Faculty Mothers: Continuing the Conversation

by rebuller on February 4, 2014
eec68a08-237b-40b4-85b3-f1da71ea63adListening ear. Moral support. Advisor. Counselor. Professor. Mother?

I’m in the midst of reading Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family, by Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel–both of whom are well-published professors of educational leadership.[1] Ward and Wolf-Wendel aren’t the first authors to address this topic; other notable contributions to the conversation include Mama, Ph.D. (and the subsequent Papa, Ph.D.), Parenting and ProfessingThe Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serveand Academic Motherhood in a Post-Second Wave Context. Within the first few pages, Ward and Wolf-Wendel differentiate their book from previous volumes. They point out that while most other writers have addressed the significant challenges of combining motherhood and academia, the 120 women they interviewed also stressed the joys that they find in their dual roles as well as the ways in which academia can offer autonomy and flexible scheduling to accommodate family commitments. As they dig deeper into the content of their interviews, though, it becomes increasingly clear that academics continue to struggle with the work-family balance and with student and institutional perceptions of female professors as surrogate mother-figures. Here, the participants in Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s study echo the frustrations articulated by female faculty across the United States.

Academia certainly does offer greater flexibility than other occupations. Professors do not teach 9 to 5, which means that many parents can arrange their teaching load around their children’s schedules. As Ward and Wolf-Wendel point out, though, academia (like family work) is “greedy” in nature: “Academic work is distinct in that it can be, quite literally, never-ending. There are always articles to read, papers to grade, syllabi to update, and proposals to write” (51). The portability of academic work through laptops and email means that work can be (and usually is) ever-present at home as well.

woman on laptopIn their study, the two authors interviewed academic mothers across a variety of institutions: research institutions, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. Their results revealed common concerns as well as significant differences. Professors at research institutions face the most pressure in the publish-or-perish mindset, but they also receive very clear expectations on the tenure track, which aids them significantly in the balancing act. Community college professors express the most satisfaction in their jobs and in their ability to combine work and family – in large part because many of their students, too, balance work and family commitments, and perhaps therefore have fewer expectations of their professors in the hours outside of class.

Faculty interviews indicate that the liberal arts college may offer the most barriers to successfully juggling work and family. Most liberal arts colleges promote the “community,” or even “family,” aspect of their campus experience as a way to attract and retain students and faculty alike. From day one, first-year students are grouped in small cohorts as a way to develop community bonds, and students have the opportunity to develop close relationships with their faculty advisors. At my own institution, faculty advisors are encouraged to invite students to their homes for dinner. Having grown up as the daughter of a professor at another liberal arts college, I recall many dinners with students in our home during my childhood. From both perspectives, then, I’ve seen the benefits of these nurturing relationships. However, I’ve also seen work-life-balance-sign (and the book’s interview subjects echo this) that female faculty are far more likely to be tapped for such nurturing and service-oriented positions. Colleagues of mine recently conducted a study of students at a peer institution regarding their gendered perceptions of and expectations for professors. Students as a whole were surprisingly honest in stating their differing expectations for male and female faculty. They expected female professors to make extra time for them, to counsel them, and to extend deadlines and alter assignments; while some also expected this of their male professors, they were far more understanding when the men could not – or would not – accommodate them.[2]

Such expectations also intersect with the liberal arts college push for building a close-knit campus community. Whereas female faculty at research institutions feel that benchmarks for teaching, research, and service were made clear, their counterparts at liberal arts colleges more often experience an ambiguity of expectations, particularly when it comes to evening commitments that interfere with family. What it means to be part of a tight-knit and supportive community is often unclear. As one professor questioned, “Does that mean I go to one basketball game a year or one theater production? Or do I go to all the senior recitals for students who have been in my classes? What exactly?” (129)

woman pulling hair outWhat seems to be true across institutions of higher education, regardless of scope or size, is the lack of established family leave policies. This theme is echoed through all of the recent literature. Again and again, academic mothers get to reinvent the wheel when they plan for maternity leave – arranging for colleagues to cover a few classes here and there, requesting a reduced teaching load, or moving some sections to an online format. Some of the mothers interviewed by Ward and Wolf-Wendel took no leave at all, and many spoke of trying to time their pregnancies for summer delivery. Others expressed concerns about fairness and equity when different faculty negotiated different leaves. In every case, professors arranged family leave on a case-by-case basis within their individual departments – and many noted the lack of institutional models for their experiences. (Clearly, this same obstacle surrounding family leave presents itself to fathers in academia as well, a topic that received excellent and diverse treatment by the essayists in Papa, Ph.D.)

