“You’re crazy if you have a baby before you get tenure.”
We both heard this refrain throughout our training as academic clinical psychologists. In college and graduate school, many of the female professors we knew didn’t have children. This sent us the implicit message that not having kids might be part of the recipe for success.
Prominent women scientists throughout history were often criticized for having children. A writer once said of Nobel Prize–winning physicist and mother of two Marie Curie, “The woman who works is usually obliged to abandon, to neglect her household, her children.”
Yet being a professor does have advantages for those who become parents. We often can set our own hours, work from home and have generous vacation time. Many academic institutions offer the promise of reduced or free college tuition for children of faculty members—referred to by some colleagues as “‘golden handcuffs.”
But when it comes to policies specific to having children and families, many colleges and universities in the U.S. fall short. This has a significant impact on our workforce, considering that of the 1.5 million university faculty members in the U.S., 49 percent are women.
Women faculty in STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) like ourselves are at a particular disadvantage after having children. Forty-two percent of women scientists leave their full-time jobs or drop out of the workforce altogether after the birth or adoption of their first child. This compares to 23 percent of men. This is a problem, as gender diversity in academia improves science.
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family leave, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers recently unveiled proposals attempting to address this issue. In light of academia’s progressive reputation, you might assume that colleges and universities all provide paid family leave, but that’s not the case.
Only 23 percent of U.S. colleges and universities provide paid family leave. For places that provide family leave, the policies are highly variable, not always clearly defined, and often unpaid through the Family Medical Leave Act.
Discussions around parental leave in higher education often focus on whether or not institutions have leave, and for how long. But what hasn’t been part of the conversation is that leave policies may differ among faculty with different status.
At our university, tenured and tenure-track faculty can receive 10 weeks of paid leave for childbearing or adoption, and another 10 weeks of paid leave for child-rearing. In contrast, non–tenure-eligible research faculty are eligible for six weeks of childbearing or adoption leave. Only after they have worked full-time for three years do they earn an additional four weeks of paid childrearing leave.
This 10-week discrepancy between tracks creates significant financial inequities for individuals with similar levels of education who do similar work. In the Chicago area, for instance, 10 weeks of full-time daycare for an infant costs $5,000 or more. As non–tenure-eligible faculty can earn $10,000–20,000 less per year than tenure-eligible assistant professors, spending several thousand extra dollars a year on childcare widens this income disparity.
One of us started out in a non–tenure-eligible position, became pregnant while applying for a tenure-eligible position, and realized that this new job title came with the perk of another 14 weeks of paid leave. After taking the tenure-eligible position, the work responsibilities remained largely the same, but there was suddenly a much larger safety net.
Of course, longevity and status are valued regardless of where you work. But that doesn’t negate the fact that American workers with less power and job security have far more to lose when having children than those with more power and job security. In academia, these lower-status workers are often women.
During 1993–2013, the proportion of women in faculty positions increased by 109 percent, suggesting significant advances toward gender equity in academia.
But a closer look at the data reveals women are far more likely to be employed in part-time or non–tenure-eligible positions than in tenure-track positions. The study showed a 144 percent increase of women in part-time positions, compared to an 89 percent increase among men. There was a staggering 122 percent increase of women faculty in full-time, non–tenure-eligible positions, compared to a 55 percent increase among men. A 31 percent increase in female tenure-track faculty was during this period.
This spring, many faculty will find out from their institutions if they’ve been granted tenure. Tenure offers stability, the promise of a permanent job. But academia is increasingly becoming a gig economy where the people in the permanent jobs are men, and those hustling for gigs are women.
Add in the complication of motherhood and the gap widens.
More than 70 percent of U.S. faculty are in non–tenure-eligible contract positions, going by the names of visiting faculty, research faculty, lecturer or instructor. These positions, which last up to three years, are becoming increasingly common as tenure-eligible positions become more scarce, and are often ineligible for the benefits of tenure-eligible positions.
Certainly, contract faculty positions allow for more flexibility, but they also have been criticized for being exploitative and making the academic workforce more unstable. This can have a disproportionate impact on single parents and those without a financial or social safety net.
Even when entitled to paid leave, a faculty member may have reasons not to take it.
For early career faculty, the prospect of taking an extended leave of absence when you feel you still have so much to prove feels daunting. Female faculty with children experience a drastic “baby penalty” as they are 27 percent less likely to earn tenure and 21 percent less likely to have their work funded by federal grants than are male faculty with children. Even when the grants are funded, they are $41,000 smaller compared to men; that translates to one fewer person on a research team.
Taking time off to have children can lead other faculty to perceive you as unproductive or even to withhold work that you are perfectly capable of handling. We’ve both been the recipients of benevolently sexist statements like, “You’re taking on too much; you have a baby at home now! Why don’t I do that for you?”
Both of us had our babies during our first year as assistant professors. We felt chronically guilty, behind, and compelled to make up for time “missed” while on leave.
A new book, Making Motherhood Work, by Washington University Assistant Professor Caitlyn Collins, suggests that working mothers in the U.S. are “drowning in stress” because of incompatible societal expectations of what a devoted worker and a devoted mother look like. This stress may prompt women faculty to leave academia earlier in their careers, called the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon.
To ease the evaluative burden on new parents, gender-neutral tenure clock extensions typically grant faculty who have children before tenure an extra year before being evaluated for tenure. Although well-intentioned, these policies systematically advantage male faculty, who were 19 percent more likely to get tenure under the policy, while women were 22 percent less likely. This may be because women with male partners are more likely to take on the majority of child-rearing duties during this time, while men use the extra time to increase their academic output.
For academics in purely research or basic science positions, the productivity expectations can be opaque. Because of this lack of clarity, some new parents we have talked to feel they shouldn’t take their fully allotted leave times, nor should they request raises or promotions for some time after taking parental leave because of that year they were “unproductive”.
Certainly, lack of paid parental leave and other inequitable policies are not confined to academia, and they do not just affect female faculty. These problems persist across the board within the U.S., which consistently performs poorly on metrics of women’s health.
But parenthood should not derail your academic career. Whether or not you have a child does not make you a better or worse scientist. And yet policies on parenthood can make or break careers for women faculty.
To retain women faculty who become parents, universities must take action. Paid and equitable leave regardless of faculty track, clear expectations to help academic parents determine if they actually are “falling behind,” and reducing positions that rely on contract labor while increasing the amount of tenure-eligible positions at universities, are just a few examples—among many others.
It’s also important for women faculty with children not to shy away from talking about their experiences. We have made it a point to be open about how we’ve navigated academia while pregnant and parenting, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. One young female staff member who saw one of our offices remarked that it was “awesome” that our child’s artwork was on display. She later went to graduate school.
Imagine how many more women faculty and scientists there could be in the future if young girls have more examples that it’s possible, and if universities show faculty who are parents that they matter.