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.

From there, Dean Dad wrote a post with his observations on why these trends might be observed. Here’s a very excerpted version. Go read the original post, for a much better analysis.

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.

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.


  1. #1 Mike the Mad Biologist
    May 29, 2008

    I’ll suggest something else that hasn’t been raised (although I could have missed it): doctors and lawyers make significantly more money than academics (on average), particularly in their late 20s and early to mid 30s. It’s not just the issue of affording flexible child care, but also all of the other ways than money can be used to ‘purchase time.’

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    May 29, 2008

    My career was in business, not academia, but this all sounds very familiar.

    I think there’s a tendency for people who feel under pressure to look at their own situation and see the negatives, while looking at the situation of others from afar and seeing the positives.

    For example, I’m sure you’re aware of the type of comments made in the business world about the incomparable academic duo of tenure and free summers.

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    May 29, 2008

    I wonder if academics, particulrly some fields, are aware of human population growth and the pressures which result. Perhaps this makes them think in terms of smaller families than a physician or lawyer might. It might also be that what an academic pictures as a well-raised child might be somewhat different, and might be seen as relatively more investment in the child than others might think.

    I’m male. But it does strike me that a female academic who wishes to have a tenure track productive career, would consider child-bearing very carefully.

  4. #4 former scientist
    May 29, 2008

    as someone who just finished grad school in the hard sciences and decided to leave for the business world, and is now working 70+ hr weeks, I don’t think I have it any less hard than if I had stayed in academia (and perhaps even a bit harder).

  5. #5 steppen wolf
    May 29, 2008

    I think we need data here, rather than anecdotes. Is the average woman in academia, working the average number of X hours (including service and teaching) finding it harder than the average woman doctor or lawyer, once we control for age, income, and hours of work?

    I am just throwing it out there, but things like “oh, it is much harder for me now” or “I think that the problem is…” do not really help. How about starting an anonymous survey here on ScienceBlogs, and run a little bit of stats?

  6. #6 anonchem
    May 29, 2008

    How about the fact that, as a chemist, I am not about to be pregnant and working in a synthesis lab. That means conception time + pregnancy time + maternity leave.

    Which is probably why I am now older with no kids… nonetheless, this idea that kids are a ‘lifestyle choice’ is ridiculous. Last time I checked, it was part of our fundamental destiny/reason as living beings to reproduce. Sure, humans might be more conscious, and we don’t ‘have’ to have kids etc etc. But saying that a fundamental part of who we are as living beings is a ‘lifestyle choice’ is dumbass. And it’s also a convenient way to malign women for something they don’t have a lot of control over. If I could make the man carry some living thing around in his abdomen for 9 months, you better believe I would do it.

  7. #7 ecogeofemme
    May 29, 2008

    I wonder if it’s also tied to money in a larger sense. Because funding is limited, there is so much competition for jobs that thre is no incentive to make concessions for academics who are parents, i.e. a university can always find someone to hire who is more “committed”. That perception of slight drop in productivity is meaningful because there are so many other great people with their mouths watering for the job.

    Obviously, I don’t think it’s correct just because it works that way. And good heavens, why do people always say it’s a choice to have kids? It’s a choice to not have kids, thankyouverymuch!

  8. #8 Dr. Free-Ride
    May 29, 2008
  9. #9 Carrie
    May 29, 2008

    Well, I’m a former academic who jumped ship for industry and has two kids. And one of my good friends is a partner (sorta like tenure) at a ‘high powered law firm’ with children the same age as mine. What struck both us as the most dramatic advantage she had over me was the generous maternity leave she got for both kids. Her firm paid for three months leave, and then she took an additional three months unpaid leave. The firm’s attitude is: we invest a lot in your training as a Jr. Lawyer, and we want you to stick around for the long haul. A 6 month leave in a 20 year career is a tiny blip.

