Thursday, August 23, 2012

Women, Academia, and the Balancing Act

This week I attended graduate student orientation. For me, it was one of many. I've been at this university for the past five years, when I moved here for my Master's degree. I then became an employee at the university and began to work on my PhD part-time. Now I'm full-time faculty at a community college and finishing up that PhD. In other words, I've been here a while, and that's included more than a few graduate orientations.

First day of school
And at every one of them I see the fresh new graduate students and get something of a rush from their intermingled mix of terror and excitement. I love that feeling, that "first day of school" feeling. It was the same feeling I picked up as my new community college students waited in the hallway for their very first college classes. I imagine it was the same feeling my friend's little girl had this week during her first day of kindergarten. Moving into a new educational realm is exhilarating and intimidating, and that's a good place to start growing.

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 Thoughts

For 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.

dirty dishes
A sexy date night 
I wasn't telling her that I wanted a community college position because I thought it would offer me a better work-life balance (though, now that I have one, I'm not knocking that benefit). At the time, I wanted a community college position because it was the position I felt best matched who I was as a teacher, a researcher, and--basically--a person.

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?


  1. For me, kids and a family were a guarantee: no matter what else might have happened with my graduate career (which, despite sticking with it for eight years, I understood was a tentative and uncertain investment), I knew I wanted to start a family and wouldn't defer that on the OFF chance that an academic career worked out for me. That said, having kids was definitely a contributing factor to quitting. I couldn't sustain a TA income, make progress on my PhD, and afford childcare. (I wrote about this in my Let's Talk About Debt posts at Mama Nervosa). Ultimately, I wasn't in a financial position to continue inching towards a degree when my family's needs were more pressing. And I wouldn't trade my kids for a PhD ever. I cannot imagine a scenario, personally, in which the rewards of an intangible and largely useless degree would compensate for the loss of love and joy that my children have brought me. IME/IMO.

    I think it's great that more women aren't wasting time in academia when they can use their talents in other fields where they may be rewarded with not only accolades but also a decent job. I hope that no matter where women land, corporations and schools will adopt more family friendly policies so that women/parents can balance all roles.

    1. "I cannot imagine a scenario, personally, in which the rewards of an intangible and largely useless degree would compensate for the loss of love and joy that my children have brought me."

      I always feel like the joy of parenting gets glossed over in these discussions. It's always framed as a "sacrifice" (and I understand why we tend to talk about the difficult parts of parenting and the work of it). But, yeah. Having kids IS rewarding and joyful, and we don't do anyone any favors by pretending like the only kind of reward you can get out of life is through money and professional prestige.

      (Also, those "alternative" careers? They pay you for them! I'm always surprised when people hear that I work at a community college and are like "God bless you. We need someone doing that work." As if I'm volunteering my time in a war torn village or something. I get paid for this. It is professionally, financially, and personally rewarding).

  2. I had my daughter in my final year of my PhD.

    I am no longer in academia, although my husband just accepted a tenure-track position at a smaller university in Canada.

    Since my daughter was born four years ago, we've lived in three different provinces bouncing around from one post-doc to the next. With a two-body problem (i.e. having both partners in academia, even worse, in the same area) I just could not imagine having to spend the next five or six years continuing this until we both found positions in the same place.

    My husband's dream is to be a professor. Mine wasn't. So I decided to leave academia. I worked for the Canadian federal government for awhile which, for all its family-friendly policies, is an incredibly demoralising and depressing place to work, while my husband had another post-doc in Ottawa. Now we're in a town with no industry other than the university which employs my husband and I am doing some freelancing editing, writing, basically doing nothing with my PhD.

    I know that a big factor in my leaving academia was having a child. It is hard moving every twelve months as an adult, but with a child, it's insane. I wanted her to have friends for longer than a few months before we picked up and left, but in my field (mathematics), a long string of post-docs is expected before you even apply for tenure-track. Every female academic I know either is child-free or waited to find a tenure-track position before having children. To get into the tenure-track system one needs flexibility to move frequently, and I was tired of moving.

