A few thoughts on female academics and children.

Since I read it last Friday I have been meaning to say something about this article in Inside Higher Ed about why female academic appear to have lower birthrates than male academics and than female professionals in other fields. Of course, between work and family obligations (and grinding fatigue) it's taken me until now to get to it.

Is this a clue of some sort?

Luckily, Sciencewoman has written a thoughtful and detailed rumination, and she links to Dr. Crazy's, Mommy Prof's, and Dean Dad's fine discussions, too, so I can keep it brief.

From the outside, academia looks like a perfect workplace to combine with parenting. It's possible to schedule your teaching within only a couple days of the week (or at night), and the number of classroom hours in even the heaviest teaching load is far less than 40 per week. But, as others have noted, there are many more hours that go into teach than the face-time with the students (even if you include office hours) -- there's the prep time, the grading, the adjustment of your pedagogical plan in response to what you discovered while evaluating student work, the answering of frantic student emails, the grading.

And then there's the research, which could easily eat all your time if only it could catch teaching unawares and club it to death.

So, there's a lot of flexibility about when you tackle the various parts of your job as an academic. But, as we used to joke in grad school, this amounts to having the freedom to choose which 20 hours a day you want to work.

Kids really restrict that freedom.

Last week, for the first time maybe in years, I was able to attend a departmental symposium/workshop. It happened to be scheduled for two o'clock, rather than the customary time of 4:30. The customary time doesn't work so well when you have to start driving at 4:00 to fetch the kids from the after school program and get them to a soccer practice. Eventually, when my kids are sullen teenagers, I may get to attend symposia on a regular basis. Maybe when they're not speaking to me for days at a time, I won't have to stay up late or get up early to find time to keep up with the literature. When they can drive themselves take the bus to after school activities, I may have an easier shot at finding big block of time in which to get manuscripts written.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not at all bitter. I love being an academic, and I love being a parent. But I'm very, very tired.

I'm glad that I wasn't fooled by the apparent flexibility of the academic's schedule. Otherwise, I might well be bitter. I'm glad my better half had a clear understanding from the outset of what kinds of demands and pressures my ivory tower job was likely to dish out. The amount of slack my better half picked up on the homefront (not to mention the constant emotional support he provided) made it possible for me to do what needed to be done to get tenure.

For the record, having kids in play -- indeed, kids old enough to be established in school and attached to their community -- makes the prospect of not getting tenure much more terrifying. Because if you don't get tenure, you don't get to stick around -- you generally get one more year, and then you have to find yourself something else. And, in fields like philosophy which are not bursting with jobs in every geographical location, this means getting very lucky and finding something else in your current locale (where in all likelihood you have to start the slow climb to tenure all over again), or uprooting the family to move to a job in another geographical area (where in all likelihood you have to start the slow climb to tenure all over again), or leaving your field and figuring out whether you have any other marketable skills with which to help keep the family housed and clothed and fed.

No pressure.

My mom told me a story about going to her 20th college reunion some years ago. She was struck by how many of her classmates seemed only to be able to have two out of three at a time of career, marriage, and kids. The women with solid marriages and careers had opted out of having kids. The women with careers and kids seemed not to have been able to make marriages work. And the women with kids and happy marriages could maybe squeeze in a job, but nothing they described as a career.

The exception, Mom said, was the women who had become doctors. These were the college classmates who seemed able to manage marriage, career, and kids (and who seemed happy doing it). What made them different? They knew from the start that they would have to juggle.

Juggling is not always easy, but if you know that's what you're in for, it's not impossible, either. Plenty of rational people -- including female academics -- take a pass on juggling.

I don't know if that makes me irrational, or simply less risk averse than I used to be when I was younger.

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Juggling with nice scarves, or juggling with knives and flaming torches?
The former I can think about dealing with, it's the 'what-ifs' of family/marriage/career that would keep me up at night (if I weren't so tired from the 20 hours in the lab).
A single child who is tempermentally inclined toward spending lots of time reading? A scarf. Many children, or a special-needs child with servere medical issues? Knives!
A great better half who can pick up the slack? Definitely a scarf. A better half who has a breakdown from the stress of his own academic failings? A torch.
A publish-or-perish academic environment that nonetheless allows me to interact with intelligent facinating people doing cool science every day? A scarf. Academic infighting, politics, sexism, getting scooped, tenure-denial? Knives *and* torches.

