• August 27, 2015

How to Change Workplace Culture on Parenting

Balancing Act Illustration #2 - Careers

Brian Taylor

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close Balancing Act Illustration #2 - Careers

Brian Taylor

"When Ezra Max Brilliant was born in August 2008, I discovered that the house of myself that I thought I knew so well after so many years had another room, and in that room there was a closet, and in that closet there was a shoebox, and in that shoebox I could fit the house that I knew before Ezra. He is the joy of the world, and I look forward to enjoying him all the more now that this book is done. That I was able to enjoy him as much as I did during his first year without risking my career owes in good measure to the architects of the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge program. They designed enlightened policies that children of all working parents should receive, as Ezra did and for which I am forever grateful."

That acknowledgment was written by Mark Brilliant, an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, and appears in his new book, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. Rarely, I suspect, do such public tributes to family-responsive policies occur.

And until recently, it was almost as rare for fathers (and for many mothers) to take advantage of the parental policies that did exist. The policies that Mark used enabled him—as a father who provided substantial parenting—to stop the tenure clock for a year and receive a semester of teaching relief following the birth of a child.

Those policies have essentially been in place in the UC system since 1988, when a forward-thinking president, David Gardner, introduced what were then the most progressive family-leave policies in the country. In 2002-3, when we surveyed 4,400 tenure-track faculty members on the system's campuses, we found that, among eligible faculty parents, the use rates for the four major family-friendly policies (including six weeks of paid leave for childbirth and up to one year of unpaid parental leave) were surprisingly low.

For example, less than half of eligible women who were assistant professors sought a semester of relief from teaching duties after childbirth, and less than a third asked for an extension of the tenure clock. The rates at which eligible men in the university system used any of those policies were even lower—at most one in 10.

Why didn't faculty members make use of such benefits in 2002?

One reason is that the policies were not well known. Among respondents to our "Work and Family" survey, only half of the eligible faculty parents were aware of the existence of the teaching-relief benefit, arguably the most important of the family-friendly policies.

In fact, only just over a quarter of eligible faculty members knew about the four major policies. As one mother commented in the survey, "I was shocked to learn in [a survey question] that I and/or my spouse (who is also a faculty member) might have been eligible for teaching relief, and that my spouse might have been eligible for six weeks of paid leave. I was never told about either of these programs, which is a little upsetting."

Department chairs, the arbiters of personnel issues, were often among those in the dark about the family-friendly policies. In those days, it was up to the chairs to facilitate requests for parental leaves and other such benefits. But there was no requirement that chairs inform faculty members of the policies, and certain department heads even discouraged such requests.

A second, equally important reason that many mothers and fathers did not use the benefits was their concern that they would be considered less-than-serious players if they took time off for childbirth. "Prior to tenure I would never have considered using the option," one mother said. "I would have considered it ... a fatal flaw."

Some fathers expressed a reluctance to use a policy that they believed was put in place for women. Even if they were substantial caregivers, they believed they would be stigmatized for taking the leave. One faculty father said, "In my opinion, there is a certain 'culture' surrounding asking for teaching relief that makes it difficult for male faculty to consider this as a viable option."

That is the vicious circle of culture change. Fathers are reluctant to use parental relief when offered because it is contrary to the ethic of the male breadwinner. Mothers are afraid to use the policies that only women use for fear they will be treated as less serious about their work than men.

Joan Williams, in her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, argues that men, who are increasingly more involved with child-raising, actually now report higher levels of work-family conflict than women do.

In a recent NPR interview, she observed, "That provider ideal has far more purchase on people's imaginations, I think, than we really acknowledge." She added, "It is time to change this crippling stereotype. ... Men are facing the kind of conflict that women have faced, but they're facing it without the ability to make the changes that women very often make."

Even the U.S. Supreme Court believes that the stereotypes must be broken. In 2003, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, not known for his feminist advocacy, wrote the majority opinion in Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, on the question of whether Congress had the authority to make state governments give their employees the benefits of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. To the surprise of almost everyone, the chief justice's answer was yes.

