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Academia and Motherhood: The Impossible Combination of Parenthood and Womanhood

Marie Gilbert photoAs she leaves formal academia after resigning from her permanent post last year, Marie V. Gibert reflects on the combined challenges of parenthood and womanhood in academia, and how they strongly affect the career chances of academic mothers (Part 1 of 2).

Read Part 2 of this blog series HERE

When I told a fellow female academic and very good friend, some months ago, that I was considering leaving the profession because I felt it had become incompatible with my family life, she was quite distressed and told me she felt academia was probably one of the careers best suited for parenthood because of its inherent freedom and flexibility. I could not completely disagree with her – I have often been grateful for the fact that I could pop out of my office/study to go and buy a few things outside of the busy shopping hours, or to attend my child’s Christmas school play. In fact, I had agreed with her for so long that I was unable to articulate a good answer to her protest. The truth is, though, that the flexibility afforded by an academic life does not even begin to make up for the built-in pressures, workloads and patriarchy of academia. Academic mothers deal with the combined challenges of parenthood – shared with academic fathers, or at least most of the academic fathers of my generation, who are increasingly fully involved in their children’s upbringing – and of womanhood – shared with all women, whether they have children or not, and with other academic minority groups. That combination is a tough one – one I have no doubt can be overcome in the right context, with enough thoughtfulness and talent to deal with a constant race for, and lack of, time, but one I have stumbled against for lack of institutional support, awareness and strategy and in a context of relentless reforming.

Let me start with the challenges linked to parenthood, those I have no doubt we academic mothers share with a growing number of academic fathers. The one thing all academics desperately need because of the intrinsic nature of their profession – one of creation, whether in teaching or research – is thinking space. In British academia, however, this is a dwindling resource. The academic year effectively never stops – once all the exam boards are over, there are still postgraduate dissertations and PhD theses to supervise, reading lists to prepare or revise, academic conferences to attend. The three months (July-September) between the last exam boards and the first teaching week thus go by fast. Shared office space, the slow disappearance of weekly research days (often eaten up by the rising demands in student supervision, teaching preparation or administrative and management tasks) and the increasingly unequal access, across institutions, to sabbatical leaves further limit this much needed thinking space. A lot of my single and/or childless colleagues work long evenings and week-ends and effectively take no or little holiday in the summer to carve out some precious thinking space for themselves. I have also done so – I worked evenings after putting the children to bed, sent my partner off at the week-end with the children to have a quiet day’s work and took some work on my holiday. But as I and my children are growing older, that way of doing things has become increasingly unbearable. Once the children are in bed, there is still a house to tidy up (a little, at least!) and some life administration to deal with; week-ends and holidays are precious time with my children, which I am not ready to give up anymore; and my lack of sleep was having unpleasant effects on my mood. The little time I managed to save during the week thanks to my work’s flexibility did not – could not – make up for the relentless academic year.

There is also the increasing pressure to be constantly productive, which has come hand in hand with the assessment cycles that are the REFs and other (all too) regular reviews. Of course, there are some allowances for parenthood and other caring responsibilities – in the REF, mothers can thus submit one (!) publication less per child born during the REF cycle. Most institutions, however, fail to offer any specific support to academic parents who have had to put a brake on their research activities and wish to revive them in a fast-changing environment. It is for each individual to make a case for such support, thus wasting more of their time and energy and leaving it to individual managers to show understanding and support. Likewise an academic parent who wishes to apply for promotion, or for a job in another institution, will have a hard time explaining why they are not able to produce the same high number of publications as their single/childless competitors.

What my friend who was underlining the advantages of academic flexibility was also forgetting was that this flexibility goes both ways – institutions also expect us to be available out of hours to attend research seminars that will characteristically end at 6 pm, book launches and talks that start at 7-8 pm, open days that take place on Saturdays and conferences that end at the week-end. With a reliable co-parent around, this is not an unsurmountable task although it does take some planning (and, therefore, some more of that precious time!). For single parents, it gets a lot tougher – a female academic friend, single parent to a secondary-school-aged child, was thus telling me recently that she could finally stop spending several hundred pounds a month in baby-sitting/after-school provision to cover this out-of-hour work.