Happy academics are all the same. A lot of little things have to just work.
Of course, everything *might* just work for me. Then I only have to deal with my own feelings of failure for not juggling while riding a unicycle.

*cue circus music*

As an aside, this quote is one of the reasons I love your blog-
"And then there's the research, which could easily eat all your time if only it could catch teaching unawares and club it to death."
Your writing is sometimes so delightfully vivid!

Thanks for this post. I really appreciate all the female prof bloggers out there who let me know what I'm getting in to. I've always heard that in life, you can't have a good job, a good relationship, and a good car at the same time. Perhaps in science it's a good job, a good marriage, or kids. You pick two.

Your point about losing the flexibility when you have children is a very good one. ScienceMama had a great post about the same topic a few weeks ago.

And Becca, your comment is an incredible metaphor.

I'm interested in the implications for natural selection. The ambitious and brainy among us are having fewer children. What's THAT doing to the global gene pool? Onward, eugenics!

I feel your exhaustion (as a female academic with two children and an academic spouse)... and it doesn't get easier as your kids get older either- as I once thought it would... in fact, I think it gets more difficult as they let you know they need a guide for life, and not just someone who takes care of their daily... hourly,... or immediate needs.

I linked to your post.

I look forward to your posts on this topic.

The saying in academic medicine often goes, "Between working in the clinic, running a research lab and a family, choose two." It is the warning that MD/PhD students hear echoed over and again. Since marrying another MD/PhD, we're hoping to cover each of those three - between the two of us! She in the lab, me with a flexible medical practice and both at home a little more than if both had clinical and research jobs.

I for one, am looking forward to the flexible partner role.

As I was told once..."I will earn money and take care of the kids, while you save the world".

And that's assuming that I will ever be in a position to have a research job with some possible tangible impact within my lifetime.

Tough chance, but I will take the risk :)

I agree that the topic is important. The discussion seems to be anecdotal, rather than scholarly, quantitative, or legitimately statistical.

If anecdote is all that matters, I must praise my wife, professor Christine M. Carmichael. She became a professor, switched from a college to a university, did considerable published research, won plaudits as a teacher, and all while raising a son who began college at age thirteen. Was this hard? Yes. Is it possible? Yes. Is it recommended? Your mileage may vary.

On the other hand, my wife had already completed her Ph.D. and Postdoc before we were married, let alone had our child.

How do we shift the discussion from anecdote to statistic? Has anyone done this yet? Ideally, then statistic could be put toward prescription.

And do we want to discuss the undeniable fact that "this is just anecdotal, not statistical" is a rhetorical device constantly exploited by the privileged to maintain their privilege?

Agreed with PhysioProf and, to raise him, I have my own anecdote to the converse of previous commenters: it is Saturday evening, I am reviewing grants and PharmGirl is working on papers and job issues. PharmKid *must* be with PharmGirl but I have encouraged her to come to another area of the house with me to give Mom a few moments of peace and opportunity for concentration.

With over 30 minutes of demanding for her mother's attention despite my offers to snuggle her, feed her, watch a movie with her, play with her, hike with her, etc., and no progress on my own grant reviewing, I am reminded that there are some things that only mothers can offer no matter how well-intentioned the father might be. Statistics-demanding men can rant all they want but they are happily invited to my house to experience the challenges faced by women in science and medicine who even have supportive partners.

There is some sort of magic that mothers offer that we Y-chromosomes cannot - this is real and there is no denying the biology and evolution that have led us here.

Academic women with children have an incredible challenge...and my eternal respect and gratitude.

Dear PhysioProf,

If I'm "privileged" then why I am I a substitute teacher of Math and Science at failing urban public schools?

And your alleged "undeniable fact" -- what is your evidence? Just anecdotal?

Abel: My experience is, sometimes, the kids just want/need one particular parent, not just one of the two. Sometimes, that's my wife; other times, it's me. Often, it's the one of us who hasn't been with them all day, which is usually me.

Physioprof: I'll admit, I don't get your point. It's probably all that male white heterosexual privilege weighing down my neurons, but it sure looks to me like there's a meaningful difference between self-selected posters providing selected anecdotes, and statistics on (say) how pregnant grad students or assistant profs do with graduating/getting tenure. That doesn't mean anecdotes are valueless, it means that before you took any large scale action to make things better (or even decided such action was needed), you'd want better information than you can get from anecdotes.

By albatross (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

I agree with albatross, and was not trying to be rude to Physioprof.

