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Motherhood Incompatible with Academic Careers?

In academia, 61 percent of male professors have tenure, compared with 43 percent of female faculty. What's causing the disparity? Motherhood, according to a study covered by the Washington Post.

For women intent on becoming both scholars and mothers, the timing of the tenure track could not be worse. The average female doctorate is awarded at 34, an age when many college-educated women are starting families. Tenure, a defining moment in a professor's career, is decided roughly seven years later, just as the parenting window is closing.

Researchers from Barnard College in New York interviewed 21 women, all striving to be supermoms at the most demanding time in their careers. Many of the women portrayed their work and family lives in irreconcilable conflict. One mother described working in "survival mode," just doing "the things that I can to not be kicked out." Another said she was no longer being invited to career-building speaking gigs. A third faced the hard truth that she was "never going to be one of those superstars."

The findings, presented last month at a conference of the American Association of University Professors, challenge the common perception that a faculty job might be a wise choice for an aspiring mother, given the flexible hours and generous vacation.

The mothers who managed to plunge through had helpful partners. But they also maintained ridiculous schedules, like writing at 2 a.m..

But this is the part of the report that caught my attention. In men's case, fatherhood actually helped them advance to tenure. The researchers discovered many double standards for women on the same career path.

Little prior research has addressed the conflicts facing working mothers in academia, the Barnard authors said. One 2005 Virginia Tech report found a disproportionate share of women among "voluntary departures" from faculty jobs; women represented one-fifth of the faculty but two-fifths of departures, and they were more likely than men to report feelings of intimidation, harassment and discrimination....

Working fathers, in theory, ought to suffer the same setbacks as mothers in their quest for tenure. But research shows that parenthood has an opposite, positive effect on men's abilities "to move ahead in academic careers," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at AAUP. Fathers bear fewer parenting burdens than mothers, and faculty fathers who do sacrifice work for parenting tend to be admired and rewarded, while the mother who makes the same choice is "seen as neglecting her job," Curtis said.

For mothers, the celebrated flexibility of a faculty job is both "an asset and a hindrance," the Barnard researchers say in their eight-page paper.

The researchers recommended an alternative to the 7-year tenure track, or "career pathways that would reward women who entered academia later in life" -- basically, long after their biological clocks have ticked.

After reading this article, I was in awe of the women who manage to gain tenure. I don't have it in me to work from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., yet I know some of you have done this. How do you balance tenure with motherhood? Do you think academia will ever be friendly to mothers?


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