Early lessons from a survey on bias in family formation in academia

9 September 2019, 1610 EDT

The following is a guest post by Leah C. Windsor and Kerry F. Crawford. Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis. Crawford is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at James Madison University. To take their survey, visit: https://tinyurl.com/drparentsurvey

This is the first in the series on changing the field of international relations. #IRChange

Academic families – especially dual-career spouses – with young children are struggling in more specific and remediable ways than we thought when we first launched our “Bias in Family Formation in Academia” survey last year. As parents of young children ourselves, we have a front row seat to competing demands of the early career and early childhood years.

We vastly underestimated the pervasiveness and ubiquity of obstacles, and the repetitive nature of the stories other academic parents wrote. We kept encountering the same problems: departmental and institutional refusal to accommodate legally-mandated family leave requests; hostile and toxic work environments for parents, especially mothers; and the unobservable emotional and physical toll of becoming parents, like fertility challenges, tough pregnancies and post-partum phases, and complicated adoptions.

The survey is part of a larger book project that recounts personal narratives of parents – mostly mothers – in their full-time roles as doctor and mom. Much has been written on the “leaky pipeline” whereby women exit the profession at higher rates than men, and on the “work-life balance” with competing suggestions of leaning in, tenure time-outs, and the (in)ability of women to “have it all.” We think of the pipeline as more of a “chutes and ladders” board game, where benefits of mentorship and supportive institutions can improve gender parity in the profession, elevating parents up the tenure-track ladder.

While there is good reason to believe that overall the situation is improving, what we find is that too many of the solutions focus on individual-level fixes, rather than addressing the systemic origins of the problems. Policies about family formation should be ubiquitously, transparently, and equitably communicated to faculty, and FMLA provisions should be considered the bare minimum in order to achieve a culture change of supporting academic families.

The following are themes and lessons – generally about U.S.-based institutions – we have identified through the 100-question survey of academic parents:

Don’t tell your undergrads, graduate students, pre-tenure female faculty, or any other person when the right time is (or is not) to start a family.

Respondent answers about timing childbirth were among the most contentious in our survey. Many reported senior colleagues – both male and female – instructed them to wait until after tenure to have children. Other women (exclusively) noted disparaging comments from colleagues about them “ending their careers early” or “ruining their careers” when they revealed they were pregnant.

Additionally, the unwritten rule in academia seems to be to try to time your pregnancy or adoption so the child(ren) will arrive during the summer or winter breaks. This, of course, means that child-free and male colleagues will be using that time for R&R (relaxation and research), while academic mothers are recovering from childbirth.

The family formation process encompasses more than the federally mandated twelve weeks under FMLA.

FMLA is the only legally recognized accommodation for pregnancy, unless sick and/or bereavement days are taken. In most cases, FMLA begins when the child is born; alternative accommodations (such as a teaching release for the next academic semester) are at the discretion of supervisors. For institutions lacking a family leave policy, parents must use sick leave. Through our survey we also learned that parents may use bereavement leave for miscarriages and infant loss.

Many pregnancies are completely unremarkable, and women are able to carry their usual teaching, research, and service roles alongside carrying a child. However, for some women, getting and staying pregnant is a years-long process, with many disappointments, such as miscarriages. Fertility treatments and hormonal fluctuations can affect focus and attention. Difficult pregnancies may include severe morning sickness, extreme fatigue, weekly medical appointments, and/or bed rest.

Additionally, the postpartum phase lasts much longer than twelve weeks, and is especially pronounced if the child(ren) are in day care where they are exposed to a host of germs and illnesses. Many women suffer from post-partum depression and/or anxiety (PPD/A). Adoptive parents also face similar challenges, especially the uncertainty of “if and when” a child will be theirs to adopt.

Women are not getting the support they need to accommodate their work and family lives – although we are finding that non-birth parents in the primary caregiver role also suffer career penalties. Family formation policies at the departmental and college levels are often opaque, poorly communicated, and inconsistently applied across individuals and departments. Our respondents report that department and academic unit heads and deans not infrequently refuse to negotiate with them for family leave. In other cases, male non-birth partners are offered more generous accommodations such as online teaching than gestating academic mothers. We also read many anecdotes about non-birth colleagues using parental leave as a research sabbatical or as an opportunity to move up by going on the job market.

We also identify a huge attention gap in addressing special problems facing the tide pools of non-tenure track academics who are circling in Visiting Assistant Professorships, Instructorships, Lecturers, and Adjunct positions.

This also includes families with the “two body problem” where one partner accepts a lower-ranked position in order to accommodate raising children under one roof. The number of faculty positions filled by non-tenure track scholars is increasing, and the demands of their workload equal if not exceed those of tenure-track faculty. They often have very high teaching loads for very low pay – and low status. They are likely perpetually on the job market, trying to move beyond their position in the academic exploited underclass. They have all the penalties facing women in tenure-track positions, with none of the protections.

There are special problems facing academic women, including pregnancy and lactation on the job market, in the department, and at conferences.

Women’s overall mental and physical health and well-being often suffer in the months and years following childbirth in ways that may affect their work productivity. Because academics have little control over where they live, their jobs are often far from family and social support networks who can share the burden of child care and other forms of help.

Women are often dissuaded from disclosing a pregnancy (or requesting lactation accommodation) while on the job market, although at some point the obvious becomes inevitable. Keeping a pregnancy private can isolate a prospective parent from potential sources of support, but the costs of disclosing may simply be too high.

Conferences are opportunities for networking and forming peer networks. Pregnant and lactating women may be physically and logistically unable to keep pace with the informal socializing where they would otherwise have the opportunity to meet mentors and future letter-writers.

Even given the tremendous difficulties of family formation in academia, most respondents think that it’s worth it.

Your Tenure & Promotion committee will not care for you in your old age. As one respondent put it, “consider what will be important when you’re 90.” At a recent conference panel on family formation, one scholar said she felt like her children were her legacy and that showing them transparently how she navigated all the obstacles in the hope that it might make their career path a little less challenging.

For the discipline to change, we must embrace the whole scholar.

We encourage colleagues, academic unit heads, administrators, and professional associations to embrace the whole scholar and recognize that we are all people who often have competing demands on our time and brain space. As our survey shows, many of us welcome our children before or during graduate school, on the tenure track, or in non-tenure track positions, making the road to eventual tenure somewhat bumpier (but certainly interesting!).

In thinking about how our discipline should change, we submit our call to move beyond the baseline of minimal and unevenly applied formal considerations for academic birth mothers to a more comprehensive support system that embraces parent-scholars and retains their talents.

Most immediately, academic unit heads and administrators should ensure that parental leave policies are equitable, universal, and clearly communicated. Perhaps easiest of all, we can all take it upon ourselves to stop advising our students, fellow conference-goers, job candidates, and colleagues to delay having children until after tenure; scholars are people, first and foremost, and should be free to make their most personal decisions without outside interference.

More generally, faculty who work with graduate students, academic unit heads, administrators, and professional association leaders should stop to consider what efforts they can make to ensure that their corner of the academy is accessible to all scholars, regardless of their status as parents.

Parent-scholars and especially mother-scholars need both formal and informal support to “have it all” or stay in the “pipeline”—or, as we prefer to envision it, the game of Academic Chutes and Ladders.