Geographic flexibility is also expected, at least at the beginning of a career where it has become normal to multiply temporary, postdoctoral research and teaching positions in different institutions. Academic careers are also increasingly international and academics are now expected to apply for visiting fellowships abroad (many of which do not include any allowance for a family life, starting with their length – how one is to accommodate a child’s school year within a six-months-fellowship remains a mystery to me). Moving around in this manner does not have the same cost when a partner and children must follow. I should know – in barely more than five years since completing my PhD, I’ve moved four times. Each time, and with each of the many job applications I prepared, I spent hours considering the impact it would have on our family life, on my husband’s career, searching for childcare options, considering the different commuting possibilities, etc. And with each move, one loses the support network that becomes essential when children get ill on a teaching day. A lot of energy and time thus goes lost and there is little understanding, let alone mitigating support settings, for this in the academic world.

Then comes academia’s gender bias, one which affects academic mothers as well as every one of their female colleagues. I have long found it difficult to accept that what should be one of the most enlightened and progressive professions has barely given up on a very patriarchal way of doing things. Interestingly, there has been a growing awareness of this state of things, supported by some strong research and some vivid debates on a number of online academic platforms.

There is thus mounting evidence that student feedback and citation metrics are not only unreliable but are also reinforcing academia’s built-in patriarchy. Recent research by Philip Stark, Anne Boring and Kellie Ottoboni at one French and one American university has thus shown that student feedback will systematically disadvantage female lecturers – even when distance learning students have not met the lecturers and roles have actually been switched between the female and male lecturer. Likewise analysis led by Cassidy Sugimoto and Blaise Cronin has shown that articles with women in dominant author position received fewer citations than men in the same positions. Another research project by Gita Ghiasi and her team has more recently shown that despite publishing in more prestigious journals, female engineers are cited less often than their male colleagues. It is worth reflecting on these figures and on the ways we may unwittingly be contributing to them. I encourage my students to either use a default ‘she’ when referring to authors, or look up their gender, rather than systematically assume they are male. But I also recently found myself assuming that the author of the best (anonymously-marked) paper on one of my classes was male. When the marks and names were released, I discovered my brilliant student was a woman and felt deeply ashamed.

There is also some very convincing evidence that female academics are not welcome to negotiate their salary and working conditions at the point of entry in the way their male colleagues do. In a recent case in the US a female colleague saw a job offer rescinded following an e-mail in which she underlined her enthusiasm for the position and also gently but firmly opened negotiations. This is a general truth that goes well beyond the small academic world – research has found that few young women graduates negotiate their entry salary and that this explains – alongside the impact of maternity and parental leaves and part-time work patterns – the on-going gender pay gap. Contrary to Sandberg’s Lean In argument that suggests that this is about women not valuing or asserting themselves enough, however, Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues have shown that, as illustrated by the above academic case, women who negotiate will be penalised. I can very much relate to this. When I was offered my first ever permanent position I was very much made to feel that I was pushing the boundaries by negotiating (with a female manager) my starting date. Once that was done, I lacked the energy and courage to negotiate my salary and entry level in spite of having received advice to the contrary and being able to evidence several years of teaching and a good publication record. In a context where permanent jobs are so dear, that is unlikely to change any time soon.

We know, finally, that female academics are more likely to be given teaching jobs, as well as pastoral care and administrative tasks (what American academics call ‘service’), than their male colleagues who will more readily be invited to focus on their research. This, as shown by research led by Joya Misra, Jennifer Hickes Lundquist, Elissa Dahlberg Holmes and Stephanie Agiomavritis, then impedes their promotion in a system that undervalues teaching and administration and privileges research-active staff. I have witnessed this pattern too. In my former department (which at the time counted 11 men and 7 women on permanent contracts), the four research clusters were headed by men, leading to a nearly all-men departmental research committee (the only woman member being our head of department), thus reinforcing the impression that the women in the team were junior researchers. Undergraduate teaching, year tutoring and other administrative tasks were, on the other hand, disproportionately carried out by female colleagues.

Academia’s bias against both parenthood and womanhood is very clearly amplified by ever higher levels of competition for jobs in an at best stagnating market and the relentless reforms that are creating new layers of work for and pressure on academics every year. Things could, and must, change. The best response would be some strong institutional arrangements that would mainstream equality and diversity policies – rather than treat them as largely cosmetic add-ons, as is all-too-often the case – and use the very real advantages of the academic world’s flexibility in favour of academic parents and other minorities. But even the best institutional responses will not suffice in the absence of a normative revolution within academia. As was very recently underlined by Victoria Bateman, all academics need to rethink their relationship to work – acts of petty resistance such as refusing to attend a conference at the week-end (join the #endweekendconferences campaign) or to undertake another layer of meaningless paperwork will improve their own working conditions as well as support academic mothers, fathers and other minority colleagues (I explore these issues in another, subsequent piece).

