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Managing Motherhood and Tenure

Colleges are attempting to close the numerical gap between tenuretrack male and female faculty, but some schools, particularly larger institutions, are having more success than others at accommodating women’s needs.

I had mentors who told me not to have children before going up for tenure,” says Dr. Catherine Squires, now the John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota and mother of 6-year-old twins.

In another case, in an irony that is more than semantic, Dr. Elise Bartosik-Velez went into labor the day she deposited her dissertation. Completing her doctoral studies in comparative literature at the University of Illinois coincided with a whirlwind of interviews for a tenure-track job, which she landed at Dickenson College in Carlisle, Pa. She interviewed in one city on a Friday, in another on the following Monday and then defended her thesis the following day.

“The committee told me I looked tired,” says Bartosik-Velez. “I kind of divide my life up into three parts: scholarship, teaching and my family. The fourth part is me and that just doesn’t happen.”

Tenure or baby? Motherhood or Dr. Mom? Many women in higher education still view family and career as an either/or proposition, while the institutions they work in profess to be making strides that would lessen their burden.

Time and biology are the uncontrollable culprits. The average age of a Ph.D. recipient is 33 years old, and most tenure clocks run for six years. That means women who wait until tenure to have a family will carry their babies during childbearing years considered “high risk,” and they are likely to have fewer children than they would otherwise intend, according to one study.

While many thirtysomethings — including those with master’s degrees and professional jobs — spend evenings and weekends piling into minivans for play dates and trips to the park, postdocs are expected to ply their tenure committees with research, get published, teach undergrads and advise graduate students expertly and often.

Help Is Coming

The nation’s colleges and universities are addressing the situation with programs that allow women, and sometimes men who are primary caregivers, to have a semester out of the classroom and the option of stopping their tenure clock. Institutions are adding more on-campus daycare facilities and keeping meetings from running well into the evenings. A number of women who are on the tenure track or have achieved it say they are thankful for the help, but they report uneven results among institutions. Bigger, more prominent universities have more generous policies, while many smaller institutions are just as caring, but less likely to have robust or uniform policies.

All this is happening as colleges and universities struggle to close numerical gaps between men and women among their tenured faculty ranks. According to a National Science Foundation study of doctoral recipients, women with babies are 28 percent less likely than women without babies to enter a tenure-track position, 27 percent less likely to become an associate professor, and 20 percent less likely to become a full professor within 16 years of earning their Ph.D.

Squires credits the family friendly policies at the University of Michigan, where she initially earned tenure. Michigan’s policy gives tenuretrack faculty with new children one semester out of the classroom with full pay and one year’s cessation of their tenure clock.

“I don’t think I would have been able to reach tenure if I hadn’t been able to take time off,” Squires says. Because she had twins, Squires got two semesters out of the classroom. She used the first to adjust to and recover from having the new babies, but she kept up her responsibilities for advising graduate students.

“I don’t think I had an independent thought during my first semester of pregnancy leave,” says Squires. “I was lucky if I had enough energy to read someone else’s paper, much less to write my own.”

The writing came during the second semester she was able to take off, when her twins were a year old. That gave her the time to finish her first book, propelling her over the tenure hurdle.

“Family friendly policies are among our highest priorities,” says Dr. Lori J. Pierce, executive vice president of academic affairs in Michigan’s provost’s office. “We don’t want to selectively disadvantage women.”

Pierce says women who are reviewed for tenure receive it at approximately the same rate as men at Michigan. The university is also considering making it possible for faculty to lengthen their tenure clock to 10 years, a measure intended to help women who want to have more than one or two children.

A ‘Bitter’ Problem

Not every higher education institution has such generous family centered policies.

Dr. Birgit Jensen, an associate professor of German at East Carolina University, reports a “bitter experience” in having a child while chasing tenure.

“At the time I had my child (in 2004), there was no institution-wide policy for faculty members who were about to have a baby. The Family Medical Leave Act existed for faculty and staff, as did the option for faculty to stop the tenure clock, but I was warned that an extended maternity leave would be negatively viewed. East Carolina employees have only the FMLA benefits to rely on, which provides 12 weeks off without pay,” said Jensen in an email.

Because the paychecks are spread over 12 months, missing nearly all of one semester caused Jensen to forego nearly half a year of salary.

Married women with children leave tenuretrack jobs more frequently than any other group — 59 percent, versus 39 percent for married men with children, says Dr. Mary Ann Mason, co-author of Mothers on the Fast Track, a book about mothers in academe.

Mason, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate Division and codirector of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security, says higher education could be at the beginning of a sea change sweeping women away from tenuretrack jobs. Women are opting for academe’s second-tier posts, filling in the part-time, adjunct and lecturer ranks, becoming what Mason calls the “gypsy scholars” of the university world.

Women are choosing nontenure-track jobs for child care, according to a study of workfamily balance and academic advancement, co-authored by Dr. Gerry Fox of the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

Why Not Both?

But plenty are trying to do both. Ask a woman why she opted to have a baby while pursuing tenure and frequently the answer is, “why not?”

That is how Melissa Murray, an assistant professor of law at UC-Berkeley, handled the question. “The decision to have a child on the tenure track was not a decision at all,” Murray says. “For me the bigger question was how was I going to make the tenure track work around my decision to have a family.”

Being at Berkeley, Murray is one of the luckier ones because the institution provides paid childbirth leave, time off the tenure clock, a breastfeeding support program, two large complexes of student-family housing, and a graduate student parent grant of up to $8,000. Murray says she is grateful for UCBerkeley’s generous policies and believes that the university is trying to keep pace with the increasing number of young parents in its ranks. Sometimes, however, the demand for family friendly services outstrips the available supply. For example, the university has childcare facilities, but they are often oversubscribed.

What’s needed is more support in public policy for young families. It will always be difficult being a mother, a scholar and a teacher at once, but having a family and being in the work force makes for a broader academic experience, too, she says.

Along with the rigors of work comes the inescapable socializing of academe, which cannot be skipped by anyone looking for promotion. “A lot of things happen in the late afternoon and early evening,” Murray says. “I juggle things at home so that I can attend talks and other events from time to time.”

The pressure and desire higher education institutions feel to increase the number of women tenured professors is even more so in the hard sciences, where women’s progress has been slower. The Georgia Institute of Technology, the school that awards more doctoral degrees in engineering than any other, according to the American Society of Engineering Education’s latest data, used part of a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to promote the advancement of women in the sciences to pay for time out of the class for postdoctoral faculty who became new parents — and to pay for a lactation room.

They opened their first on-campus childcare center in 2003 and are working to open a second badly needed facility by 2010. Since Georgia doesn’t allow state colleges and universities to provide maternity benefits beyond the federal FMLA, Georgia Tech had to be creative in devising solutions, says Dr. Jane Ammons, associate dean of engineering for faculty affairs and a professor of industrial and system engineering.

The new program allows women to telecommute during the semester they have their babies, freeing them from the classroom and from committee assignments.

“For us to recruit and retain the best faculty, we’ve got to help them when the hits come in life,” Ammons says. She speaks from experience — she’s the second woman ever hired and the first to have children in the faculty of the college of engineering. She also pursued a legal case with the institution’s board of regents to ensure her right to take time off with the birth of her children, who are now 22 and 25 years old.

“It’s like a different world now,” Ammons says. “We all work together to help faculty members get through this.”

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