Sixth Annual Survey
Great Colleges To Work For 2013
Blame the Institution, Not Just the Fathers
Too many studies on the career challenges of academic mothers let the university off the hook
By David J. Leonard
Illustration by Harry Campbell for The Chronicle
Many recent studies analyzing the challenges facing academic mothers seem to blame their stalled careers on the failure of academic fathers to be equal partners.
I've seen that easy explanation offered again and again in studies and articles: Men are slacking off at parenting, leaving women overburdened by family obligations and struggling to meet their career demands in academe.
In some families, the incompetent or lax father, or one still attached to 1950s gender roles, may indeed be part of the problem.
But when the issue of struggling academic mothers is reduced primarily to failures by men, that not only lets the university off the hook but also erases the ways in which institutions fail to support nontraditional families or childless couples caring for elderly family members. It ignores the cultural and structural context that affects us all.
The media coverage of these studies focuses on the failure of male academics to transcend traditional gender roles. The premise is that despite the successes of their partners and despite their purported liberal or progressive dispositions, male academics fall back into line with patriarchy. At one level, that is not surprising. Male academics—like male lawyers, doctors, construction workers, civil servants, or men in any number of occupations—are socialized into a society that renders the home as the responsibility of women.
Higher education is no different. It, too, perpetuates the system of patriarchy that positions men as breadwinners and women as "homemakers." Men are expected to put the job first. Female academics are pushed to care for family and then punished careerwise when they do. In a new book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, Mary Ann Mason and a team of researchers concluded that "the most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women's, but not men's, academic careers. For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer."
But male academics who are equal parents also feel the consequences. They suffer within an environment that sees parenting as a private issue, a women's issue, and not a workplace issue. Men feel the tensions of a university culture that tells them over and over again, "Focus on your work; she's got you."
"Universities do not seem to care if staff and faculty are parents unless legally obligated to do so," said my colleague Richard King, a professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University. "Do the work. Have kids on your own time. Any conflict is your responsibility to manage so long as you prioritize us over them."
His observation is confirmed by a study of doctoral students at the University of California, conducted by Mason and her team there. It found that more than 50 percent of men and 70 percent of women saw research universities as "not friendly to family life."
It's not just the lack of child-care options and useful family-friendly policies, it's the regular reminders that kids are not a university problem, they're a mother problem.
"When I was a junior faculty member 15 years ago, I got into it once with an older colleague over the timing of a faculty meeting (in the evening)," Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University, said in an e-mail. "When I told him the meeting cut into family time, he intimated that my wife should take care of the child."
Things have improved somewhat since then, he said. But he wondered how a faculty member's gender and tenure status, as well as the type of university, determine the level of improvement. Universities are neither encouraging nor creating the conditions for male academics to be equal parents.
A 2012 study of married tenure-track fathers with young children found that only three out of 109 fathers reported completing half the child-care work. An article about the study in Businessweek was headlined: "Even in Academia, Dads Don't Do Diapers."
In response to such findings, Neal described his parenting life as one of multiple shifts and obligations: "I did a lot of diapers. I did a lot of early-morning feedings. Do the vast majority of the cooking. Still do carpool regularly. When I'm sitting in carpool lines, I see lots of fathers. ... I'm sure such studies miss the complex ways that men parent—often out of the limelight and with diminishing resources."
The ability to rearrange work schedules and work odd hours also helps fathers assume greater responsibility over child care. Being an academic is both a privilege and burden in that regard. "Being an academic and a parent really means that you serve two gods—neither can be arranged around a traditional 9-to-5, five-day, 40-hour week," said Neal. "I find that I am most successful at both when I'm willing to be flexible and improvise around my time and energies."
King, the Washington State professor, said one of the best perks of academic life "is a flexible schedule. It has allowed me to be present regularly, with much greater frequency than peers in other professions. This fostered better co-parenting and a stronger bond with kids."
So some fathers are pulling their weight, and more of them need to. With shifts in campus policies toward a greater emphasis on balancing work and life issues, and with more efforts to change the culture of university life, one can hope that we might see change across the board.
Hope for alternative approaches is already evident. In response to the headline, "Even in Academia, Dads Don't Do Diapers," Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at California State University at Long Beach, pushed back at the conclusions of those parenting studies. The fathers in his academic network have had ample exposure to feminist thought and theory, he said, noting: "I don't see that finding as reflective of the academic fathers I know."
Randall Craig, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany, agreed: "Insofar as it concerns parenting, this study bears no resemblance whatsoever to my own experience."
Yet in many departments, the lingering expectations about male and female roles when it comes to children continue to affect both the women and the men.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I had a faculty meeting, and my child-care arrangements had fallen through. No problem, I thought. I headed to the campus with my infant daughter, Rea—diapers, bottle, and bag of toys in hand. All was well in my mind, but for my department chair, not so much. On that day, as with others, I was reminded that my responsibilities as a parent and as a professor were anything but complementary.
The department chair told me that I was not allowed to bring her to the office, and told my colleagues not to hold Rea, because doing so was a "liability." In another instance, I was encouraged to reduce my appointment to part time if I couldn't meet my responsibilities as a professor. On that particular day, I had had the audacity to note my child-care responsibilities in response to a demand that I attend a meeting the following day. Again the message was clear: Focus on my job, and leave the parenting to someone else.
As a father, in seeking to defy the heteronormative script that told me to leave the bulk of parenting to my wife, I was reminded over and over again to stay in my proper role. For my female colleagues with kids, for those without children, or for those caring for other family members, the lessons come at different moments, but each in the end makes clear how universities are failing to promote a work environment that nurtures the appropriate mix of work and life, that mentors people alongside professionals.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.