Michael Kinsley, writing on Slate, called the 6-to-3 opinion "amazingly radical," for its account of how society's stereotyped expectations of women as caretakers "create a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination," which must be broken by enabling male employees to take time off to attend to family emergencies.

At Berkeley we have tried to break the cycle of low participation and fatherhood avoidance with several initiatives that expand family-responsive policies, including a temporary part-time tenure track with the right of return to full time and to emergency child care.

One of the most important new efforts is to assure that all faculty members are aware of the family-friendly benefits to which they are entitled. We began a campaign to emphasize the polices in recruitment and retention; a recruitment brochure now greets faculty candidates, and the faculty orientation incorporates a significant section on parental polices and support systems, including day care. Department chairs are pulled into the initiative with an orientation session and a "Deans and Chairs Toolkit" that explains their responsibilities in encouraging and promoting use of the policies.

Culture does not change easily, but there are early signs of improvement here. More mothers and fathers, like Mark Brilliant, are taking advantage of policies that are now automatic entitlements, not benefits that people have to individually request of their department heads.

We have yet to do a full survey of all the University of California campuses, but we are experiencing a most encouraging baby boom at Berkeley. Between 2003 (before the new initiatives), and 2009 (after), the percentage of female assistant professors who reported having at least one child more than doubled, from 27 percent to 64 percent, and for men it rose from 39 percent to 59 percent. Maybe "the times, they are a-changing"?

Mary Ann Mason, a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security, is the author (with her daughter, Eve Ekman), of Mothers on the Fast Track. She writes regularly on work and family issues for our Balancing Act column and invites readers to send in questions or personal concerns about those issues to careers@chronicle.com or to mamason@law.berkeley.edu.


1. amnirov - January 13, 2011 at 05:14 pm

As long as you still fulfill the same requirements for reappointment, tenure and promotion that child-free professors have, I don't care what entitlements you get.

2. kaytsine - January 13, 2011 at 06:54 pm

Our culture's turn towards natalism makes me uneasy. I would be more accepting of generous family leave policies if other caretaking chores really were included--e.g. attending a dying parent, or caretaking a seriously ill partner. But although the rhetoric is expansive, the policies in reality focus on reproduction.

3. jffoster - January 13, 2011 at 10:06 pm

WHY? Why chenge the workplace "culture" on parenting?

4. fortysomethingprof - January 13, 2011 at 11:40 pm

People should be able to feel that they can become parents without jeopardizing their careers. Some, particularly women, have been stigmatized as "not really serious" if they start having children a couple of years into their tenure-stream jobs.

The author points to a baby boom among assistant professors at the University of California. What are the numbers for graduate students, or don't they enjoy the same kinds of accommodations?

5. mnchemmom - January 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

Why not change the culture on parenting? Raising children is a lot of work, espcially in the early years. As far as being natalism, I do not think most people have kids because they know these programs exist. I am not sure about most people but I had no clue about the parental leave programs at my industrial job until I found out I was having a child. It was a nice perk especially when good childcare is limited in some locations for those going back to work. Some centers (just your average center) have waiting lists that are 1-2 years long.

6. janatig - January 14, 2011 at 02:32 pm

While I think pro-parenting (and, as the commenter above mentioned, other types of familiar/partner support) policies are wonderful, I would like to see an examination of the lack of such support for graduate students, lecturers, and other non-tenure track faculty. As a graduate student who decided to return to school in my upper twenties, I found myself in the position of having to either decide to postpone childbearing until what most medical professionals term "advanced maternal age" (although I do have problems with that designation) post-graduate studies, or to have children while in school with health insurance that doesn't cover full medical costs of pregnancy and childbirth, no maternity leave, and no childcare support.

