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Women in Academia: The Baby Gap

Soon after I started my PhD program, I had coffee with one of my cohort-mates. While my graduate group shows a 1:1 ratio of men to women, in my cohort, we were the only two women. As we sat outside on one of the slowly rotting picnic tables set below a large oak tree, I asked her why she had chosen this particular program.

She rattled off the laundry list of reasons to pick this school, the ones we had all memorized prior to our interviews: “Oh the research facilities are great,” “I appreciate the breadth and depth of the introductory course,” “Nowhere else can I study this specific question about stinkbugs.” Then she paused for a moment and told me what had finally swayed her: our graduate program makes an effort to be accommodating towards and sensitive to the needs of women with families.

Academia in general is not a friendly place for women who want to have families. A recent article at the Chronicles of Higher Education by Mary Ann Mason, a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic, and Family Security discusses the disparity in how men and women with families are treated in the sciences:

Discrimination against job candidates who are pregnant or have children is a very real part of gender discrimination. Some scientists may believe that women who have families cannot be serious scientists because academic science demands exclusive attention to research. But they do not hold the same beliefs about male scientists with kids. In fact, research shows that male scientists are far more likely to have children than female scientists; two years after their Ph.D.s, nearly 50 percent of men, but only 30 percent of women, had children”¦

Women who do pursue careers in academic science pay a high price for playing the game. Nationally, “married with children” is the academic-success formula for men, but the opposite is true for women, for whom there is a serious “baby gap.” Among scientists who achieved tenure, 72 percent of the men are married with children as opposed to only 50 percent of women. Is that gender equity?

The expectations for men and women on how to balance their work and personal lives are vastly different. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a male colleague. We were working on applications for a grant due in about a month’s time and I had unintentionally and in passing reminded him of a deadline we had coming up. His response was to tell me with a completely straight face that he needed to marry a woman who would be willing to be his secretary and keep track of things like that for him. I can’t imagine that response coming from a woman.  I should have told him to invest in a calendar, but instead I opted just to look at him with a mixture of shock and disbelief.

It’s not that women can’t make having a family and working in academia work out for them, but there are real differences in what can be expected of men and women in academia, formed in large part by stereotypical and backwards thinking that places women at a distinct disadvantage. Even as someone who isn’t entirely sold on the whole idea of having babies herself, it makes my blood boil that at some point in their careers, and often that point comes around in graduate school, many women have to make the choice between having a family and having a career, a choice that men simply do not have to make.

Ultimately, this isn’t about babies or families, and personal preference on either side isn’t what’s in play here: the big problem always comes down to men and women making the same choices but being treated differently for those choices. By punishing women for having families, while being neutral towards, or even sometimes rewarding of, men who make the same choice, academia sets itself up to perpetuate a system of sexism.

6 replies on “Women in Academia: The Baby Gap”

The dean of students at my top-tier grad school once famously said “graduate students have no business having children.” This was in the context of a unionization drive in which child-rearing and care were of growing concern, primarily among the male students with families. I suspect women were less vocal about it in part because they were harboring the kinds of anxieties spoken about here.

The controlling, consuming dimensions of academia, particularly at R1’s, are the reason I think women opt out. Many institutions and disciplines promote a culture that asks us to concede so much of our selves. Once I hand over my fertility and family planning to my job, what do I have left? What part of me is mine anymore? I have made enough concessions on other dimensions that I once thought I would never compromise (for example, allowing the tacit and overt awfulness to slide time and again). So, for me, the personal life aspects (partner, child bearing — if and when to have –, family, friends) are off limits to departmental or disciplinary influence.

I can’t speak to the role of motherhood in academia, but your quote from Ms. Mason I can back up with actual experience. From both sides of the coin. I worked in Human Resources as a recruiter for a large bank in the north-east and it was the very active, though entirely unofficial, policy to NOT hire pregnant women for any position and to actively discriminate against mothers in the recruitment and hiring for upper management and executive positions – especially mothers with small children. I was laid off from this same bank 2 months after I could no longer hide that I was pregnant. The official reason given was ‘downsizing’, but I was in a key role as an HR analyst and I was one of only 2 people who could perform my job duties. My position was the only one in the entire department that was ‘downsized’ and the position was refilled 3 weeks after I left (with semantic tweaks to the job description to avoid a discrimination suit) by the other person who could do my job. So ladies, coming from both sides of the issue, let me tell you – it is illegal to discriminate against pregnant women as a basis for employment (though it is practically impossible to prove that discrimination) and it is illegal for an interviewer to inquire about your home/family life. They CANNOT ask you if you have kids. They CANNOT ask you if you plan on having kids. They CANNOT ask you if you are married, in a relationship, etc. It is illegal. Many recruiters are skilled at ‘leading’ an interviewee into divulging this information without actually asking directly. Believe me, I was trained how to do it. So please be careful and know your rights!

As ever AA speaks the truth. And, like so much of AA’s other work on this site, it applies to non-academic career women too. Well said. (I am fan, what can I say?)

Look at women CEOs, the handful in executive gov’t jobs and other high-end positions. You will find they mostly do not have kids. They are unusual. 90% of American women have children during the course of their lifetime. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell famously remarked that Janet Napolitano was perfect for the Secretary of DHS because she had never been married and had no kids.

Men do have the social structural advantage of pursuing their careers and likely being able to find a mate they are happy with and who has less time-intensive job goals. For women with high career ambition, there is no such magical dating pool.

It makes me crazy that the phrase “family man” is high praise for working fathers, but nowhere in the lexicon does the “family woman” get similar acknowledgement.

Hi Lucia, I don’t know if you’ll see this, but I just wanted to thank you for your comments on these posts. I looked through some of the old ones and noticed you had added fresh comments with really valuable insights.

I completely agree that this issue (and some of the others, like the two-body problem) aren’t exclusive to academia. It makes me wonder about how a more universal shift in work-culture can, I don’t know, accommodate the fact that workers have real lives and real families, and those things can’t always be dictated by what’s best for productivity.

Part of the reason we are bothered/surprised by the difficulties women face in academia is that (for me anyhow) we expected it to be better than the non-academic workforce. I believed that universities were liberal institutions, whole-life/family friendly, and that an academic career would be like being an undergrad with magic.

My disappointments are deep because they shake a belief I had about my life’s ambition. Sure as hell it was not my life’s calling to sit in hostile department meetings or be a token committee appointment where I was to be seen but not heard (yuck!). We invest our 20’s into getting an entry-level job, adding to the “ouch” when the bubble bursts.

I found out there was no Santa’s Workshop where I could work all my days, and that rattled me when I finally came to terms with it.

It is SO GOOD that you understand and see the realities for what they are, and you are carefully considering how to navigate your career with all of that in mind. Knowing what you are signing up for is pretty important in having the sense of mind to see the bumps in the road and figuring out how to address them.

Keep writing, I love your work!

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