    And I don’t think that could happen in the current academic (or engineering industry) environment. Yes, we are a highly trained workforce that should be valued for our long-term contributions. But so much is based upon what you did yesterday, and if yesterday was interrupted by leave, then it has dire implications for tomorrow.

    That’s my take on the difference.

  10. #10 Sicilian
    May 29, 2008

    It seems to me the discussion should focus on benefits. I work with many MDs in training and staff docs. . . . If you are in the middle of your residency and pg. . . well it can be very difficult. . . They don’t take off much time at all because they miss too much of that valuable learning. . . Staff docs. . . they get what they have accumulated. . . if they haven’t been there very long they must have the time in their PTO bank to take it off. . .
    PTO is doled out both years of service so they are in about the same boat as you.
    Medical people have a job of high stress coupled with a lot of hours away from home.
    I think it is all about what you get from the employer for benefits more than the type of job you do.

  11. #11 Silver Fox
    May 29, 2008

    For sure children shouldn’t be considered in the same breath (or category) as kayaking or blogging — however, the latter two are not lifestyle choices, they are hobbies, interests, or activities — children are none of those things per se, although they should require a lot of interest (one hopes) and do require a lot of activity. Lifestyles have to do with the entire structure of one’s life. If one structures one’s life around kayaking or blogging, one either is getting paid to do so (then it’s work, a job, etc.) or one has a lot of free time or money – as in “retired.”

    IMOH, it is a lifestyle choice to structure one’s life around children, whether or not one actively chose to have children. Some would-be parents simply leave. If you haven’t left, you have chosen to be a parent in the full sense of the word (as opposed to having chosen to be an absentee parent, a deadbeat parent, or a non-parent).

  12. #12 IBY
    May 30, 2008

    Never heard of children being treated as lifestyle choices, which I find unethical. After all, they are living, breathing human beings. Not only that, they are adorable 🙂 I have always known that the academia wasn’t exactly a glamorous job, but still…

  13. #13 Neuro-conservative
    May 30, 2008

    I think that the comparison of tenure-track academics to MDs and JDs in general is a bit of apples-to-oranges. T-T is a very specific career path for people interested in the sciences and/or people with PhD’s. Using the entire category of MDs and JDs includes a variety of viable career paths, including part-time, public interest, etc. Similarly, a PhD could pursue her (or his) interests through part-time adjunct teaching, freelance science journalism, etc.

    A more apt comparison for T-T R1 faculty would be lawyers seeking partner at top-tier firms. These positions are typically 70+ hour/wk corporate treadmill lifestyles. Anecdotally, I have known quite a few women in these positions, and nearly all of them either have foregone children or have left their careers to become stay-at-home moms. A few have managed to find non-partner track positions that permit some degree of work/family balance.

  14. #14 Bryan Roberts
    May 30, 2008

    Great, thought-provoking post, Science Woman…

    My mom was cruising toward her advanced degree in speech pathology when she got pregnant with her first child. Married to a med school student of old school values, she gave it up and became a full-time mom. 19 years and 5 kids later, dad was suddenly gone. 1 Kid in college, 2 in high school, and 2 too young to pack their own lunch, she was pushed back into the workplace by reality with nothing but her 4-year degree to recommend her. She worked for a pittance at the local grade school and started over on her grad degree at night. Five years later and a few credits away from her degree, she got married again, to even older-school values… and thus died her revived pursuit toward professional independence. She’s a grandma now, and I wonder if she’ll one day pick up the torch again.

    Anyway! I shared that just to share this: I blogged about your incredible ISEF blogging over at Daily Kos, here.
    If you or any of your readers frequent the Kos, I’d love it if you/they were to check it out, recommend it, comment, &c.

  15. #15 JustaTech
    May 30, 2008

    This is the kind of question that makes me wonder about working in an academic situation as non-tenure-track staff. If I don’t want to teach, and I am willing to be subject to the changeability of the job market and I want children, would I be better off in industry/semi-academia? And if this is what I want, do I need a PhD, or am I better off just working?

