Women in Academia

An article entitled Is Having More Than 2 Children an Unspoken Taboo? the other day in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye and I eagerly clicked on it as I thought “FINALLY, someones talking about this!”  In the academic world, it takes about 30 seconds to look around you and realize that, although toted for the “family friendly” environment, there’s really not that much of it going on.And for sure what women professors there are don’t have more than 3 kids.    Maybe its just my school.  I mean, my adviser was our department’s first female hire and since then there has been one more (with another starting this fall), and so far there are no kids.

In fact, at a “women in academia” luncheon sponsored by an aforementioned female professor, I brought up the issue of balancing having kids (*Note: not just having a family, but I meant the literal act of having the time to have a baby. We’re talking baby steps here!) and being a professor and I was met with basically silence.  This could have been due to a lack of personal experience by those particular people but that’s a typical response.  Either that or “Oh, it’s possible,” which is almost equally unhelpful.  And I guess I’m talking here about having kids in general, let about having more than two….

Maybe that’s why when my advisor asked me last spring if I could attend a conference for her this fall because she was DUE with her secret little bun in the oven, I was so excited.  Not just for the amazing opportunity to go to China again, but almost more so to have an actual, live example for me to personally interact with and see how one can “make it work.”  It’s like my own little science experiment!

Anyway, back to the article.  It features snippets from Dr. Rebecca R. Richards-Kortum, who is actually a female professor that I was fortuante to meet and talk with a few months ago.  I’d heard rumors that she had 4 kids and sure enough, when I looked up her profile online, not only does she have four children but she’s also in the National Academy of Engineering, which is pretty much the highest honor your can recieve in engineering.  Wow.  I shamelessly went to her talk pretty much just to snag her afterwards and talk about this.  I had to wait a while but it was worth it!  She seemed eager to share her experiences and give more details, but it was also just refreshing to actually meet someone who has similar goals aligned with me.  Sometimes its hard to envision the outcome when you can’t see it anywhere.  Never underestimate the power of a role model.

And for what its worth, I doubt many career mommies have large families, but I think the challenges of academia are particularly unique.  For those of you who don’t know, the average PhD. takes 4-5 years, plus a 1-2 year post-doc, and once landing a tenure track job (i.e., a professor job that, if you work hard enough, will become a guaranteed job for the rest of your working career) there is about 5-7 years more until you actually reach tenure.  Then you can relax.  An added stress for women is that from a biological standpoint, your prime baby-making years fall directly in the time that you need to be doing the most work and being the most productive.

I liked how this article went into the thought as to why there aren’t large families and why academics may stigmatize people that do.  It also didn’t paint a perfectly, rosy picture of what life would be like, and just told it like it is, which I value.  Some highlights:

“Women with many children are seen by their peers and supervisors as less than serious about their work in a profession that often expects nothing short of complete devotion.”

“In academia, the mind/body split is operative,” says Nicole Cooley, an associate professor of English at the City University of New York’s Queens College and a contributor to Mama Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). “Academia’s grounding in the clerical tradition means that a lot of your identity is your intellectual work, and you don’t sully yourself with domestic arrangements and bodily things.”

“Elisabeth R. Gruner, an associate professor of English at Richmond who contributed an essay to Mama Ph.D., says: “There is a distaste that you’d want to spend a lot of time with little kids — an idea that you may not be very smart.””

I just picked out the ones that made me think :)
At the end of the article they give some pointers:

  • Hire people to help you, particularly a good nanny who will (you hope) stay with you for a long time. “It took us awhile to figure out the difference between hiring people only when it was a crisis and hiring people just so we could have a reasonable life. That really isn’t a luxury.”
  • — Julie Pfeiffer, chairman of the English department at Hollins U., and mother of three

  • Be prepared for teenage children to occasionally need more of your personal attention than they did when they were babies. “You find out at day care about everything that happened to your baby that day: She didn’t drink all her bottle or her poop was a weird color. But nobody is telling you about your teenagers, that they got a 74 on their English midterm.”
  • — Rebecca R. Richards-Kortum, professor of bioengineering at Rice U., and mother of four

