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Do Babies Matter When Charting an Academic Career?

Do Babies Matter When Charting an Academic Career?
The academy seems to think so.

The University of California-Berkeley has just released a set of statistics that should give pause to every female academic of child-bearing age.
Women who have children early in their careers — that is, between one and five years after receiving a doctorate — are less likely to achieve tenure than men with children, and the margins are significant: 24 percent in the sciences and 20 percent in the social sciences and humanities, according to the study Do Babies Matter: The Effect of Family Formation on the Life Long Careers of Academic Men and Women.
The study’s authors, Dr. Mary Ann Mason, dean of UC-Berkeley’s Graduate Division, and Dr. Marc Goulden, the research analyst, also found that Women with early babies are far more likely than all others to join the ranks of low-paid and low-status lecturers, adjuncts and other part-timers, while men who have babies early in their careers are somewhat more likely than all others to achieve tenure.
The study went on to say that the majority of women who achieve tenure appear to sacrifice child-bearing to do so. Sixty-two percent of women in the humanities and social sciences and 50 percent from the sciences report no children in their households 14 years after obtaining a doctorate, compared with only 39 percent of tenured men in the humanities and social sciences and 30 percent of tenured men in the sciences.
The pattern seems clear: For women who choose academia as a life path, there are hidden social costs that men just don’t have to pay.
And what’s most unfortunate about the findings is the fact that “this is not a new issue,” says Dr. Yolanda Moses, president of the American Association for Higher Education. “When I wrote a piece back in 1989, this was the information that we uncovered. So 15 years later, we’re still talking about the same issue.”
Dr. Dolores E. Cross certainly agrees. Cross, the outgoing president of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, was part of that initial wave of Black women to enter the academy buoyed by the promises of the civil rights movement.
“People say to me, ‘Dolores, you’re a role model.’ They have no idea,” says Cross, who was also the first Black female vice chancellor at City University of New York and president of Chicago State University. “If young people really knew what it was like, if they could have watched my life all the way through, they might just say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ “
Cross has detailed her struggles in her autobiography, Breaking Through the Wall: A Marathoner’s Story. And she believes those struggles were pretty typical for her time: marrying and having children young; then delaying her education to put her family’s needs first; earning her doctorate, then struggling to balance career and family without much support from her department; moving frequently to suit her husband’s career demands and finding herself in progressively “Whiter” settings bereft of family and community support; eventually outstripping her husband professionally and bearing the brunt of criticism when they divorced.
But the great irony of Cross’ story is that, with just a few script changes, it could easily have been written today.
Dr. Kim Blockett, an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University’s Delaware County campus, has written about the struggles of women teaching English and the modern languages. She served on the MLA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, which released a hard-hitting report that mirrored the UC-Berkeley findings in key areas in 2000. She also knows firsthand the perils of mixing children with a graduate education.
Blockett married young and had her children young — she’s 35 and the oldest of her three children is 16 — so she had had plenty of experience juggling family with work responsibilities when she entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But when she found herself pregnant during her first year of graduate school, right after she and her husband had decided to divorce, she was “scared to death,” she says.
What made matters worse was getting absolutely “no support my from my colleagues. My fellow graduate students looked at me like I was out of my mind,” Blockett says. “They’d ask, ‘Why on earth would you choose to get pregnant now?’ And of course, I didn’t choose — it was an unexpected pregnancy. The response to that was, ‘Who has unexpected pregnancies these days?’ So there was a lot of judgment.”
A lot of judgment and very little sympathy when the pregnancy turned out to be a troubled one. Blockett went into premature labor and her doctor advised bed rest. She managed to get by — avoiding stairs, getting a handicapped sticker so she could drive right up to the classroom building rather than walking half a mile, and otherwise being very, very careful — but it was difficult and stressful.
“Historically, the university, the faculty, the professoriate were structured for the life of the male scholar, and things have never changed to adjust to the realities of the lives of females who, at the very same time that they’re coming into their own as academics, have their biological clocks ticking,” Moses explains. “Very few universities recognize the facts (of women’s lives) and allow for those kinds of realities in the promotion and tenure process. And we all know that (tenure) is relentless in terms of publications (and) research.”
It is that relentless pressure that often leads women in the academy to delay childbearing    or to drop into the heavily female ranks of non-tenure-track lecturers, adjuncts and other part-timers. For those who choose to wait, there’s an added physiological cost that’s borne primarily by Black women.
“Fibroids: It’s the scourge of Black women, particularly as we get older,” notes Blockett. Indeed, she has a close friend whose case is so advanced that “her doctor is basically telling her, ‘You’ve got to get pregnant now. You don’t have a lot of time.’ But she just had a horrible second-year review, so she’s literally making a decision between tenure and a child.”
“And the question is, why should women have to make those kinds of choices? Why should they have to choose between having children and having a career as a successful academic? Why can’t the two things go hand in hand?” says Moses, who has two daughters.
But while the situation is grim, observers see the Berkeley report — and all the others like it — not as a justification for women to abandon the academy, but as a call to arms.
Mason and Goulden recommend six sweeping changes that would make the academy a friendlier environment for women with babies, including “stopping the clock” for pregnant graduate students and postdocs; creating policies that accommodate dual academic career couples; and creating a part-time track with “re-entry rights.”
Some of those changes are already in the works at individual institutions. But it seems clear that it’s time for a broader debate on the status of women with children in the academy.
“What we’re talking about is as important as all the things that were done in the ’60s,” Cross says. “And we’re talking about women finding their voice, finding a place in the world and not being denied.”

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