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The New Glass Ceiling in Academe

In honor of International Women’s Day, the university where I am currently a postdoctoral fellow held a conference on “glass ceilings in academia.” The midcareer professor who organized the conference invited me and a couple of other female postdocs to speak about our experiences as young women in the profession. But is the “glass ceiling” a relevant concept for describing the challenges we face at this stage in our careers? As postdocs, adjuncts, lecturers, and visiting assistant professors, “glass house” might be a better metaphor. Our most immediate concern is not how to rise through the ranks of the profession, but how to get our foot in the tenure-track door in the first place.

Postdocs were once largely limited to the hard sciences. Over the past decade, however, universities and foundations have begun to promote them as a stopgap measure to ameliorate the broader job crisis in the humanities and social sciences. In 2008, the most recent year for which I was able to find data, 9 percent of humanities Ph.D.’s in the United States held postdoctoral fellowships. The number is almost certainly higher now.

In many ways the increase in postdocs has been a boon to the humanities. For recent Ph.D.’s, the programs provide not only much-needed employment but also time and resources to pursue research. For universities and colleges, postdocs are a relatively inexpensive way to attract young scholars engaged in cutting-edge research with the ability to teach of-the-moment topics.

But the expansion of postdocs and other short-term positions has two major drawbacks. First, the positions often require recipients to move long distances—to another city, another state, or even another country—for periods that range from one to three years. Although the moves can be exciting opportunities (my postdoc is in Florence, Italy), they are also expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. As the number of new tenure-track openings remains stagnant or continues to decrease, recent Ph.D.’s may have to make such moves multiple times before they finally find tenure-track positions (if they ever do).

A second and potentially more serious drawback of this new era of itinerancy is that it adversely affects Ph.D.’s who are part of dual-career couples and/or have children. As a result, it directly threatens the future of women in academe. When I was trying to figure out what to say at the glass-ceilings conference, I realized that, in my own postdoc program, I am the only one of 19 female fellows who has a child. I don’t think this is a coincidence. It is indicative of the challenges of moving for temporary positions with a family in tow.

The challenges obviously have an impact on both men and women, but women may be particularly affected. On average, women still earn less money than men do. Women also tend to make greater compromises in their careers for the general sake of the well-being of their families than men do, and to take on the dominant role as caregivers for their children. For all of those reasons, women may be reluctant to relocate for temporary positions.

All Ph.D.’s who move long distances for postdocs or other short-term positions have to deal with considerable moving expenses—expenses that are often not fully covered by employers. They also face the challenge of settling in to new academic and social environments. Those who move with their families confront the added complications of finding employment for their partners or of surviving on one, often relatively low salary. They are confronted with the challenges of finding appropriate child care or schooling for their children, and must raise children far away from support networks of family and close friends.

Without those networks, routine events, such as seasonal illnesses, trips to the hospital, and school closings can turn into major disruptions that impede professional productivity. Considering that many Ph.D.’s may have to make such short-term moves two, three, or more times before they finally find a full-time position, the problem becomes more acute.

What can be done to ameliorate the situation? Obviously the problem of itinerancy is the result of the dearth of tenure-track positions, which stems from a variety of factors, including a decline in governmental funding for higher education and a decline in support for the humanities in broader society. But on a micro level, I think some beneficial changes could be made in the structure of short-term employment. First, rather than continually create more postdocs, public and private institutions and foundations could fund grants for recent Ph.D.’s that would allow them to live wherever they chose, and to arrange their own affiliations with local universities.

There are precedents for that kind of program. The Mellon/ACLS Recent Doctoral Recipients Fellowship, which was discontinued in 2010, awarded block grants of $35,000 to recent Ph.D.’s in the humanities to support one year of research in any location.

Another option would be to create more programs that provide Ph.D.’s with the opportunity to pursue a postdoc or teaching fellowship at their own graduate institution or at an institution nearby. Such programs would allow Ph.D.’s to continue in academe without having to make temporary, long-distance moves.

Institutions that continue to design residency-based postdoctoral programs could make them more attractive to families by offering adequate travel and moving allowances for an entire family; access to faculty housing; on-site, affordable day care for children too young to attend public schools; babysitting services to help fellows attend evening events; and assistance to fellows’ partners in finding employment.

Those institutions could also offer fellows the option of having one-, two-, or three-year contracts. For some families, making long-distance moves would be worth the disruption only if they could stay for multiple years. For others, a year might be ideal if a fellow’s partner was able to take a year’s leave from work.

For many women of my generation, academe once appeared to be a relatively family-friendly career. We realized we would face the challenges of a pervasive workload, a tenure process that usually coincides with our child-bearing years, and the need to travel for conferences and our own research. But those challenges were offset by the flexibility that faculty positions offer, including the opportunity to design one’s own schedule, to do a lot of work from home, an occupational calendar that roughly coincides with the public-school year, and family-leave policies that are often superior to those offered in other professions.

If recent Ph.D.’s continue to have to make a series of national or international moves for short-term positions, I fear we will begin to see more women dropping out of the profession and fewer entering it in the first place. The gains that women have made in academe over the past few decades will be reversed.

Rachel Applebaum is a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute.

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