  16. #16 Lab Lemming
    May 31, 2008

    “Similarly, a PhD could pursue her (or his) interests through part-time adjunct teaching, freelance science journalism, etc.”

    The difference between this “career” track and a law/medical part time track is that lawyers and doctors can still earn a middle class wage working half time. Earning $18,000 a year adjuncting isn’t great for keeping the kids fed.

  17. #17 Addy N.
    May 31, 2008

    Another link for you!

  18. #18 Lora
    May 31, 2008

    I think this is a lot more complex than it seems, and I don’t think you are going to find only a few, or even a small handful of reasons, why having kids is hard if you’re an academic scientist. I don’t think stopping the tenure clock is the answer, though. The obvious point being, this is not equality and your other option is not necessarily quitting–your third option (options 1 and 2 being Career or Stay At Home, respectively) is, make your spouse pull his/her weight at childcare and make your lab safe for everyone to work in. You think that nobody who isn’t pregnant gives a hoot about chemical exposures? I got news for you, we care a lot. So does the university’s insurance agent. They don’t want to see sick students filing lawsuits or the (your name here) Memorial Crater, either.

    Why do women never see this as an option? Is it like Linda Hirshman says, we don’t generally have the economic power to demand true equality in our relationships–because most women try to “marry up”? That I can believe. I mean, if you’re a 30something postdoc making a pittance, and your spouse is in his/her prime earning years paying the lion’s share of bills, and baby is projectile-barfing and Spouse has to make the Very Important Meeting with the firm’s biggest client today, YOU can always re-schedule the experiment for next week while you mop up semi-digested milk.

    And the same economic point that Lab Lemming mentioned, if you haven’t got the financial resources of a doctor or a lawyer, then you’re not going to decide, “Aww, it’s OK, I can be pregnant and raise a kid on Ramen and box mac-n-cheese in a ghetto apartment. It’ll be OK.” In other high-powered, demanding careers, people are paid enough to hire nannies or au pairs and delegate the actual diaper-changing to a low-status woman. And again, making the spouse do a fair share is simply not regarded as an option. Is it really because most of the time, the spouse of a high-powered career woman is a high-powered career man himself–and she still doesn’t feel able to say, “Honey, it’s YOUR turn to run Junior to the pediatrician.”

    Similarly, look at relationship power dynamics: If my spouse does his occasional “don’t wanna do housework” routine, we can have a Housework War to see who can ignore the dirty dishes the longest. But when you have a baby, and one spouse is realistically only half-arsed about it, if SOMEONE doesn’t pick up Junior from day care RIGHT NOW, you’ll go to jail. You can’t wait it out or “I thought YOU were gonna do that” or take an hour to re-negotiate whose turn it is. You have to mind the baby if the spouse isn’t diligent (through deliberate neglect or mere stupidity); you’re in an automatic position of powerlessness. In that position, both the economic position and the position of being more passionate about wanting children, I think women don’t feel able to make real demands on their partners.

  19. #19 Anna
    June 1, 2008

    I beg to differ on some of your assumptions of men not sharing in child care. I’m sorry that your experience with professional couples-families has exposed you to the type of power struggles you describe in your comment, I have seen some of this and “the second shift” phenomenon – but I’ve also seen women in couples with very involved dads struggle to maintain balance. I think the younger generation fathers are beginning to feel this as well, but there are a few specifics to women that I feel the need to describe from my perspective as a t-t asst. prof in a STEM field with a one year old.

    My husband is more than pulling his weight (as in he is a stay at home dad), and many of my male academic science colleagues are also involved dads. However, no one could have prepared me for the indisputable facts of biology in terms of pregnancy, giving birth, and breastfeeding. Not everyone has an easy time conceiving or carrying to term – bed rest can be required for months (and these risks go up as we delay childbearing). Maternity leave is not just for getting to know your baby – it is for physical recovery. My husband does not make milk, and my baby does not tolerate formula (this is not uncommon). To keep up a milk supply, women must breastfeed or pump 8-12 times per 24 hour period in the beginning, and maintain that at 6-8 times per day without seeing a dip in production. I ask, is it fair to NOT allow for a pause in the tenure clock give these biological realities? Society certainly romanticizes the birthing process too much and we don’t have enough exposure to childbearing and rearing within our nuclear family structure for young women to always know what that year and a half of pregnancy and newborn care will require. I think we need to go beyond taking these issues to a purely intellectual and abstract level to acknowledge the physicality of motherhood.