We all have anecdotal evidence that there is pervasive sexism, ageism, and racism in contemporary society. But to change public policy in a constructive and efficient way takes more than outrage and good intentions. It takes a rational basis to members of government, whether it be university government, school boards and local governments, state government, or federal government. Usually there is a standard of proof that requires quantitative data.

As Philosopher of History Samuel P. Huntington writes in his first sentence:

"The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government. The differences between democracy and dictatorship are less than the differences between those countries whose politics embodies consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, stability, and those countries whose politics is deficient in those qualities."

[Political Order in Changing Societies (The Henry L. Stimson Lectures Series) (Paperback), by Samuel P. Huntington, 488 pages, Yale University Press, 1970]

This remarkable and underappreciated book is Hobbesian in outlook and Hegelian in method. That the book is Hobbesian in outlook is indicated by the justly famous opening sentence, and confirmed by Huntington's elaboration of that statement:

"The function of government is to govern. A weak government, a government which lacks authority, fails to perform its function and is immoral in the same sense in which a corrupt judge, a cowardly soldier, or an IGNORANT TEACHER is immoral"
(p. 28, emphasis by Jonathan Vos Post).

Samuel P. Huntington, better known today (and linked to Francis Fukuyama who wrote a new foreword for the 2006 edition) for his theory of the "Clash of Civilizations" goes on to quote Walter Lippman:

"I do know that there is no greater necessity for men who live in communities than that they be governed, self-governed if possible, well-governed if they are fortunate, but in any event, governed."

[Walter Lippman, New York Herald Tribune, 10 Dec 1963, p.24, quoted in Huntington, Op. Cit., p. 2]

@ Jonathan Vos Post-
On the one hand, you seem to be genuinely interested in this discourse, and seem to have some fine ideals about spreading information facilitate educated democratic decision making
On the other hand, I have seen such compelling data on problems facing women in science, that I find myself reacting extrodinarily negatively to your skepticism regarding it. To be blunt, have you even looked at what data (quantitative as well as qualitative) are available?

If you ask politely, with the aim of a better understanding the situation, you deserve to be referred to statistics, not derided for any ignorance that may result from you being in a position of privilege.
That said, there are standards of discourse in the arena of scholarly treatment of topics relating to social justice (note that this often includes the statistical treatment you so crave *as well as* the 'inferior' anedoctal data). One of these standards of discourse involves a specific definition of "privilege". It appears that the defintion you are familiar with (perhaps the broader definition from the general vernacular) has connotations such that you cannot see it rightly applying to you. I applaud your career choice- but it has little to do with whether you may be recieving subtle (or unsubtle!) benefits from your gender.

I applaud the politesse and rationality in the comment by Becca.

Yes, I have prejudices, regardless of how progressive and open-minded I think myself to be. It took me years to realize that my wife was smarter than I. It took us some time to see that our son was smarter than either of us. Hence it is plausible to me that women in academia can be under-valued by male colleagues, while less accomplished men are valorized.

Anecdotally, this is the case for two women I know who were denied tenure, sued, and won in court. One of these is still shunned by the "old boy network." Her office is in a different building from the rest of the department. She seems not to be invited to their parties. She won, but she lost.

I admit that I recieved both subtle (and unsubtle!) benefits from my gender. I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City when it was an all-male school. Just after I left, a lawsuit forced it to be co-ed.

I earned my first two degrees at Caltech, which was all-male when I enetered (1968) and became co-ed during my matriculation.

I have followed the careers of some of Caltech's first 30 women with interest and admiration. Caltech's entering cohort is now 40% female. But the professorship is still predominantly male. It takes a generation or more to overturn a paradigm.

I have seen some statistics applicable to this gender privilege issue, such as after the Harvard Presidentiual gaffe, and the MIT sexism study. I think it is a real issue, still to be solved. But I agree with Becca -- standard of proof is germane.

With over 30 minutes of demanding for her mother's attention despite my offers to snuggle her, feed her, watch a movie with her, play with her, hike with her, etc., and no progress on my own grant reviewing, I am reminded that there are some things that only mothers can offer no matter how well-intentioned the father might be. Statistics-demanding men can rant all they want but they are happily invited to my house to experience the challenges faced by women in science and medicine who even have supportive partners.