7. amberwb - January 14, 2011 at 06:16 pm

@fortysomethingprof re: grad students

The same benefits are not extended to graduate students, and though we have started to see some meager progress on that here at the UCs, further movement is highly unlikely in the current budget crisis. When I started at my current UC institution, there was no paid parental leave for graduate students. Starting a couple years ago, we get 4 weeks of paid parental leave (and up to a year of medical leave of absence that stops our funding/progress clock). However, you might note that academic appointments don't come in 4-week chunks, so collecting on this puts your department in an awkward position where they have to find (or manufacture) an appointment for you for which you can be absent for 4 weeks. As TA appointment lines dry up, it becomes harder to accommodate this (but they have to... they don't have to be happy about it, though, which makes it hard to ask). In order to get those 4 paid weeks you have to accept an academic appointment for the term, meaning you have to come back to work after 4 weeks (that is, you can't stack it with unpaid time to take an entire term off). 4 weeks of parental leave is better than 0 weeks, but anyone who has had a baby will likely agree that it's a joke. Both parents cannot return to work after 4 weeks (most daycares don't accept children under 1.5 years, and even infant-care programs have a minimum of 3 or 6 months).

Our most recent union contract has increased childcare reimbursement for graduate academic employees from $900 per year (another benefit that began 2 years ago) to $2400 per year. Again, this is great and better than nothing, but fulltime daycare costs $1200+ per month per child in this area, and even the subsidized student rate at the university daycare (that has a 1-to-1.5-year wait list) is over $700 per month per child (so over $8400 per year per child, when we make $17K).

And I chose this institution because of its family-friendly policies. That is, because it actually HAD explicit family-related policies, unlike the other institutions to which I was admitted.

8. boiler - January 16, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Just for the record, there are many of us who have no problem at all with "natalism" -- in fact, we're all for it.

9. soc_sci_anon - January 17, 2011 at 04:05 pm

Co-equal family leave policies are great in theory, but if more men than women can, and do, use them as bonus study leaves (i.e., for research, not parenting), they will exacerbate gender inequities. From what I've seen at my uni, and in my department, this is *exactly* what is happening.

10. mstraye4 - January 17, 2011 at 07:12 pm

My partner and I are both grad students and we just had a baby last year. At both of our private research institutions there doesn't seem to be any policies in place for grad student parents. We ended up timing it so that my partner was pregnant during the write-up phase -- she doesn't get funding, but, for what it's worth, her department offered to give her medical leave so that this year off doesn't show up on her transcripts.

My department was pretty supportive (they let me miss two weeks of teaching and I still received my full fellowship payment for that month). But I get the feeling that we're part of a very very small minority (I don't know another graduate student at my institution that has a kid) and for that very reason it feels extremely hard to organize any sort of support group or union-like bargaining group.

11. jffoster - January 18, 2011 at 09:08 am

Your problem, No 10, is captured in your parenthetic remark about not knowing any other graduate student [at your university] who has a child.

You are caught up in the Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 problem. You are either doing graduate school or having children "out of time and season". That isn't "wrong" necessarily, but it does mean that you will have some difficulties others doing things "in season" will not have. And it is not necessarily the job of the university or the society at large to fix it.

12. velvis - January 18, 2011 at 11:08 am

Out of the 20+ GAs in my college at my University I'm one of 3 that has children. One girl just had her second but grad school is less of a path to a future career and more of a hobby. One has 3, who are all of school age and then there's me with the 5 year old and the unflagging need to have another.

I've decided to kick my own butt and not come up for air these last two years and with that I'm doing my defense in the summer, so that I can have a child when I have a real job and not risk my grad studies.

I think it's entirely unfair that women are looked down upon for having children - like we're not serious about our careers, and conversly having careers because that makes us poor mothers. When most of us who have both, are able to do both better because we are more full in our hearts (and schedules) than those who have sacrificed one for the other.

Yet while I would be penalized for having a child - Professor Old-Man down the hall has taken an in-office "sabatical" for well over 3 semesters and I have picked up his teaching load.

For these policies and opinions it is the university's responsiblity to fix them.

While I'm not against paying my dues part of that due shouldn't be my family.

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