But this year's graduate orientation had a tone that some of the previous ones haven't had. This year several of the speakers (faculty, administration) were very careful to tell us that our job prospects for four-year, tenure-track research institutions weren't very promising. They talked about how only 6 or 7% (I forget which) of current academic job openings are in these fields. Most of us who chose to stay in academia would be in "alternative" academic positions: regional schools, small liberal arts schools, community colleges, and high schools. And some of us would even be taken positions outside of academia entirely.
It's also worth noting that as I sat in that room and looked around at my peers, many of whom I know from our work together the past years and many of whom I didn't because they came into the program much more recently, when I haven't been around as much, I noticed that several of us had children. At least two of the women in that room were pregnant. Many, many of my graduate student colleagues have infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
So it was with this experience in the back of my mind that I read an article a friend sent me today, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's "Family and Career: Women Lose Faith in Having it All."
The Sobering Stats
If you're at all interested in this topic, I suggest you go read Currid-Halkett's whole article. It's short and filled with interesting statistics about women in academia as well as her own personal reflection as a female academic who received tenure three weeks before her first child was born.
Most interesting to me, though, was this section on how the importance of family is being renegotiated by our current social climate:
Family is becoming more important to young women. A recent Pew Research Center survey reports that, after steadily rising for decades, the participation of women with children in the labor force has declined somewhat since 2000. And though women between the ages of 18 and 34 say they place importance on their careers in greater numbers than in the past, they also put much higher store on marriage and family life. Some 37% of the respondents said that having a successful marriage was "one of the most important things" in their lives, up from 28% in 1997. More remarkable, 59% said children were one of the most important things in life, compared with 42% 15 years ago. Overall, women ranked children and marriage — 94% and 84%, respectively — as among the most important things in life.Also sobering:
only 1 in 3 became mothers during their university careers, and just 44% of them married (compared with 77% of their male counterparts). The survey also revealed that 38% of the surveyed female faculty regretted not having had children or not having had more children.Currid-Halkett goes on to discuss how this reality has sunk in for many women who are now choosing not to even pursue these high-pressure, tenure-track jobs, as they see them as fundamentally incompatible with the life they want to have. She sees this as a loss of some of our best resources in research fields and makes a collectivist argument for addressing the problem: if we want the best and the brightest doing the work, we need to rethink how we structure it.
Some ThoughtsFor the most part, I agree with Currid-Halkett's conclusion that we need to find ways to address the work-life imbalance in academia, especially if the perception of it is keeping top talent from even entering that domain.
I also disagree very strongly with commenters like JimBobLAX. He had this to say:
Those who say "I want it all" or "Special accommodations should be made for women" (including many commenters below) are really saying "I want you to make sacrifices/change your life/ restructure your business so that I can have what I want. The fact that it disrupts your life, costs you money, or imposes burdens on you is irrelevant since all that counts is my desires." That's a fundamentally selfish concept.Creating an environment where women and men can raise healthy, fulfilled families is not the same as creating an environment where people can readily pursue hobbies. Children are not the same as hobbies. Yes, parenthood is a life choice, but it is not entirely a "selfish" one; these children are people. Of course, this is not a new argument, not by a long shot. And a relatively recent Feministe thread became a heated debate over this very topic. So, since I'm fairly confident we're not going to come to any societal consensus on that one right now, I'm going to set that aside to take a look at some other things this article made me think about.
Is She Talking About Me?I might be one of the women Currid-Halkett's talking about. I certainly feel that my marriage and being a good mother are important parts of my identity. And I certainly value my academic career. I also am not pursuing a research-track career.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a professor early in my graduate studies. I was realizing quickly that the "standard" academic track wasn't for me, and I went to talk to her about my recent reflections and nascent ideas that what I really wanted was to work at a community college. The reaction I got was . . . shocking. She became frustrated with me and said that she was tired of seeing young women "sell themselves short" and to not pursue better careers. She talked about the Women's Movement and how the women of my generation weren't living up to our potential. Her words stung me, and they stick with me now even four years later. In fact, when I left that meeting, I almost dropped out of graduate school. I didn't feel like there was a place for me. I felt like the message was to fall in line with the ideal or get out of the way.
I've got the benefit of (some) hindsight now, and looking back on that conversation I can see a few things.
This woman and I were talking around each other. She wasn't hearing what I was saying, not really. And I wasn't hearing what she was saying, not really. We were coming at the very definition of "career" differently. We weren't on the same page.
I also know now that my confidence in my own abilities was immature. I was out of my element--a first-generation college student who had gone from excelling at a state school for undergrad to being overwhelmed by the new atmosphere of this private, research-driven graduate school.
But she also made a lot of assumptions about me that both weren't true and weren't as true as she thought they were.
For one, I didn't have a child at that time, and though being a wife was important to me, my husband was also in law school. We were both committed to our academic pursuits, and I didn't feel any pressure to fall into a particular housewife role. We spent our "dates" reading books in the same room and the dishes usually just didn't get done. It worked.
I was much more drawn to the teaching side of an academic career than the researching one. And--even though I can get lost in a stack of books as well as the next English grad student--even my research kept finding a very pedagogically driven center. I wanted to teach, and I wanted to teach students who others considered "difficult." It was what I kept coming back to again and again and again--in my volunteer work, in my research, in my classroom, even in my casual conversations with friends. This is what I wanted to be doing.
So for that advisor to draw a box around me as someone who was "selling herself short" because she would rather focus on being a wife and mother than an academic isn't complete. It doesn't take into account the other elements of who I am and what I do.
Be Careful With Conclusions
So, basically, I'm a little hesitant to take Currid-Halkett's conclusions at face value. Sure, it might be a really disturbing sign that we need more family friendly policies that 40% of women want research-focused careers early in their studies but only 25% of them want that as they get further along. (And I'd argue that family friendly policies benefit everyone, not just women and not even just people with children).
But in that orientation, they weren't just telling the women that 90+% of academic job openings were in "alternative" tracks. They were telling all of us. The tenure-track research professor is not necessarily a thing of the past, but it can't be the only thing that graduate programs train us to do--for a variety of reasons.
What have your experiences been? Are you in academia? Do you see a conflict between that career track and your personal life goals? Have you made any decisions based on that conflict, and what has the reaction from your peers and mentors been?