) is the affect that the family life of other academics has on those of us without children. There really is often an attitude of, “of course you can do X (where X = service outside teaching and scholarship), you don’t have any responsibilites, and you can always write/go to the gym/hike/read/whatever it is that you may have chosen over children later.” And I have noticed that the brunt of this work falls on the childless women. So if academia has been making strides on equality for women who want to have children, or for families where the men want to be more active parents, I think it’s improtant to look and see where the shifts of responsibility are taking place. I bet it’s not just anecdotal that single, childless women are still getting the short end of the stick.

It’s just that that stick gets used to beat a lot of us.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 February, 2009 1:42 am

    This is a great post. I take issue with only one of your points: men do not pay a price for parenthood, and in fact they appear to reap a reward for it. (I had a post on this a while back–based on a study of male and female lawyers that included both parents and non-parents.)No women in my department have ever brought a child to a faculty meeting to my memory–only the men have that kind of liberty. In general, I think men get bonus points for being such super dads whenever they appear with their children in public, while women are just doing the work they’re supposed to be

  2. 4 February, 2009 3:18 am

    Well, this certainly is an interesting discussion. I refrained from commenting over at Crooked Timber but since this issue has popped up again… Ann, can you generalize about academia generally based on your own experience in your department? In what way do men gain “a reward” from being a parent (and actually parenting)? Am I rewarded when my child is sick and I have to give up a day of teaching/ research to take care of him? What about when school gets cancelled for snow and I have to stay home again? Or juggling their summers off? I could, of course, go on. There have been women who’ve brought their kids to faculty meetings. There’ve been men who’ve done that too. I agree with both of your general points, that “family-friendly” should mean what it says — for ALL types of families. But we don’t get there by cutting the faculty up into interest groups, thinking “they” have it so good, when we really have no idea what “their” lives are like.

  3. 4 February, 2009 3:42 am

    Ann — I think that traditionally it is very true that our male colleagues who even showed and interest in their kids were seen as being rather special and got extra kudos for it. But anecdotally, at least, that seems to be changing. There’s still more praise, I think — I still hear people saying how great it is that colleague A is such a great father for taking his kids to the doctor, as if that should be counted in his promotion file, while colleague B is seen as distracted for doing the same thing. But when it comes to actual time on campus, in meetings, etc.? I’m seeing less tolerance for anybody who rearranges or ducks out on service for their kids. I have to say that it seems to be a different sort of disapproval for men, though: either they are ambitionless, or their wives aren’t competent enough. With women, it’s just the same old thing. And this seems to be truer on some parts of my campus than others.

  4. 4 February, 2009 3:49 am

    Oh, and Matt, I agree. Having looked at it from both sides, I remember feeling under tremendous pressure not to let it look like being a parent was keeping me from doing my work, and I know tons of women who feel the same way, taking on more work to show that they aren’t asking for special favors. I think that the fact that I have younger colleagues who don’t feel this need might indicate that things are improving. But it also worries me that not only is there an assumption that the singletons and childless people don’t have anything better to do than pick up the slack, but also that it’s ok to say such things while also complaining about how easy we have it 🙂 Rather than challenging the system, we seem to be more concerned about shifting the burdens. And that seems rather counterproductive to me.

  5. 4 February, 2009 5:06 am

    Every job I know of suffers from several varieties of bigotry. I don’t know why humans feel a need to belong to group/s from which other humans are, for one reason or another, excluded (due to their “obvious” shortcomings) but I’ve never seen any sort of group that was immune to the condition.Go figure earthlings.

  6. 4 February, 2009 4:56 pm

    I appreciate your taking time to examine this sensitive issues from “both sides” (since we know it’s much more complex than that). But, I too, resent when it’s assumed that since I don’t have children or a husband, I have all the free time in the world. Sometimes others forget that while I don’t have the immediate family responsibilities (but parents are getting older so that is already beginning to entail more), I have fewer people to take care of the house and yard, etc. And, then, of course, there are the people who use their children as an excuse to not do the parts of their job they don’t like to do (it’s not all but it is some – ie I have to leave this meeting early to go get my kids and when you leave the meeting 30 minutes later, they are still in the hallway talking to a colleague and there hasn’t been enough time for them to get off campus and then return).There is something call opportunity cost and we need to recognize it. And be sensitive to those in different situations than ours. Most importantly, we’re still struggling with a system that for decades and, in some cases, centuries, was shaped by men with women who didn’t work outside the home and typed their papers, etc. We need to move to a system that is doable in human terms without having to sacrifice the rest of your life because you want to do well in one area. I envy the women younger than me that are able to envision the possibility of children in grad school and/or on the tenure track. I didn’t see that as an option – partly my own perception I realize now but also that was the general perception not too long ago – family and academic career for a woman were mutually exclusive terms. I’m glad to see that changing but, as you point out, we still have a long way to go.

  7. 5 February, 2009 4:25 pm

    Matthew, actually the benefits of parenthood for men are well documented. In academia, parenthood appears to help their chances of tenure and promotion, whereas it works against women. Women in academia are less likely to be married, and less likely to have children than their male counterparts. In a recent study of attorneys’ salaries, Neil Buchanan found that male parents make the most money, and female parents make the least. I have written on these topics over at my blog,, several times. Here are a few links (sorry, I don’t know how to embed, ADM!) think I also had a post up about how mothers have a poorer rate of tenure than fathers, but I can’t find it now. It would have been based on information from Inside Higher Ed, I think.So, my opinion is not based on my experiences (although I’ve worked in three or four departments, not one department) but rather on data culled by people who track gender in the workplace issues.I would also say, Matthew, that just because you feel personally inconvenienced at times by your parenthood, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t benefit you and your careeer. Please think beyond the bounds of your subjectivity to see how the world works for

  8. 5 February, 2009 5:09 pm

    Oh, a few more:, for those of you interested in the extra service burdens imposed on unmarried and child-free women, see this:

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