Marie V. Gibert is currently an associate lecturer in the Department of Geography, Development and Environmental Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

12 thoughts on “Academia and Motherhood: The Impossible Combination of Parenthood and Womanhood”

  1. This essay has uncanny resonances with some of my own experiences of academia at different institutions. Thank you Marie for so clearly articulating how the flexibility of academia can mask its other difficult workplace conditions, particularly those negatively affecting working parents and women alike. A male colleague and senior professor from another university once suggested to me that academics who are mothers (like myself) are sometimes seen to be more exploitable; specifically because our un-negotiable need to financially provide for our children makes us more desperate for work. This insight into the university employer psyche was both disturbing and unfortunately, unsurprising.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, and hope it will contribute to a much-needed conversation. One thing: the author assumes too clear a dichotomy between partnered/parents and single/childfree. Academics (men and women) without partners or children often still have significant care and other commitments, and the assumption that they don’t can lead to unfair expectations (that they can do administrative work over the summer, that they’re ‘lucky’ because they don’t have to do schoolruns etc. and so can be asked to stay longer). Choosing not to spend it on children or a partner doesn’t mean that one’s non-work time is any less valuable or should be protected less. I think there is a general problem in academia (and across many other sectors) that people are expected to be working all the time, and are seen as less committed because they take a weekend off, irrespective of how or with whom they choose to spend it. Weekend conferences are bad for everyone.

    1. PV, I couldn’t agree more, and I think it is a sign of the pressures we all bear that some academics sometimes see this in terms of ‘us’ (parents) vs. ‘them’ (non-parents). There is also a huge contradiction in the fact that we are increasingly invited to be visible in society (notably through the REF’s impact case studies) and yet our workloads mean we are effectively forced to retreat from society and abandon our caring responsibilities and/or our community and activist engagements, etc. if we want to move up the academic ladder. My second piece tries to address some of these issues, but there would obviously be a lot more to say.

  3. Thanks for this. I am 7 months into my first permanent position (Assistant Professor) and have a 20 month old. I received my letter of offer on a Wednesday and gave birth on a Friday (a couple of weeks early) so was negotiating my contract with a 3 day old. This is a tough one though – I love academia, I knew what I was signing up for. I knew my weekends and evenings would never be completely my own but that I would be afforded the luxury of being a lifelong learner. It is full of challenges. I did a postdoc in the Netherlands where we had 8 weeks of vacation. And we were encouraged to take it. Colleagues happily told each other about their month away in Morocco or Japan and were unapologetic about being off email. I was stressed about missing an important work meeting because I would still be on maternity leave – my department chair told me absolutely not to come to the meeting – that I’d be of more value to them if I had my rest and time with my growing family before trying to come back to work. I think the problem is less with academia in general but more with North American academia specifically.

    1. Megan, I’d like to think that it is a North American problem (and I’ve certainly read a lot of pieces, and browsed books, that look at this from the North American academic viewpoint and confirm how difficult it is there for academic mothers/parents – see e.g. Academic Motherhood, by K. Ward and L. Wolf-Wendel, and Do Babies Matter? by M.-A. Mason, N. H. Wolfinger and M. Goulden) but I’ve written my piece based entirely on my experience in the UK. That being said, I do agree that things vary across institutions (with some a lot more parent/carer-friendly than others, although I tend to think, sadly, that things are worsening rathern than improving, as I noted in my second piece) and, more importantly, that things depend also on the societies we live in and on how working-parent-friendly they are (and on that front, the US and the UK do not fare very well – comments on my piece seem to suggest that France and the Netherlands, in particular, do a lot better, within and without academia).

  4. I feel your pain. Getting my PhD cost my my marriage, and now my 7 year old son lives with his father on the other side of the country due to our inability to find satisfactory jobs in the same area. I see him for a month in the summer and a week at Christmas break. My current partner is an academic, and my uni’s unwillingness to help find him a job means he’s in a different country post-doc’ing. I’m living three different lives, and paying for it mentally and financially, but male colleagues have the nerve to tell me I’m just being “oversensitive” and “lonely.” Thank you Academia.

  5. Dices are loaded against women everywhere. Covert or manifest, glass ceiling and barriers exist everywhere. Women, especially, mothers juggle their time and energies and still can’t go to bed contented. We have to fight the world outside and inside, still we carry this sickening remorse for being incapable of handling things.

  6. Thanks for your article. I always thought that academia was one of the many places where women could effectively balance life, children and career and while I had learnt over time how academics are getting drawn into multiple activities that eat up into their time, this was a real eye-opener.

