Overcoming the “Baby Penalty” in Academia

This past semester, I received a fellowship at my university's Center for Success of Women Faculty. I was 7 months pregnant with my first child when taking my qualifying exams for my PhD, and 4 months pregnant with my second when I graduated. My academic life and my life as a mother have developed in parallel, and while I feel incredibly lucky to be in a career that allows me the flexibility to be with my children most of the time, the academic life is one that demands many hours of focused time, energy, and resources that parenting makes scarce. However, I have maintained a healthy research pipeline, attend several international conferences annually, and overall feel comfortable with my position as a scholar. However, do a quick Google search for "baby penalty" and you will see multiple articles and even books written about the tension between parenting (especially as a woman) and success as an academic. It can be, frankly, discouraging. This was the topic I pursued during my fellowship, and I wanted to share with you one of the articles I wrote. The full text is below.

Take a look into an undergraduate classroom today, and you are likely to see more women than men across majors of many disciplines. Women are entering college immediately after high school at higher rates than men, are more likely to graduate than men, and make up an even greater share of students who continue to graduate school. When looking at the ranks of academic employment, however, this trend reverses. In 2013, 48.8% of faculty of all ranks were women, increasing from 33.2% in 1987. Yet, women are much more likely than men to be working as adjunct or contingency faculty. In the United States, women hold only 37.5% of tenured positions. These rates plummet to an average of 3.7% when considering minority women. This disparity begins immediately after completion of the PhD. Men with children are 35% more likely to attain tenure-track jobs than women with children. This is not merely an issue of gender, as women without children have a 33% better chance of getting a tenure-track job than women with children. Additionally, men on the tenure-track with children are 20% more likely to be successful at the end of the tenure clock than their female counterparts. Among the faculty who do get tenured, while 70% of the men are married with children, only 44% of tenured women have children. This is not only an issue in the United States. Data from countries around the world show similar trends in the faculty ranks. The message is clear. While many different cultural and economic factors influence the role of women in institutions of higher education globally, one factor is constant- women with children are most likely to report difficulty in getting tenure-track positions, achieving tenure, and advancing to full professor status.

With the exception of colleges focused on teaching, success in attaining tenure is primarily a factor of research, in the form of writing and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles (2-3 annually depending on the department), but also contributing to books, submitting to and winning grants, presenting at conferences and lectures, and otherwise engaging in the academic community, from writing newspaper or magazine articles to promotion of a social media presence. Service and teaching are also required parts of tenure, but the one where most parents of both genders report the most difficulty is research. Completing a research project takes a high level of time, energy, and resources, and sometimes field work is required that can take an academic away from home for weeks or months at a time. With children, especially if both parents are working or an academic is a single parent, carving out this time for sustained focus and creativity can be difficult, as parenting is a 24/7 job that can wreck even the most well-intentioned schedule. A sudden fever or delayed babysitter can throw an entire day into disarray, a dynamic which does not lend itself well to hours of quiet contemplation and the pursuit of knowledge. Despite increasingly egalitarian relationships in the United States and in many other parts of the world, women are still considered the primary caretakers, not just of children, but of households. Women are much more likely to take on the “second shift,” the work of the home, which entails a constant running ticker of “Do we need more diapers?” and “Where did I put the field trip permission slip?” When also juggling IRB proposals, grant deadlines, a literature review for article 1 and the data analysis for article 2, grading, coauthors, preparing lectures, meeting students, and participating in committees, it can become a difficult balancing act, and what often falls to the back is the work of research. After all, if you have class next Monday, you must show up with a lecture prepared. The data analysis for your study? Well, that can wait another night. Maybe over the weekend. Maybe over winter break…

Research productivity is not accidental. If we do not have resources in the form of a mother-in-law who lives with you and helps with your children, for example, or the money to send school-aged children to camp in the summer, we must be extra diligent in the use of our most precious resource- our time. While we can’t make more of it, and we shouldn’t sacrifice our time sleeping or with our loved ones, we must ask ourselves the following:

1. What are my goals? One of the most gratifying parts of academia is the ability to pursue many different ideas and objectives at once. You may be invited to contribute a book chapter or to speak at another institution. You may enjoy hosting a blog and promoting your research through social media or a personal website. Women are also more often asked to do service work or take on mentoring responsibilities than their male colleagues. However, that means it can be easy to lose sight of what we need to be doing, and for many of us, that is publishing journal articles. Articles can take years from inception to publication, and if we put them off or delay them to pursue too many other tangential projects, we may actually be drifting away from achieving our long-term goals that require deep planning and strategy. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? Is what you’re currently working on actively getting you closer to that goal? If not, maybe consider putting it aside until you have less on your plate, or until you work out a schedule that allows for more free time.

2. How am I spending my time? Are you zoning out on Facebook, trying to track down where exactly you left the most recent draft of your current paper, or reorganizing your pantry for the third time when you could or should be writing? Often, we have more time than we realize, but we either lose track of it with a mindless activity, don’t use the time we do have efficiently, or lull ourselves into a false sense of productivity by doing something that doesn’t really need to be done in that very moment. When looking for a tenure-track position or on the tenure-track, writing needs to be a go-to habit. We can get a good chunk of work done in a well planned 15-30 minute writing session. We don’t need the luxury of 3-4 uninterrupted hours to write, and for most parents, that’s just not going to happen very often. Have 30 minutes? Use the time to respond to as many comments as possible on a revise and resubmit, to read and annotate an article you’ve been putting off, or to revise that conclusion you weren’t thrilled with. Have only 10 minutes? Research the submission guidelines of a journal where you might want to submit your next article, brainstorm 4 or 5 possible titles for your article, or make a spreadsheet of upcoming conference deadlines for the next few years.

3. What kind of help can I enlist? We have to be realistic about our research output expectations considering our resources. Due to the nature of the academic job market, faculty must be open to moving away from their family or other social support system for a tenure-track position. Childcare is expensive, and considering that we may be teaching night or weekend classes, attending impromptu meetings or events, and traveling often for conferences or fieldwork, traditional childcare services don’t meet all of our needs anyway. If you are partnered, the support of your significant other is vital in allowing you research flexibility. Don’t hesitate to ask your partner to take over bedtime duties in the few weeks before a grant is due, or to do school drop-off in the morning if that’s your most productive period. If you have the resources, consider hiring someone to help with housework to clear your mind of some of your household duties, or even a mother’s helper to play with your children for an hour or two while you are at home working in another room. If you can’t afford to outsource some of your duties, don’t be shy about seeking assistance in other ways. Trade an hour or two of childcare with a fellow faculty member with children so you can get some time alone to work, or take up your neighbor on their offer to take your kids to the park after school. With a plan, even 15 or 20 minutes of focused work can serve as a very productive session.

Everybody’s path to success will vary, depending on their life circumstances. However, all of us are capable of ensuring that we are actively working towards our goals, making the best use of our time, and enlisting the help we need to succeed. I offer this advice with the caveat that it is also important not to lose sight of what else matters to us outside of our careers- our children, our other loved ones, hobbies, and self-care (sleeping well, eating well, and making time to relax). The better we use the precious time that we set aside for research, the more we allow ourselves to live guilt-free in the moments when our work should be the last thing on our minds.