Women in academia (especially) can't have it all

7 years ago

Imagine you're a single woman, and you fall in love with someone who lives in a different part of the country. Not too hard to imagine, right? Now throw this choice on top of it: Competition in your field is so fierce that jobs in your profession typically draw hundreds of applicants--and there may be only half a dozen jobs in your specialty offered on the entire continent in any given year. Do you give up your One True Career Love for your One True Love? Unfortunately, this is a decision that academics, and particularly women in seems, face with alarming regularity. Recently a discussion about this very topic broke out in one corner of the academic blogosphere.

The conversation began when Dr. Crazy wrote a post titled "Casualties of Academia, in which she explained,

I'm too cynical to believe that anybody - let alone a woman - can actually "have it all," and I've seen too much to believe that things just "fall into place" if they are "meant to be."

The women I know who've managed great academic careers and intact marriages and kids are few and far between. I know a lot of women who've managed to find great partnerships and academic careers - once they've hit their 50's and beyond (and tenure). I know women who've managed kids and academic careers, with no partner or with a partner who is history. I know academic couples (as well as couples with one partner who was in a "mobile" profession) who've managed to have kids and to enter the profession and then to end up divorced. I know academic couples with children, partnerships that have survived, primarily because the female half of the equation signed on to be a trailing spouse and an adjunct for life. I have no anecdata in the reverse - where the male was the trailing spouse and adjunct for life.

She adds,

But I really think that this profession offers us very little latitude for negotiation, when it comes to fitting the personal in with the profession. And by "us" I mostly mean "women." The casualties of this profession aren't slackers, or people who didn't know better, or people who didn't care enough, or people who were workaholics. The causalties are women. And sure, there are exceptions. But I'm willing to venture that the exceptions prove the rule.

When a commenter on the post offered some evidence that women are getting tenured even with children, Dr. Crazy offered an interesting rebuttal:

I'd venture that for every one of those women you describe, there are probably 5 women who left the academy at various "weeding out" points. Your experience - that you're not seeing these women - is exactly the problem. These women are *invisible.* We talk a lot about how women get stuck at associate professor, or about the struggles of maintaining on the t-t for women, but what gets lost in that conversation are the *many* women who fall through the cracks. We dismiss them as not the norm, as failures, as mommy tracked, whatever. Perhaps more telling than the 7 women across two departments who seem to be doing it that you see would be a look at the female adjuncts that both of those departments hire.

Definitely check out the conversation in the comments, as well as the follow-up post spawned by one of them: How to Avoid Becoming a Casualty?, in which Dr. Crazy explains why she dislikes the concept of "balance" and the dismissal of choices made as "mistakes."

In addressing the balance issue, Laura Blankenship at Geeky Mom cited this anecdote from David Sedaris:

Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Historiann suggests patriarchy, rather than academia, should shoulder most of the blame for the situation women academics face:

Back when Dr. Mister and I announced our plans to get married, it was amazing to me the speed and regularity with which I was asked these questions.  We were almost exact peers educationally-speaking:  I finished my Ph.D. in December of 1996, he finished his residency in the summer of 1997, and we both started our first “real” jobs in August of that year, and married a month later.  But no one ever asked him any of those questions–only I heard those questions (or others like them), over and over again, for at least the first 5 years we were married.  (With age and obstinacy comes a form of privilege!)  To be fair:  Dr. Mister did hear versions (frequently second-hand) of “You’re going to follow your wife around?  Why can’t she just get a job teaching high school around here?”  But the message was clear:  we were peers, but I was expected to “do” marriage in a way he wasn’t.  His life was supposed to sail on as planned–only I was taking on a second job as the “wife.”

I realize that there are a lot of heterosexual men, especially in academia, who do things like take time off to care for a new infant, or who are there at the bus stop each morning and afternoon.  But, this is viewed as benevolent volunteerism (for which they get a LOT of cookies!), not as essential parts of their jobs and identities as fathers.

Historiann has a series of additional posts on the concept she dubs patriarchal equilibrium--they're worth a read, but be sure to set aside at least an hour to read these posts and browse their comments. They constitute a very rich discourse.

Here's my take: I did, once, naively think that it was possible to have it all, largely because my mentor seems to have it all: a quick climb up the professorial ladder, two kids, recognition for her leadership, etc. But I've come to believe, as does Dr. Crazy, that the exception proves the rule. I worked my ass off, but then--and here was my classic mistake, according to the literature on women in academia--I had a child in my last year in grad school. If a woman has a child before tenure, she's far less likely--the stats are eluding me now, but it's far, far less--to earn tenure. Men, however, actually may increase their chances of tenure by having a child. Alas, I did not marry an academic, so it's not as if having a child helped my husband's career, either.

Did I consciously choose motherhood over a tenure-track job? No. I thought I could do both. Do I place all the blame for my lack of tenure-track job on this decision to have a child? No. Academia, with its constant churning out of graduate students, particularly in the humanities, and deans' and department chairs' continued (delusional) declarations that there will be jobs for everyone who graduates from their programs, are also to blame. It's too easy for the high-achieving students who continue on to grad school to believe they will be exceptions to the rule, regardless of their gender. It's time to talk straight with them about the uncertainty--or rather the certainty--of their future: in many disciplines, they will likely never secure a tenure-track job, and the odds are worse for women. Period.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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