Care work of all kinds (self care, elder care, child care) is often not valued by academic institutions –at least in terms of letting students, staff, and faculty use time, money, energy for those tasks while having the resources to continue excelling at their jobs). And that’s unfortunate, because care work (+ other kinds of unpaid labor – emotional, organizational, and physical) is still highly gendered and stigmatized. Recognizing the common threads between these kinds of care work that women do can help workers better organize together and institutions create policies that recognize all the forms of care demanded of women, not just childcare of babies + infants and not just for tenure track faculty.
[And having no kids (or elders or pets) to care for can still be held against women in the workplace, as managers can expect them to be workaholics (“put their career first”) or potentially even cover for folks who have care responsibilities. The 1-body problem is real, in multiple ways.]
But today I want to specifically talk about the penalties women in the academy occur for having multiple children.
It’s like the patriarchy up and decided “fine, ladies, you can have a kid and still be considered a working professional – but just this once” — as if choosing to have a kid again is abusing the supposed privileges that come with it.
“There’s about a 5% reduction in pay for each child a woman has,” Gault said. “It works in the other direction for men, around 4 or 5% [additional for each child].”
For. Each. Child. (In the workplace broadly, not just the academy.) Is there anything else to say?
The pay gap between women and men in the academy is real and worse for mothers. It’s harder to prove at schools where salaries aren’t publicly released. The extent to which it exists and whether schools are doing anything about it is just starting to be explored.
Shamed for “pausing the clock” again
Pausing the tenure clock is now a relatively common (yet currently hotly debated) parental accommodation that, not surprisingly, only exists for tenure-track faculty. Many institutions allow a pause of pre-determined length per child. Sounds reasonable (although even more reasonable is creating policies that give similar timeline extensions to graduate students!). The pause is designed to acknowledge the real (and perhaps unknowable ahead of time) impact that recovery, sleep deprivation, and care work have on the very high productivity bar for TT faculty.
Yet that doesn’t stop lots of male and childless faculty from complaining when women pause the tenure clock more than once. A TT history professor friend at a small liberal arts college recently shared the following:
One of the biggest barriers to my college deciding on a parental leave policy (just implemented a year ago) was that several older men on the committee protested: now women will have 5 kids so they can push back their tenure review for 5 years!
Of course, they had no evidence for that claim. But that assumption is definitely held by some in positions of power (including those who volunteered for a parental leave policy committee!).
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Another friend, a tenured sociologist at one of the top 3 programs in the country (so a school that considers itself elite), recently shared this story:
I was meeting with other faculty in the department to discuss changes to the graduate student curriculum. A male colleague used the opportunity to say that I had to teach my graduate students to use birth control, as 2 of them were women who had 2 kids while in graduate school.
That horrifying story is coming from a female graduate advisor who prides herself on mentoring academic women whether or not they are mothers and regardless of how many children they have. Yet it makes clear that other advisors don’t share this attitude (and alludes to the idea that 1 kid might have been okay, but multiple kids crosses some kind of line).
Unfortunately, policing women’s reproductive choices is nothing new, in or out of the academy. And there seems to be no acceptable number of kids for women to have. Women who choose not to are questioned about their fertility or perceived as less nurturing. Women who choose to have 1 kid are often questioned about why they want their kid to be an only child. And women who choose to have multiple kids are seen as taking advantage of the system (whether that’s academic programs like pausing the tenure clock or government assistance programs like WIC) – especially if they are WOC.
Side but very related note – the majority of abortions in the US currently each year are chosen by women who are already mothers. That decision is also highly stigmatized. There is no winning.
The wrong kind of busy
Academics in general pride themselves on being people who can and do juggle a lot – projects, teaching, service, and life outside of work. Yet academic women with multiple kids have shared that colleagues make comments to them implying that they are the wrong kind of busy (regardless of how those women actually manage their time).
For example, a faculty friend recently shared:
A collaborator shared a manuscript with me for friendly feedback (I wasn’t a coauthor on this particular paper). I wrote back enthusiastically and mentioned that it’d take me 2 weeks to get back to them. They responded: ‘Oh well with your 18 kids, I’m sure you don’t have time.’ I don’t have 18 kids (I have 3), and they have nothing to do with when I wanted to review this person’s paper.
Similar stories have been shared with me repeatedly by women who have kids with disabilities. Their colleagues (wrongly!) make assumptions about their parenting and work, often resulting in them being left out of collaborations or decision-making.
What else? Sadly this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have experience as a academic woman with multiple kids (positive, negative, or otherwise) or ideas on how to improve academic culture for folks with all number of kids (including 0), please comment below.