The Academic-Motherhood Handicap

Brian Taylor

February 12, 2010

One afternoon in the spring of 2005, after coming up dry in my second year of pursuing a tenure-track position, I typed the following words into Google: "female academic second child effect career." My firstborn was about to turn 2, I wanted him to have a sibling, and I needed guidance on this choice.

What Google made clear: Having children can devastate the career prospects of female academics, but the academic profession seems remarkably complacent about this handicap.

Although some research universities have instituted important family-friendly initiatives (which are economically out of reach for the majority of colleges and universities, especially now), even the most well-endowed universities practice hiring and promotion policies that actively—yet not deliberately—discriminate against academic mothers. Should the best-educated people on the planet simply accept unequal career prospects that clash with academics' own stated values of fairness?

Biology is real. Discrimination against academic mothers differs from other forms of discrimination in important ways. Children and "motherhood" have always been celebrated in American culture in ways that members of minority groups, for example, have decidedly not been. No department that I've ever heard of has any official or tacit policy against hiring or promoting mothers, who are often welcome to bring their children to departmental parties or meetings. In fact, academic mothers are treated no differently than academic fathers on this social level.

But that's the problem. Academic mothers are different than academic fathers. The differences are both sex-specific and time-limited, significant only during the intense years of childbearing and early caregiving—the years that matter most for academic careers.

Research by scholars such as Mary Ann Mason at the University of California at Berkeley paints a grim picture. If a woman wants to get hired as an assistant professor, she is much less likely to succeed if she is a mother. But fathers are actually much more likely to land a position and achieve tenure, even more likely than childless men.

Most academic mothers get stuck in what Mason calls the "second tier"—the low-pay, low-security, low-status, and zero-opportunity part-time and adjunct positions that now constitute a majority of college teaching. Female Ph.D.'s with children are more than twice as likely as men with children to work in this second tier. Therefore, although women are now equally represented in the academic pipeline, men will continue to dominate the senior ranks unless something changes.

Why exactly do the careers of academic fathers advance while academic mothers' stall? Does the difference stem from hiring committees' perceptions? Parental choices? Institutional discrimination? None of the above.

Academic fathers get a tailwind because they can be what the legal scholar Joan Williams calls "ideal workers." The ability of ideal workers to devote long hours and weekends to professional advancement, to attend conferences, to move for both short-term fellowships and jobs, and to drop everything to meet deadlines literally depends on the work of what Williams calls "marginalized caregivers," the supportive partners behind the scenes.

When male academics have children, their partners almost always pause their careers in order to be the main caregiver for periods ranging from three months to years.

Three months is long enough to write a book chapter and a conference paper. Maybe more.

For the duration of a full-time caregiver's occupation of the domestic sphere, not only are the children taken care of, but so most likely are meals, laundry, shopping, trip planning, and other domestic work to which the academic father likely used to contribute more when his partner worked as much as he did.

When a hiring committee expects to see a published book before it will even consider a job candidate for an assistant-professor position, only the childless and parents with full-time caregivers at home are eligible. When a tenure committee expects two books, academic mothers had better start looking for a new job unless they have been extremely lucky with fellowships and helpful grandparents. Even fathers who are committed to gender equity in the division of domestic work simply cannot compensate in the early years for mammary glands and uteri. Academic men shouldn't be penalized for lacking reproductive organs, but neither should academic women be penalized for having—and using—those organs.

Sex versus gender. Current academic policy in pursuit of gender equity rests on a faulty syllogism: Because women are equal to men, academic mothers should be treated the same as academic fathers.

But women during the years—years!—between planning for conception and weaning really are professionally inferior to men. Yes, I wrote inferior—simply unable to work as hard, as long, or as well as childless professors or academic fathers.

Here, the intellectual progress we've made by replacing the concept of sex with that of gender turns out to be an overcorrection. It is not social conditioning that creates this inferiority. It is not institutional discrimination either, although flexible parental-leave policies, tenure-clock stoppage, and child-care accommodations are indeed important. But this inferiority is a biological fact. It is about sex, not gender.

I'm talking about the vita gap. It's somewhat ironic that the name of the document by which academics represent their work has "life" at its root, because when academic women create life they starve their vitas. Time spent on reproduction is time away from scholarship, so mothers' competitors outproduce them on the most-important measure used by hiring committees in this buyers' market: quantity. Given two equally capable teachers with good recommendation letters, the fatter vita wins every time.

The faulty syllogism has led to a widely accepted practice of silence on child-related matters in hiring. For legal reasons, committees are not supposed to ask applicants any questions regarding marital or reproductive status; they are supposed to volunteer information regarding leave policies, local schools, and general family-friendliness to all applicants as a universal standard.