    I have no idea whether once tenured, it is easier to have a child. I never got that far. I didn't even make an attempt. Whether that's a result of the system or laziness on my part or a combination of the two, I can only comment on how hard it is to even get a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder if you have a child.

    1. The expectation that you will have no roots in a place in order to succeed in academia is so, so frustrating to me. I've heard many of my fellow graduate students say that they need to stay in our city or even that they want to stay in a certain region of the U.S. to be relatively close to family and get scolded for not being "serious" about their work.

      Not only does not staying in once place make it difficult to have children, but--in my opinion--it makes it difficult to be a productive member of a community. We form ties with friends, community organizations, etc. We even become a part of the landscape through neighborhoods, local businesses, parks. To expect that academics will necessarily ignore all the other aspects of their communal existence in order to be taken "seriously" is really ridiculous.

  3. I work in one of those "regional schools", so I guess you could say I'm embedded in an alternate path in academia. I got my master's here, and got married the summer that I got it. The plan was that I would work as a lecturer for a year, and then we would move so I could pursue a PhD. My husband is a computer programmer, and at the time was getting constant calls from headhunters and was confident he could get a job wherever. That was 2007. And then the economy went to hell.

    At first, we figured that our plan was just delayed, not significantly derailed. But as time goes on, I feel like higher education is an unstable place to be. Not that I'm leaving-- I love teaching at this level. But I don't see getting a PhD as a wise time/energy investment. Who knows, the political climate surrounding education could turn around, but it's not a gamble I want to make. So I remain a lecturer (at least I'm not an adjunct). We're expecting our first child in October, and my department has been really good about working with me, finding other projects to buy me out of most of my courses, and I'll only be teaching one class that lasts the first eight weeks of the semester.

    As far as how my peer/mentors see my choice... Well, it's probably a factor that at first I was just postponing the PhD. I never really made a big announcement of the fact that I'm not planning on getting it anymore. It may be a factor that we're more of a teaching institution (we're actually considered an "Emerging Research University" officially, but the climate is closer to a teaching institution than a research institution). I did my undergrad at a research institution (mostly-- there was some transferring around for nonacademic reasons), and I can say with confidence that I never wanted to work in a climate like that. Even when I wasn't sure whether I wanted kids.

  4. i find this focus on children so interesting, because although I agree that academic rigor makes childrearing difficult, the conditions under which we pursue tenure track work are sooo impossible, raising children in those circumstances presents just one of many many problems. women make decisions for lots of reasons, but "studies" really only like to research how children play into our professional lives.

    i started work on my phd 6 weeks after my son was born. when i took my oral exams, i was 5 months pregnant with my daughter. despite all the "feminists" on campus, i found the environment incredibly unfriendly to a new mother (all those mtgs with professors with a stroller and a bag of cheerios in tow!). i got my phd when my son was 7 and i worked as an adjunct, seeking tenure track work, for 2 years. i ultimately quit for some reasons already cited here: the need to move and the dismal prospects, but also because i saw myself spinning my wheels, doing a thankless job that way underpaid me, while also spending so much time pursuing a job I would probably never get. the whole thing felt like a dirty scam. Disillusioned with academia, I moved on. I did have 2 kids at the time, but i would have made the same decision if I hadn't had them. the environment in academia is toxic and demoralizing, there were a million reasons to get out of it, kids being just one.

    and generally, yes, we need to make all work more family friendly. right now, our culture asks men and women to choose between professional success and parenting. men (and their families) shouldn't have to make that sacrifice any more than women (aren't the men who follow post docs around the country also dragging families along? or do men with families also leave academia?).

    ok - i hope i don't sound like i'm arguing with anybody. it's such an interesting topic, there's so much to say, and it's late so i'm babbling along...tx for an interesting post.