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Personal Agency, My Arse: Policy, Not Agency, Needed to Improve Outcomes for Academic Parents


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Inside Higher Ed has an interesting interview with Professors Kelly Ward (Washington State University) and Lisa Wolf-Wendel (University of Kansas) the authors of the new book Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. The whole thing is worth a read, including important points about how liberal arts colleges tend to be less family-friendly than research institutions because of their teaching loads and high expectations for campus involvement. I was glad to see research institutions were often places where structures and policies were in place to support families, and that those who work at community colleges tend to be the most satisfied.

But there is still a long way for all campuses to go, including my own.

Something that troubles me in the academic job rhetoric is how much personal agency matters to success: are you advocating for yourself, are you finding your own mentors, are you contesting a manuscript rejection, are you getting yourself invited for talks, are you negotiating properly for start-up? And in general, the mentoring I have received as a tenure-track professor has been framed as though it’s simply up to me to argue hard for myself and get everything I need. This doesn’t help me navigate identify-specific issues like gendered or racial discrimination, or family duties. This kind of advice ignores the other side of the agency coin, and that’s institution.

This is why I was thrilled to see this portion of the Ward and Wolf-Wendel interview:

Q: What are your top recommendations to institutions that want to be more supportive of academic parents?

“A: Greater transparency! The biggest thing campuses need to do is not just have policies, but to, more importantly, let people know they can use the policies. We refer to this as a “culture of use.” Campuses need to make faculty aware of policies and let faculty know they can use those policies without fear of professional or personal retribution. This requires a cultural shift on behalf of all members of the campus, not just the faculty in need of the policy. Policies have to be known, easy to find, and useable.

….

“Move away from “making deals” — equitable policy environments grant all faculty access to policies. Success at navigating work and family should not just be a matter of personal agency.”

Agency only gets you halfway to resolving a social problem (like support of families, racial inequality, etc). The other half has to be institution, by which I mean culture – like Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s point about creating a “culture of use” – and policy – like parental leave that understands a parent’s need for more time in order to achieve at work when, for instance, there is a squalling newborn at home (not to mention potential health issues, recovery from childbirth, and other kinds of fun).

Universities need to stop allowing different departments to regulate their own minimums for parental leave and family support, hoping department heads will remember to throw in the occasional stopped clock or semester off from teaching for new parents (oh, the horror stories I have heard), and set a progressive standard. This will have a positive effect not only on faculty with families, but those without: the more support parents have, the less the burden of academic service will get put on those without children.

(The title of this post brought to you by what seemed at the time like a breathlessly funny Twitter conversation between me, Ed Yong, Scicurious, Martin Robbins, and others. Martin was kind enough to provide us Yanks with the proper pronunciation of arse, which turns out to sound nothing like what a pirate would say.)

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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