But the vita gap is only compounded by that policy of silence. I see three main problems with it.

Problem No. 1: Silence at the institutional level means that academic women enter their childbearing years blind. They do not know what obstacles they face, and Google is their only guide to surmounting them. Fortune may provide them with a good role model—an assistant professor who bears a child or two in plain view—but that role model has her own problems. As a new mother, she is taxed to capacity and, therefore, unable to be a consistent mentor, for which she gets no professional credit. If she is employed on the tenure track at a research institution, she is likely to get a full semester of paid leave. That is hardly the situation for most female academics of childbearing age.

For example, when I went ahead and had my second child during my third year of teaching in the "second tier" as an adjunct, I got ... a bouquet. That's all. Most new Ph.D.'s, male and female, now spend several years in the second tier, during which they have to work hard to fatten their vitas while teaching more courses than their tenure-track competitors simply in order to survive.

Many of the cash-strapped state universities and teaching-heavy colleges that provide the majority of tenure-track positions don't offer any paid parental leave at all. Academic women who give birth in such tenuous circumstances cannot follow in the footsteps of their wonderful role models. They have to keep teaching, even when their babies are tiny, or else their vitas will be not only skinny but stillborn. And as long as they are combining teaching with the intense care of early childhood, they are not producing scholarship.

Problem No. 2: Silence is hard to enforce. Who is going to blow the whistle on a hiring committee? Who is going to punish that committee for discrimination? How? On my road to the tenure track, I had four on-campus interviews. At three of them, members of the hiring department asked in a friendly way about my family status. I knew that violated protocol, but the code of silence meant that no one had trained me to deal with such questions. I answered honestly in the same friendly tone.

Did I get offered any of those three jobs? No. But I had no way to know whether that was due to discrimination of any sort, and I had no recourse for the ethical breach.

Problem No. 3: Silence makes the vita gap look merely like lesser competence. Academic mothers cannot tell hiring committees that they would have produced more scholarship, been more prepared for their interviews, and polished their job talks more if not for children. No matter how hard academic mothers work, at just the moment when their career potential is being evaluated, they appear less promising than fathers or people without children.

A recent president of the American Historical Association overcame the vita gap with a full-time nanny (who died in her kitchen), four hours of sleep a night, two days a week without lunch, and frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia.

Silence as complicity. Not speaking of family status perpetuates the handicap of academic motherhood, which shouldn't hinder women's careers at all. So let's actually give academic mothers a handicap sticker to paste onto their vitas. Make the work of motherhood visible in women's academic records. By pinpointing only the strictly biological work that belongs to sex instead of gender, this handicap would function like replacing doorknobs with levers. It would make academic success accessible to mothers without creating a barrier for fathers or people without children.

Academic mothers should unblushingly total up the time spent on reproduction and credit it on their vitas. Give it its own category; call it "reproductive allowance." For my two "easy" pregnancies conceived exactly when I planned them with complication-free deliveries, quick recoveries, and no lactation problems, my conservative estimate is 1,810 hours spent. Each. That's a book, right there, and then some.

And that's exactly how it should appear on a vita: "Work that would otherwise be complete: a manuscript and an article." Hiring committees should see the real professional potential of academic mothers whose sex had prevented them from realizing that potential—yet.

For this handicap system to work, it is important to limit allotments to strictly sex-specific expenditures of time. Some tasks related to reproduction belong to the private decision-making of each family. Who does the research on child-care options, who takes the child to the pediatrician, and who mashes the baby food are not academe's responsibility. In other words, women who want to put in a "second shift" at home in perpetuity probably belong in the second tier.

But it is time for academe to acknowledge that women's productivity is slowed by reproduction. No one in the profession wants women to be hampered in their career advancement, so we should stop acting like having children is a problem. And silence is complicity. I daresay few if any male colleagues of mine have spent time Googling "male academic second child effect career." Acknowledging exactly how motherhood affects productivity in ways that fatherhood does not—acknowledging it openly, systematically, and professionwide—will cost nothing, hurt no one, and help thousands.

By the skin of my teeth, I made it onto the tenure track after four years on the job market, and thanks to my first teaching relief in seven years, it looks like I'll finish my first book, too. But for every successful academic mother, there are a good dozen hidden women who have either sacrificed their family plans for their careers or sacrificed their careers for their children. Choicelessly. To end that cycle of unequal academic motherhood, we have to make the personal not only political, but professional, too.

Amy Kittelstrom is an assistant professor of history at Sonoma State University and a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.