This post will not win me any friends, but I know that my reflections on Mama, PhD published last week resonated with others based on the support and feedback I’ve received from friends, colleagues and readers (including one of the Mama, PhD editors). The new research I mentioned (the book, Do Babies Matter?) identifies a “baby penalty” that female academics suffer at all stages of their careers, beginning in graduate school, and yesterday, a Slate article written by Do Babies Matter? author, Mary Ann Mason, appeared in my facebook feed.
The language taken up in the popular press about this topic depresses me. My husband would say that I’m taking this all very personally, but I think the language we use is especially meaningful and often deliberate. I know Mason probably used sensational language to signal a sense of urgency and to communicate the sense of desperation many academic parents feel about their careers, careers that they have invested years of training, forgoing relationships and opportunities for the holy grail of a tenure-track position. Three specific phrases in the article deflated me.
First, Mason and her colleagues discuss their study of the “baby penalty.” The baby penalty refers to the stigma or disadvantages suffered by scholars with children. Using the word “penalty” casts parenthood in this punitive light. There were times in the early days of parenthood, awake in the middle of the night, when I felt as though these little wiggling, screaming, creatures were punishing me. But I assure you, that I feel no penalty having helped to create and nurture them. I don’t know, yet, if my career has suffered any “penalty” as a result of becoming a parent. It’s too early to tell.
Second, in the subtitle of the article, Mason refers to the creation of families as a “career killer.” To think I killed my own career by wanting a family before I even started it is depressing. I have been advised to never discuss my family and even to take off my wedding band if I was invited to another campus for an interview for a faculty position. Last year, however, I interviewed for an administrative position at a prestigious university, and in the course of the search, I was told that I should be open about my family because I would be perceived as more mature and responsible. I don’t think I look terribly young but apparently parenthood signaled something to this committee that made me competitive in the search until the very end.
Third, choosing anything other than a tenure-track position is akin to “dropping out of the race.” If you opt for “second-tier” employment (read: alternate-academic, off the tenure-track), you may find yourself in a “career graveyard.” Is it possible to rethink the “ideal” position as something other than a tenure-track position? I am unsure that a tenure-track position is in my future both because of the availability of positions and the competition for them. I am also unsure that pursuing a tenure-track position is good for my nuclear and extended family. So if I find a career where I use my skills and training, where I am professionally fulfilled, where I make a difference in the lives of others and where I have some semblance of work-life balance, should I consider myself in a career graveyard? Sounds like heaven to me.
I know this post sounds a little whiny, but I am slowly growing sick of the rhetoric around parents, families and the academy. I am working on my own Mama, PhD narrative to publish soon.
As a woman in law still early in my career and without kids, your ideas ring true. There is a penalty for having a family– and the wars against moms are disheartening and anti-feminist. Some of the most severe are the other women themselves. If we had a more supportive professional system overall, both in terms of paternity and maternity leave, it could certainly help ease the burden on women.
I could not agree more about the in-fighting between women. A female colleague at another institution wrote to me privately and told me that she was fighting for family leave privileges for all parents at her institution. And she graciously offered any help she could even from afar, encouraging me to do the same for other colleagues. And that’s the ticket–little by little, incremental change will happen but it will take a network of people working across institutional lines to demand it. Thanks for reading!
We discuss the baby penalty in order to make the point that America’s colleges and universities need to do far more to facilitate work-family balance. To paraphrase sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, should we avoid discussing the benefits of exercise just because it stigmatizes the couch potato?
I totally agree that we should not avoid talking about improving the work-family balance for academic folks; I simply take issue with some of the sensational language used in the Slate piece. I have no doubt that the book is written in a different tone and I very much appreciate the work your team is doing to bring family friendly policies to academic workplaces. Thank you for reading the post and for commenting!