Academic institutions are often viewed as bastions of liberal privilege, but if they can continue to get by without family leave policies then it points to a deficit in the larger institutional mindset. Despite the flexibility that academic mothers claim to enjoy in their work in general, they are not staying the course. Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s research shows that while more women and mothers are entering academia as assistant professors, this still has not translated into higher numbers of female full professors, nor into an increased number of female administrators. The pipeline is leaking across disciplines and across institutional types. What institutional changes do we need to make to stop these leaks?[3]


[1] Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

[2] Karen Sheriff LeVan and Marissa King presented their research findings in a workshop entitled, “This is Me Loving You,” on the Bethel College (KS) campus, October 26, 2013 (material not yet published).

[3] I would direct readers to Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s many helpful suggestions in their conclusion, but I am also interested in hearing from readers about their own ideas for institutional change.

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  1. I have watched leakage at each of these points.

    Indeed, there are also leakages at earlier stages. Is there a disproportion among students finishing their dissertations? Family commitments and a lack of proper supervision can be hurdles.

    Is there a disproportion among students completing a dissertation in a marketable field? We are all familiar with the ways in which a topic can be branded as a “women’s topic” and therefore unsuitable, even among many women full professors who have had to make it through the existing system and had to internalize the existing values.

    Recruiting methods vary, but there are always gong to be professors who ask inappropriate questions, whether because they didn’t read the submitted work or because they don’t understand the methods used or the current debates within the subdiscipline concerned. There is an assumption that one can just recognize “quality,” whatever that is. It’s usually little more than a degree from a famous department or recommendations from famous professors, even though such infulences may not be acknowledged.

    And then, and then, there’s the imbalanced valuation of the tasks to which women professors are directed, the parts of the student assessment which are highly regarded, and the lack of awareness of the outside factors such as caring for sick children or elderly relations which a woman is not expected to refuse. I should say that the same handicaps can affect men with comparable attributes or responsibilities.

    Many more issues can be raised, such as the way that women are often given offices in a different part of the building to those assigned to senior men, the lack of any clear direction as to whether junior staff, men or women, should spend time going to conferences and taking on disciplinary responsibilities outside the university, taking on departmental or university responsibilities, or just work on finishing the work in hand.

    At every stage, the invisible conflicts within academia are likely to have a disproportionate effect on women, although single or childless women may well be able to achieve the status of “honorary men,” if they can jump through all the necessary hoops. In each of the following examples, women are likely to be at a disadvantage, because the key decisions are going to be taken by older men. However openminded they think they are, those who have achieved success will have a vision of what makes someone promising. That is likely to lead to men being given a higher rating, unless they are married to highflying and therefore highly mobile partners.

    In the absence of clear guidance, mentoring and transparent processes, in the absence of university oversight to identify patterns of unobserved discrimination, it is all too easy for those responsible for decisions about hiring and firing to have entirely different criteria and to pick out the characteristics that strike them as good reasons for turning down an application.

    Older professors may still believe strongly in the characteristics appropriate to a teaching college, whereas younger ones may value only research productivity, as rated in their own subdiscipline. It may be that the senior ranks of the department are crammed with people hired in from outside, who have no long memory of how processes have been conducted at the institution or who have never had to go through such a process themselves, especially if hired from abroad.

    Above all, there is academia’s dirty little secret, one seen worldwide. Academia is dynastic, with professors supporting the careers of students from one group and opposing those from another, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work. The careers of the students supervised by conflicting professors can be blighted, not just at hiring but at every stage, such as whether an article is accepted for publication or whether a grant is supplied for a major research project which would employ several promising postdocs..

    Senior professors push forward the younger colleagues who look most like their ideal version of themselves, someone who will support them in matters intellectual and departmental, while shouldering the responsibilities which the highflying academic no longer wants to shoulder. Hiring debates are often contests for precedence, especially in non-metropolitan colleges where such matters can have a disproportionate role in the self-esteem of professors.

    This can even trail on into the future, with academics hoping that they will not be forgotten among the next generation. There was one Ivy League college where a cohort of senior professors each hung on past normal retirement age in the hope of finding a suitable heir who would carry on the same kind of work. The careers and approaches of such professors may well be based on those of their own mentors, Thus, the Cold War opposition to social history or the successful creation of empirical social history can continue to be defended in some departments. New subdisciplines been hard to establish, in the sciences and the arts, because there were no practitioners as senior members of existing departments.

    February 4, 2014
  2. Well said.

    February 4, 2014

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