Or mine. One of the greater frustrations of the father who is trying his best to co-equal is when the kids don't go for it! This should also give us good insight to the fact that the parental "pull" is not equal either, and it IS vastly easier for us men to detach when we feel we must to get that grant finished.

unlike JvP, I realized right away that the SmarterHalf was indeed smarter but of course it took a little development of our family and lives to understand that she is the SuperWomanz. Nursing baby while responding like demented wackaloon to reviewer comments at 10pm? check. CNS first author paper within weeks of returning from maternity leave? check. putting all of the nonworking parents of Eldest's classroom peers to shame with in-class work, field-tripping and the decoramated cupcakes? check. flabbergasting all the (again, unworking) neighborhood mothers with her indefatigable organizing of neighborhood fun? check. checkity, check, check, check.

EDFN 440
for: Dr. Stephanie Edwards
Spring Quarter 2008
by: Prof. Jonathan Vos Post
Take-home Final, short essay #2

"How did the standards surveyed address the need for 'self-reflection' compared in the literature on equity practices, as presented in the article "Where is Equity in National Standards? [A Critical Review of the INTASC, NCATE, and NBPTS Standards]" [Barbara Beyerbach and Thurman D. Nassoiy, in Annual Editions: Education, 08/09] and how will YOU address those standards in your own classroom?


I answer in five parts: (a) by reference to Socrates and Plato; (b) by reference to the introduction of the cited article; (c) by reference to the obvious part of the cited article [and including an excerpt with comments by Jonathan Vos Post in a blog by Professor Janet D. Stemwedel]; (d) with my general reflections on self-reflection and the "Reflective Practitioner"; and (e) conclusion. The obvious place to begin would be pp.146-147 "Absence of Focus on Self-Reflection with Respect to One's Own Social Position." But I'm not obvious. So I'll get back to that later, in part (c). Let us start chronologically.


"The unexamined life is not worth living."

According to in Plato [Dialogues], Socrates spoke these words to the jury in the court of Athens in the year 399 BCE (before the common era) after he had been found guilty of heresy and sedition. Heresy, a crime that threatened the established religion, and sedition, that
threatened the state.

Socrates refused lesser sentences, and instead considered what moral and intellectual virtues would be necessary in his students and their successors, i.e. in those young men and women seeking training in dialectics.

He suggests they include the following standards or predilections:
* intellectual eagerness,
* the ability to learn easily [Republic 348],
* good memories,
* determination,
* fondness for hard work,
* ready to go through an elaborate course of study,
* feels no indignation when its (his/her) own ignorance is shown,
* a free man (or woman) ought not to learn anything under duress [Republic 349],
* (able) to bring together the disconnected subjects they've studied [akin to Synthesis in Bloom's Taxonomy],
* take a comprehensive view of their (these subjects) relationship with each other and with the nature of reality,
* the ability to take the comprehensive view [Republic 350].

But does the stance of Socrates, the first teacher recorded to have voluntarily died for teaching the truth, apply to our discussion of equity practices? Absolutely!

"All I have said about men applies equally to women, if they have the requisite natural capacities."
Socrates, [Republic 354]

(b) Epistemological Introduction

The Introduction, pp.143, says: "... We need to take a critical look at the view of knowledge underlying the standards. Critical pedagogy [Giroux & McLaren, 1989; Wink, 2000] encourages teachers to look at
their practices and at schooling from a perspective that examines how social structures of race, class, and gender embed power relations that impact teaching and learning, priveleging some learners while
marginalizing and even denying opportunities to others. Equity-based
teaching practice aims at what Freire [1982] calls praxis -- becoming
critically conscious about those social issues and then taking social action to reduce the gap in student achievement that results from preferential treatment of some groups within the larger society [Bell,

As explicated in [Richard Gibson, The Promethean Literacy: Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of Reading, Praxis and Liberation, Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1994]:

"Reginald Connolly demonstrates another internal ambiguity. Freire 'believes that there is no neutrality in human praxis, and so education is either for domestication or for liberation. If it is for liberation, then the very methods and techniques in use for domestication must be inappropriate....Power is inseparable from
education. Those who hold power define what education will be, its methods, programmes and curriculum.' [Robert Mackie (1981) Literacy and Revolution, Continuum Publishing, New York, p 70]. But how shall
we recognize the resolution of the tension between the needs of those in power, the commonly doctrinaire visions of social change available to most people, and the unlimited stretches of developing critical

I suggest that critical consciousness, and thus praxis in the sense of Freire, is impossible without self-consciousness. Liberation is impossible without self-liberation. Education is impossible without self-education.

