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Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower
by mary ann mason, nicholas h. wolfinger, and marc goulden
rutgers, 188 pages, $25.95

When colleagues at academic conferences marvel at the latest of my seven pregnancies, my immediate reaction—so they don’t think I am the world’s worst professor and colleague—is to tell them that I have never, ever taken standard maternity leave. With my last two pregnancies, I modified maternity leave, opting instead for a reduced course schedule. At my university, that means coming back from the hospital to teaching two courses instead of four, days after giving birth.

This information usually elicits the reaction that I must be a “super-woman,” but the real reason is that taking maternity leave in academia is very difficult. Unlike other employers, universities are necessarily tied to an academic calendar, and taking off the six weeks granted under federal law means that the other two professors in my department would have to take over my classes.

Do I want to be known as a selfish colleague when review period comes up and there are only a handful of advertised positions in my field with hundreds of others clamoring for a permanent position? When I look around, I don’t see other women professors taking maternity leave (or even having children), which only makes me less inclined to ask for it. 

Many others seem to feel this way too. In Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower , Mary Ann Mason reports that while women in so-called “fast-track professions” have fewer children than does the average American woman, female faculty are almost half as likely as female physicians and slightly less likely than female lawyers to have a child at all, even though academia offers far more flexible hours than the average law firm or hospital. If female faculty do have children, they are more ­likely to drop out of the profession than are physicians and lawyers.

So what is keeping academic women from having children? Do Babies Matter? , the culmination of a major study of more than eight thousand tenure-track faculty members in the University of California system, argues that they have fewer children because academic culture demotes motherhood. Women are afraid that they will not be able to publish in competitive fields at the same rate as their childless colleagues; they are afraid that as new mothers they will no longer be taken seriously as scholars; and they are afraid to take advantage of existing family leave policies in the event that chairmen and colleagues bristle at having to take on additional courses and other work when a new mother takes maternity leave.

Given that the rest of the world’s mothers deal with pressures and choices without expecting employers to bend to their needs, why should babies matter in academia? Because everyone is being educated by a subculture that is averse to children, and more professors with families (and bigger families) would help change that subculture.

The “Do Babies Matter?” project, directed by Mason, the first female dean of the Graduate Division of the University of California, Berkeley, found that women who had children within five years of receiving their doctorates were far less likely than men who had done so to acquire tenured professorships. This trend proved consistent across disciplines and types of institutions. Only one in three women who takes a tenure-track job before having a child ever becomes a mother, and women who obtain tenure are more than twice as likely as their male colleagues to be childless twelve years after earning their doctorates.

Interestingly enough, this bias seems to be limited to women with children under five years of age. Having children over the age of five actually correlates with a 14 to 16 percent increase in the likelihood that women (and men also) will get tenure, because having older children provides “a stabilizing effect” for faculty. In the bench sciences, moreover, married scholars publish more than their unwed colleagues. 

If marriage and family life ­ultimately increase faculty success once children reach kindergarten age, what deters women from having children? It is, Mason argues, essentially a cultural problem, driven by both stigma and the perception of stigma. While the survey’s respondents gave all the expected reasons for not having children (research is time-consuming, and doctoral work and the pivotal pre-tenure assistant professorships happen during a woman’s fertile years), they also stressed that having a child would be negatively perceived by their professors or future employers.

In addition to numbers, the book is replete with anecdotal evidence for this stigma, including tales of departmental heads urging women professors outright not to have children. One male faculty member said, “Having children is both a lifestyle choice and biologically/medically contingent on good health. I am not enthusiastic about excessively subsidizing others’ lifestyle choices, no matter how noble they are. In my department, I think we too often bend over backwards for those with children . . . .” Women are also quoted as advising other women not to take advantage of existing leave policies because they will be judged by colleagues as weak and unable to do their jobs.

A woman in a University of California professional school urged women, “Don’t have children until after tenure. Don’t use the extra one year on the clock unless absolutely required because male faculty interpret this as some combination of: She’s not tough enough to do it or let’s evaluate her as someone with seven years experience rather than someone with six years who has been given a year extra.”

The survey did find that factors other than perception of stigma also deterred childbearing, such as long hours, particularly for research scientists running labs and applying for grants, and the difficulty of finding affordable and reliable childcare. Still, most of these ­hardships exist in other professions where women have children at far higher rates.

Moreover, many of these “hardships” hardly seem insurmountable for a woman longing to have a baby. Survey respondents pointed to the hardships of pumping breast milk during on-campus interviews and the altogether strange excuse of everyday hassles, including limited faculty parking, which makes it difficult for a woman to find a parking space if she leaves during the day to take a child to a doctor’s appointment. For a woman who has jumped through the hurdles necessary to obtain a Ph.D., these reasons do not seem credible. 

The reasons Mason cites for women academics not having babies often seem like pretexts for the fact that academia has a cultural aversion to motherhood and family life. Academics tend to be less traditionally minded, more individualistic, and less inclined to accept the sacrificial nature of parenthood, and hence less likely to have children, much less to have large families.

It would seem, however, that women academics face another pervasive cultural obstacle to motherhood not mentioned by ­Mason, one different from those encountered by women in other occupations. More than business, law, or medicine, academia prizes the achievements of the individual, and these tangible achievements are listed on the lines of a CV.

The academic speaks of “my research,” research which is conducted alone, which is recognized or understood by very few, and which is compensated primarily by a gain in scholarly reputation. This is far different from business or law, for instance, where colleagues work in groups on projects that benefit their companies or clients and reap high financial compensation.

Mason and her colleagues deserve credit for changing the culture at Berkeley. They created a family-leave package, the “UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge,” which advocates for options to stop the tenure clock and to provide teaching relief for one semester for new fathers and two semesters for mothers. The project also offered part-time tenure track and other perks, including forty hours of emergency childcare per year. 

The program succeeded by making the family leave programs entitlements rather than special accommodations. As a result, 59 percent of new fathers obtained teaching relief within four years of the program’s implementation, compared with 6 percent before it started. Most impressively, in six years, the percentage of female assistant professors who reported having at least one child more than doubled from 27 percent to 64 percent. For men, it rose from 39 percent to 59 percent.

Mason’s changes to UC Berkeley’s family-leave policies changed the culture at the university. Because academics so often fear (with good reason) deviating from what senior professors and administrators want, it took a senior administrator lobbying for changes to make family leave part of the normal routine of academic life. 

One might be hopeful that this will result in universities retaining more women who can mentor their female students and show impressionable young women and men that ­motherhood does not mean the end of an intellectual life. Perhaps an ­academia made up of more parents with more children would be more likely to support the family as a cultural ­institution.

Sarah Klitenic Wear is associate professor of classics and faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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