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Female Professors Face Family Quandary on Tenure Track


Dr. Tia Tyree of Howard University left the corporate world for academia because she thought that it was more conducive to starting a family.Dr. Tia Tyree of Howard University left the corporate world for academia because she thought that it was more conducive to starting a family.

Numerous articles and studies have been released suggesting that having a family is a career-killer for women — in academia and in any field. For this reason, many women either put off starting a family until after they have attained tenure, drop out of the tenure race because they have children or shy away from it altogether since they don’t believe having a family and attaining tenure is feasible.

Female professors on the road to tenure and full professorship say they face tremendous pressure to not start a family, pressure that their male colleagues do not face.

“I have been strongly encouraged to [wait until after getting tenure before having children],” says Dr. Marjorie Shavers, assistant professor in the education department at Morehead State University, who is “definitely” waiting until after she has received tenure to try to have children. Shavers, who has done a lot of research on women in doctoral programs, says she has found it is “no big deal if a male [has a family], but it is stigmatized for women.”

Shavers has been on a tenure track two of her three years of marriage and says the demands of the position put a strain on her new marriage, even without children. She says she knew it would be difficult, but did not anticipate the magnitude of difficulties she would face.

“Feeling like I should always be working was an issue when I first got married,” Shavers says. “I typically teach at night … the time you would normally have to decompress with your spouse isn’t there, and if it is there, you are expected to do other things” to meet the requirements of the job, such as research.

There is also concern over how colleagues would view things like a need to be out for an extended period of time, shuttling an infant to frequent doctors’ appointments, needing accommodations to pump milk, if one were breast feeding — things that, if a male professor needed to take time to do, he would be able to do without hassle.

“In general, women are sometimes scrutinized a little more …,” says Shavers, “so I think those things are heightened. Even if you’re [on campus] just as much, they’re looking at you a little more.”

A balancing act

Dr. Tia Tyree, associate professor and interim chair of Howard University’s Department of Strategic, Legal and Management Communications, started a second career in academia expressly because she was ready to start a family and the demands of corporate public relations were not ideal for motherhood.

“I literally went to get my Ph.D. to start my career in academia,” she says. “I wanted to do something that would allow me the flexibility to [advance my family], so it was all perfect.

But “perfect” is relative, it turned out.

When Tyree interviewed for her position, she was eight months pregnant.

“I literally delivered my son two weeks after I started my job,” she says. “My second son literally got out of NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] the week school started.”

At that time when she was dealing with two trying deliveries that landed each of her sons in the NICU, Howard did not allow maternity leave, explains Tyree, adding that policies have changed in the three years since her oldest son was born.

But, Tyree says, the support she received from her colleagues has been tremendous. “I got my Ph.D. from Howard … my peers had been my professors, and they automatically became my mentors. They were genuinely concerned about me getting tenure, which I think is the HBCU culture.

“The biggest plus with Howard is that the guidelines are very clear on what you need to do to gain tenure,” adds Tyree. “I knew exactly what I needed to do,” which made it easier to balance career with new motherhood.

Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, had a 1-year-old daughter when she first got promoted to a tenure-track position.

“I would not advise people to wait until after they have tenure,” she says. “It’s much easier to have a child when you’re younger. I actually thought having her when I was a graduate student was great. … I was able to get my work done, defend my dissertation and work full-time.”

For those who have chosen to ignore others’ heeding to wait to have children, the challenge becomes how to incorporate the children and career demands into a balanced lifestyle that doesn’t drive the professor insane.

In Tyree’s case, that means clearly segmenting her life and her time.

“I don’t have any pictures of my family in my office, because I want people to understand that this is business,” she says. Once she leaves campus at 3 p.m., her role as a professor switches off and she transitions into the role of wife and mother. After the children are asleep, she logs back in to respond to emails and proceed with research.

“Sleep is overrated,” jokes Tyree.

Gasman says she fully integrates her life as a mother with her life as a professor, taking her now-teenaged daughter with her to class and out-of-town lectures and inviting students to their home for holidays.

Making it work

Tyree believes in making no apologies for having clear-cut times of the day when she is “doing my regular mom duties.”

“I think the moment that you do feel shame is the moment you begin to look vulnerable,” she says. A colleague recently told her that she is “100 percent mom.”

“That was so heartwarming, because that is all I ever wanted to be,” says Tyree.

Both Tyree and Gasman agree that the absolute most important things about juggling career and family are being exceptionally organized, being willing to make sacrifices and making sure you are entirely clear about what needs to be done to gain tenure at your school, then managing your time effectively.

“Women have to learn how to say no,” Gasman says. “I only volunteer for things that are within my realm of expertise.”

Tyree agrees, saying she only takes on projects that are directly related to her research and journey to tenure. She also says any professor considering a tenure track position has to really love to research.

“Organization is the key. You have to learn how to delegate; learn how to use research assistants effectively,” Gasman explains. “You have to take breaks. Not taking a vacation hurts more than taking a vacation, in terms of time lost,” if you get burnt out.

Tyree also says that it is important to leverage relationships with mentors and others in the department, saying that she has been afforded many speaking and publishing opportunities that she would not have otherwise had without someone recommending her.

Above everything else, both Tyree and Gasman emphasize the idea that it is not impossible to have a family and be a tenured professor.

“There is a line between wanting something and really going after it,” Tyree says. “Tenure is really hard for anyone to obtain, but you can do it.”

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