Academia and motherhood: The impossible combination of parenthood and womanhood

On International Women's Day 2016, this post by UK academic Marie V. Gibert (@marievgibert) resonates across sectors and time as she prepares to leave formal academia. In the post, the first of two originally published on the PSA Women and Politics Group blog, she reflects on the combined challenges of parenthood and womanhood in academia, and how they strongly affect the career chances of academic mothers - and constrain the work they can do.

Image is from a campaign run by the then Equal Opportunity Commission Victoria. The issue still applies.


Marie V. Gibert writes

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.

Carving out thinking space

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 (Research Excellence Frameworks) 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.

Out of hours, out of time

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.

Academia's gender bias

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.

Time for equity, and acts of petty resistance

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).

Read Part 2 of this blog series HERE

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