So I meant to have a nice post today addressing Ecogeofemme’s challenge of describing how we write papers/proposals, but I haven’t actually managed to do any writing today like I was supposed to.
Instead, I am going to point out the at times thoughtful, at times heated discussion going on around the blogosphere about whether academics with kids really have it harder than the rest of working adults. The discussion originated from an IHE piece about new studies that found that academics had lower birth rates than doctors or lawyers.
Part of the problem, I think, is the potentially infinite demands of the job…. And that makes negotiating family time difficult. When you’re trying to negotiate childcare responsibilities with your partner, and a significant chunk of the work time you’re trying to claim is ‘soft’ like that, it’s tough. …things like “reading in your field” and “preparing class lectures/discussions/exercises” and “writing” are potentially infinite. They’re never really done. So, depending on both internal and external pressures, it can be nearly impossible to leave work at work. That puts a real strain on homelife, especially when childcare is part of the equation. … Children are urgent and concrete. So if you combine tricky homelife with a nasty market with comparatively low salaries and potentially infinite demands, it’s not surprising that intelligent people tend to hedge their bets.
As of this writing, there are 38 comments on the post. Apparently people feel strongly about these issues. Go figure. The gist of the comments seem to revolve around three issues: What are the potential flaws with the studies? (yes we are nerds.) Are children any different than any other lifestyle choice? Why are academics any different than high school teachers, long distance truckers, or other jobs with low pay, long hours, and higher birthrates?
Here’s a few other blogospheric reactions I’ve seen.
- Academic Life versus Personal Life by Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time (29 comments too)
- In the news.. by Mommy Prof.
Any others I’ve missed?
As for me, I’ll try to keep my thoughts brief. First, I’m going to limit myself to women academics versus women doctors and lawyers. That means that anyone who contends that kids are just another lifestyle choice are just going to be referred to this paragraph by Dean Dad:
I have very little patience with those who suggest that children are just another lifestyle choice, like kayaking or blogging. They’re a choice, yes, but of a fundamentally different kind. We have ethical obligations to children that we don’t have to kayaks or blogs. To suggest that childcare is worthy of no more respect than, say, a model airplane club strikes me as monstrous. If a model airplane takes up too much time, you can store it or sell it. If your daughter takes up too much of your time, you can…what, exactly? Especially on a young academic’s salary?
OK, back to the question of why women academics might have fewer children than doctors and lawyers? I think it comes down to one primary reason: there is a big, permanent penalty for taking time off or going to a part-time position for academics, that I don’t think is the same for doctors and lawyers. (Dear readers, obviously I am not an expert at matters MD or JD, so please correct me if I am wrong here.)
The penalty is the result of both practical and cultural reasons. If you aren’t keeping up with the literature in your field, you may get left behind in your scholarship. So that’s the practical reason. But as far as practical reasons go, this is kind of bullshit. If you couldn’t catch up on the literature you could never start a new research area either as a new graduate student or as a faculty member. And we all know that this happens all the time. So whether the literature has amassed because you haven’t been reading it since 1972 because you weren’t born in 1972, have switched topics, or because you dared to take a 1 year maternity leave, you can overcome the literature obstacle. So much for that one.
That leaves cultural reasons for penalizing women for taking time off or reducing their schedules to part-time. Although there is a move afoot for more universities to stop the tenure clock when women go on maternity leave, there are a lot of places that still don’t accommodate birth/adoption/etc. And there’s the insidious practice of review committees arguing that since she had no teaching responsibilities while on maternity leave, that she should have been *more* productive on research during that time. And even if you work at a place with an enlightened policy and an enlightened tenure committee, many funding agencies don’t recognize clock stoppages when grant reviewers look at your CV and publication record.
Finally, if you have a child when between positions or if you reduce yourself to part-time work when your children are young, it can be nigh impossible to get back to full-time, more secure work later on. The arguments about gaps in the research record, not being current on the literature, etc. all come into play, but I think that really those are a cover for the underlying reason. If you have children, and that reduces your research output one iota, you are considered less serious about your job than those without children.
Women in academia aren’t stupid. They’ve survived graduate school; they know what the academic environment is like; they’ve heard the horror stories. They know that their jobs take huge amounts of time and energy, and that so do children. Academia continues to be set up to force women into thinking they have to choose career or child. As far as I can tell, medicine has done a much better job of accommodating motherhood, with things like doctors being able to work part-time and not have to take as much work home. (I don’t know about law.) So, if you ask me, that’s why academics are having fewer children than our sisters in medicine and law.