  7. Reblogged this on Change is Development! and commented:
    Reading this piece was like reading a chapter out of my own personal book of life. I 100% can agree, relate and empathise with the challenges faced by fighting to combine womanhood and parenthood.

    My self, I am a 2nd year doctoral researcher living with a disability and parenting a 3 year old boy. I am also self-funded so have to work to pay my fees, nursery and survive. I find my self in a constant battle in juggling research, papers, conference attendance / participation and lets not forget the seminars that start at 3:30pm – 5pm (O yeah, that’s right school finishes at 3:15) with being an engaged and focused ‘good’ mother.

    I try to put in place boundaries such as no laptop when I get home until he has gone to bed at 7pm but by the time I have packed away and got things ready for the next day I will literally fall asleep in front of the computer screen. The weekends are not for research unless I can receive mother of the year award by locking my son in his toy room all day and feeding him jam on toast. I guess not so the weekend are full of family time and more activities.

    It is extremely difficult and the added pressure of parenthood makes doctoral research and extra curriculum activities at times painfully pressurising. I read this post last week and it has taken me 5days at 05:49am to have the time to respond and it is not a full response in that as the alarm clock is about to go off at 6am to start getting ready for school and work.

    My outlook on my current situation is that when I finally complete my degree and graduate my success will be even more that victorious due to the battles I have over come during this process.

    hum… would love to discuss this further. A topic that I believe affects many in academia.

    1. Dear Shardia, I admire your courage and what you say about your experience resonates very strongly. A wonderful academic friend of mine, Lucy Robinson, has had a path very similar to yours. She’s done an interview a few days ago, which both summarises what she went through and gives us all, female academics, a lot of hope, I find: I do hope we get a chance to meet and discuss these issues further one day.

  8. At least part of the problem is the relentless pressure that executive managers feel to make their institution rise up the world/country rankings in research and teaching. But all this extra work that results merely ends up reinforcing the status quo as every institution increases the intensity of their work at the same rate. The outcome for individuals is that everyone feels like they’re having to run faster merely to stand still.

    I’m an academic father, divorced and living alone, taking care of my daughter around 1/3 of the time. Thank you for acknowledging that fathers also have trouble negotiating a decent life within this environment. But I know that many mothers face greater challenges than I. At least I can to some extent understand what they are going through.

    The failure of my marriage was to a great extent the result of being placed in an impossible situation in my career – with problems, challenges, and contradictions very similar to the ones you describe. I have very little social life because I simply don’t have enough time or energy left after doing my job and caring for my daughter to be able to have relationships with other people too. I have never taken all my annual leave. I regularly work till very late at night – at least four or five nights per week – and I often work on the weekends. Tonight is Sunday, and I was working till 11.35 pm to complete my lecture preparation, knowing that the administrative work will pile up through the day on Monday. Research? I try to carve out time for that, but it’s increasingly difficult. I am ashamed to admit that I was writing up research on Christmas Day and Boxing Day just gone. My daughter was away at her Mum’s, so instead of taking some much needed rest on those public holidays and rekindling relationships with family or friends, I was hard at work all day both days, and only because I simply don’t have any other opportunity to do that work because my university expects so much from me in other areas of work.

    As academics go I am pretty successful. SL at a Russell Group institution in the UK. But that has come at a real cost to other areas of my life and I am really beginning to tire of it and wonder what it is all for. I want my research and teaching to make a difference in the world. I’m really passionate about the value of knowledge and in playing my part in producing it. But, I am losing opportunities to live a decent life by trying to hold on to those passions and duties.

    I see people around me beginning to crack, whose lives are coming apart, and who don’t know where to turn because their employers offer little in the way of support, and ‘coming out’ holds many perceived risks about appearing to be weak and an under-achiever. We need a fundamental rethink about much of what we do, in particular the endless audit culture that produces nothing new or of real value in itself except to empirically reinforce the status quo.

    I feel very sad writing this, and feel great sympathy for people entering the profession now. They have a bog uphill struggle ahead of them, and the rewards are decreasing in value year by year. Nowadays I counsel my postgraduate students to think very carefully whether they want to be an academic. For some it is just not worth the heartache and the struggle.

    I recently met a colleague from another institution. He’s a nice person and very open. He’s single with no children and freely admits that work is all he does, every single day without stopping. He published 15 peer reviewed articles last year and he said to me, ‘I feel sorry for other academics who are married and have children. They have to compete against people like me for the best jobs, and they know that they cannot succeed in that, whatever they do and however hard they work.’

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