  • Establish a finely tuned on/off switch, turning off work when you’re home and vice versa. “You have to be able to turn the switch so you can focus on where you’re at.”
  • — Maryellen L. Giger, professor of radiology at the U. of Chicago, and mother of four

  • Live near your university. It means you are closer to your children when they are at home, and it shortens your commute. “We live two blocks off campus, and I’ve been biking to work for 14 years. My commute time is my exercise time.”
  • — Pamela C. Cosman, professor of electrical engineering at the U. of California at San Diego, and mother of four

  • Don’t stress over the details when it comes to how clean your house is or what the family is eating. “Macaroni and cheese and hot dogs is a perfectly fine dinner.”
  • — Ms. Richards-Kortum

  • Expect help from the people around you — your partner, your children, and your students — so that you don’t end up doing all the work yourself. “My children need to be self-sufficient. I’m not going to be asking, Did you do this, and did you do that? In my kitchen is a giant whiteboard calendar with activities for every day of the week, and every person’s stuff is color-coded.”
  • — April Hill, associate professor of biology at the U. of Richmond, and mother of three

  • Consider grading your assignments in bed, after the kids have gone to sleep. “It felt less like work.” — Ms. Pfeiffer
  • Be prepared to have little time to relax or to pursue interests outside your work or family — for a long time. “I don’t go to bars, we don’t entertain, we don’t go to the movies or the theater.”
  • — Emily R. Grosholz, professor of philosophy, African-American studies, and English at Pennsylvania State U.’s main campus, and mother of four

Eeshh!  That last one looks particularly enjoyable.   I also enjoyed reading the comments section on the other, particularly “Impatient”!

I guess at least knowing full well what I’m (possibly) getting into is the best preparation.  It’s better to find out now and know full well what it takes then to find out years later…

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4 thoughts on “Women in Academia

  1. Great post! Isn’t it interesting how the world outside academia thinks being a professor must be the most easy and family friendly job? I know my dad pushes/ed for me to become a professor in part for that specific reason. I think it’s also interesting that people think 3 children is just soo many.

    My dept just finished a job search this spring. When the grad students got together to discuss the candidates, one of the second-years pointed out that one of the candidates had a child, and she questioned that woman’s ability/dedication because of this. This grad student was also a woman!! I was horrified, and we promptly scolded her. Of course it’s illegal to take this into consideration, but it made me wonder how this actually works out. I asked my adviser (dept chair) if any faculty members made comments like this, and she admitted that one did.

    So I asked her what was better if I wanted to start a family and be on the job hunt: to already have a baby (and have that held against you), to be pregnant (whoa boy, that would be something), or to be single and married (and therefore have them suspicious that you’ll start having babies as soon as they hire you). She said there’s never a good time to have a baby. So don’t wait for the perfect time and just do it whenever you want (more of that compartmentalized mentality).

    On a side note, did you know that Richards-Kortum’s husband also works at Rice, in the psych dept? He just so happens to be on my committee! Their kids are really cute :)

    • Elizabeth, wow that’s crazy about the interview…makes me a little sad but I have no doubt that’s what people say. And as far as her husband goes, so THAT’s what department he’s in!! I thought I had heard from Mike that he got a job at Rice as well, but I didn’t know for sure! And I’m sure they’re kids are super cute. I went to her office once and it was papered with little kid drawings and stuff. Adorable. I’d like to think that’s what kind of professor I would be, if it came to that!

  2. I know quite a few moms who work, but most of them aren’t in academia. I can tell you that it is really hard to find a balance. Some of my friends have said that they really enjoy their career and getting a break from being a mom, but there are a lot of days when they miss their kids and feel guilty letting someone else take care of them while they work.
    No matter what you do, being a mom is hard and complicated! Whatever you choose to do, you will make it work. And if it isn’t working, you just change it up until you find what works for you and your family. Good luck!
    I agree with above comment about there’s never a good time to have a baby. Just do it whenever you want because there’s also never a bad time to have a baby. hahaha. (i’m generalizing a bit). I can’t think of anything more important than being a mom and having a family.

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