"Freire is the forefather of a vision of education and knowledge which radiates from suggestions he makes in his early articles published in English in 1970, "The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for
Freedom" and "Cultural Action and Conscientization", and which are
elaborated throughout his continuing work; that is, a profound, complex, and sometimes cryptic self-proclaimed dialectical view of the unity of the construction of knowledge and social change. His vision penetrates a surprising range of fields: social work, ethnography, anthropology, political science, prison reform, and social revolution.
There is convincing evidence that Freire influences not only educators like Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and Michael Apple but philosophers and practitioners like Stanley Aronowitz and Elaine Browne who reach well beyond his immediate field of adult education and literacy." [Op. Cit.]

Our course in EDFN 440 has been illuminated by the teachings and praxis of Paulo Freire, and by the pedagogy of others so enlightened.

Hence, I believe, Equity cannot be realized in the classroom, whether or not one adheres to National Standards, without self-assessment and self-reflection.


(c) "Absence of Focus on Self-Reflection with Respect to One's Own Social Position." pp.146-147

"Whereas most of the literature on equity practices emphasizes a need for preservice and practicing teachers to have many opportunities to understand their own attitudes and biases regarding race, social
class, and culture, most of these standards did not reflect this emphasis except for a general call to become reflective about one's practice.... This focus on a more in depth reflection on one's own cultural background is necessary for the development of critical pedagogy."

Let me agree, by giving some dialogue from a recent blog thread on ethics in science.

[I then inserted excerpts from this very blog thread]

(d) My general reflections on self-reflection and the "Reflective Practitioner."

"Practitioner" here, shall be limited to "teacher."

"Reflective" meaning introspective, assessing one's own performance.

Why should this approach be used?

First: if you don't know where you are, you cannot navigate to your destination, with or without standards.

Second: So long as we assess students, we would be hypocrites if we did not assess ourselves.

Third: by law, many school districts, cities, and states (i.e. New York State, where there is a very powerful teacher's union) may not use student performance to assess teachers.

What are two methods of obtaining self-assessment in the reflective

First: trained introspection, at the level of a nun's or monk's meditations, a novelist's autobiography, or a psychiatrist's self-therapy. Note that keeping a diary or other documentation is a
helpful technique.

Second: Properly designed assessment instruments, allowing the effect of verifying that one's lesson plans and classroom management plans are being achieved, in the context of one's own capabilities as interacting with the individual student, the group, the class, the social contract, the administration, and the wider community.

(e) Conclusion: "how will YOU address those standards in your own classroom?"

In my classroom, one of my mantras is the 5 big questions, to which my vision of self-relection adds tentative insights.

(1) What is the universe?

(2) What is a Human Being?

(3) What is the place of a human being in that universe?

Music swells as I close on this quotation, from "Hamlet":

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals...

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303ff

The sun shines in from the rose garden, on the faces of the students.
They are smiling. They have learned more about their infinite selves.

"The exception, Mom said, was the women who had become doctors...seemed happy doing it)."

As a senior faculty in a leadership role at a major academic medical school, this is a somewhat biased view (and yes, we have TONS of stats on this). Many of the women who are happy being doctors (20 or 30 years out from their degree) are happy, and have managed to juggle. But, the percent of women who become part-time (easier as a clinican than an academic), who opt-out in one form or another is much higher. The number of women in senior positions, in leadership positions, with NIH grants or big labs is shockingly small (much lower than in basic science). Furthermore despite 20 years of nearly equal male/female medical school attendence, the ratios of senior people have not budged. And let me assure you, the ones who are there are tired. All the time. Very tired.

Abel and DM-

Your comments captured my life so perfectly. Abel- one of the kids is always crying when I walk out the door to go to work- usually despite DrMrA's best efforts at distraction. I can't even count the number of nights I have worked late and had a child call me in tears about SOMETHING, anything, whatever. And mediating between the two kids while working- hey, I need a black and white striped shirt. I'm not even getting to the school/extra activities, making sure we have all the supplies and motivating kids to get projects done on time, and the strange looks from the stay-at-home-moms at my continuously frenzied pace and (usually) disheveled appearance.

Every day that I make it through is a small miracle. And DM- perhaps your wife should have a blog- she sounds like superwoman indeed. I know, that I am not.

As for statistics... Dr. Vos Post- there is a nice little book put out by the National Research Council entitled 'To Recruit and Advance: Women students and faculty in science and engineering' that can be purchased from the National Academies Press... if you are in need of statistics...