  20. #20 nycreb
    June 2, 2008

    As a JD/PhD at a large law firm, I have to say I agree w/ Neuroconservative that “A more apt comparison for T-T R1 faculty would be lawyers seeking partner at top-tier firms. These positions are typically 70+ hour/wk corporate treadmill lifestyles.” There are very few women with children at the top. The penalties are the same like TT for taking time off, the advantages are the greater amount of money and benefits in the legal world. Also, in my experience, law firms know the law on discrimination, so the sexism is (for better or for worse) more subtle. Only in an academic lab, for example, have I seen sexual pin-up posters…

  21. #21 Helen
    June 2, 2008

    “I have very little patience with those who suggest that children are just another lifestyle choice, like kayaking or blogging.”

    It’s really distressing to see that divisive strawman repeated here. (I don’t expect any better of Dean Dad on certain topics, though on others he’s excellent.)

    Comparing childrearing to casual hobbies as a serious argument is almost never done by people who have chosen to remain without children. That comparison almost invariably comes from parents. For some reason parents seem to like to use that strawman A LOT lately.

    I’ve seen it used here in the comments more than once — parents equating whatever nonparents do with their non-paid time to “video games” or the like, their contempt coming through loud and clear for teaching underprivileged children or feeding the hungry or building a library in a town that has never had one or sandbagging against rising floodwaters or staffing a suicide hotline or keeping an aging relative alive in some sort of dignity, since if it’s not raising one’s own offspring, it cannot be of value nor can it be real commitment nor can it be anything other than trivial and contemptible.

    Please stop it. Everyone will benefit when we manage to make the workplace in all fields suitable to adults with a full set of responsibilities. Divisive strawmen just slow that day coming.

  22. #22 neurowoman
    June 3, 2008

    How about the fact that scientist academics (TT R1 faculty) can’t take time off because they are essentially running small businesses (labs), with employees (students, techs, postdocs)? The problem is not keeping up with the literature; and gaps in publication or stopping the tenure clock can be managed with policy, but you can’t just close up the lab for 6 months while on maternity leave. Doctors and lawyers generally work in group practices and pass on patients or clients to partners, and can take off for months to years, then join another practice or firm, or work as a solitary practitioner.

  23. #23 coconino
    June 3, 2008

    If I were childless, I would strongly consider getting my Ph.D. As it is, I will be lucky if I can actually work full-time (can’t afford being a single mom without it) and finish my MS. I love my child and am perfectly glad to give up on a Ph.D. for her to be in my life. I just wish it didn’t have to be a choice, i.e., either one or the other, for anyone else in a similar predicament.

  24. #24 botanist
    June 10, 2008

    In an academic career you often have to move abroad for a postdoc or more final positions. This is very exhausting in the long run, so doing this several times being pregnant or with your baby, school children … is rather off putting. Lawyers and doctors may stay in the same country.

  25. #25 ck
    June 11, 2008

    Just one note on your original distinction between “academics” and “doctors” — don’t forget that there are all kinds of doctors. For many who have chosen not to go into private practice, but into clinical research or similar fields, they may have very similar concerns as do other academics.

    Yes, they will probably make more, but there is still a disparity between a clinical researcher and a private practice doc. This is further complicated by gender inequalities.

    So…this doesn’t mean the question is invalid, but it should be rephrased to distinguish between private practice and academics…and perhaps we could be looking more closely at the differences between those two groups within a single broadly defined field. (I.e., how do private practice docs and academic docs manage differently?)

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