One kid? Fine. 2? 3?! Well, maybe not.

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.

Financial punishment

“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.

11 thoughts on “One kid? Fine. 2? 3?! Well, maybe not.

  1. This is why I prefer to talk about “gender-based harassment” and not just sexual harassment. Each of these stories is an incident of harassment based on gender. Taken together, this adds to the hostile climate that most women in science face on a daily basis. It is sometimes worth confronting these beliefs and comments directly, with questions like, “Why do you say that?” and “What, exactly, are you getting at with that remark?” And, of course, we all have to choose our battles because fighting every one of them would be way too exhausting and, unlike childbearing and childrearing, possibly would have a real impact on our productivity.

  2. That is horrifying. I am from India, a supposedly third world country (or at least second world…). We don’t have pay gap between men and women, in any job – academia, industry, manual…name it). There may be other kinds of discrimination (there aren’t many in academia by the way), but the pay is equal for men and women.

    Pathetic that a first world country is still so backward.

    • Hi LG, just to clarify – pay gaps aren’t supposed to exist. There is no reason that female faculty should be paid less than male faculty – and part of the reason pay differences are so hard to remedy are that there are a multitude of small reasons that ‘add up’ to structural problems. An example of a way to combat this is a recent law passed in Massachusetts in the US, which bars employers from asking previous salary of job applicants (they have to offer a salary quote to start negotiations). Small differences in pay (even due to ‘merit’ based bonuses, etc) add up over time, and disclosing previous salary can prevent negotiating higher wages in salaried positions later on. So it’s definitely something being addressed in several countries and at various levels of administration/institutions. Every country has ways they can improve education and work conditions for girls and women.

  3. Years ago when I was a brand-new assistant professor, serving as a member of a student’s PhD committee for one of the first times, the student had a formal annual progress meeting with her dissertation committee. During the course of the meeting, the student disclosed to us that she was pregnant. Upon which, her major professor immediately ordered her to get an abortion if she still wanted to be a member of that lab, because the inevitable baby-related delay in her completing the Ph.D. would reflect badly on [the advisor] and mess up project/grant deadlines. I was so shocked that I didn’t even know how to react. (“Is this typical? Did she really just say that? Isn’t that illegal? [the student’s advisor] is a powerful full professor, and will my own tenure be at risk if I speak up?”).
    Yes, the student’s advisor was also female. That made me even more aghast. Sadly, over my (now much longer) career I have witnessed analogous situations several additional times. I hope never again.

  4. When I had my first child, my colleagues thought it was quite the novelty and were somewhat entertained with the idea of a new baby–even threw me a baby shower. But when I got pregnant again, the fun was over. There was a distinct attitude change–no baby shower, only weird reactions. I have since moved to another university, but I can clearly remember the shift from enthusiasm for one baby, to horror at the second.

  5. Thanks so much for this. Here are some choice comments from my Ph.D. advisor at a prestigious university back in 2004:

    “We’re scheduling your comps for April, don’t get pregnant.” I already was, two months, but hadn’t made the announcement. It did indeed spark thoughts of abortion, which wouldn’t have been my personal choice for that pregnancy.

    Upon announcing the pregnancy: “I wish I could say this was good news.”

    After the birth of that second child: “Doesn’t [male partner] make enough money for you to just stay at home?”

    At that point I withdrew from the program. No one can work under that kind of duress. I adjuncted for six years, but since adjuncting paid $6000 less than daycare for two, my Ph.D. is now permanently ABD. I miss my field terribly, but there was no future in it with 2 children. In addition, [male partner] did in fact make enough for me to “just stay at home,” through disqualifying me entirely for daycare subsidy. (Another related issue – professionals tend to marry professionals – so if you’re making $25K adjuncting and your male partner is making $90K and daycare costs $30K unsubsidized because they’re primarily factoring his income, well, you do the math. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it means he can afford a slave. This is not his fault. It’s how the system works.)

    Thanks also to the contributor above who gave this a name: gender-based harassment. Twelve years ago ‘sexual harassment’ didn’t seem like the appropriate term, and I remember struggling with it along with the denizens of a certain message board for graduate student rants. That and this prof was chair of my professional org = a barrier to pursuing the issue through official channels.

    I always expected I wasn’t special, (usually the case,) and that this is, in fact, rampant.

  6. I find it quite funny that anyone might think that someone might sign up to trade 18+ years of child raising (including 5+ years of intense childcare) + associated costs in exchange for extra time on the tenure clock. They must never have taken care of children.

    I must say that ProdigalU (or at least my department) has been very supportive in terms of family choices. Lots of people in my department have 2 or more kids, and maybe that is the difference. We also have an unusually large percentage of female faculty for my field. It is possible to find supportive environments in academia. I just wish it were the norm, rather than something to search for. It really is (or should be) about respect.

  7. I do not work in academia though I at times work closely with them – although I am also currently doing my PhD (while simultaneously doing 2 high tech start ups in chemistry and clinical sciences). I can tell you that even in the work force we are still discriminated against. As an executive in a multinational company, my first child resulted in me being “laid off” and my second resulted in me being forced to come back at 4 months (in Canada we are theoretically entitled to a year). My US colleagues were always appalled at the year maternity leave though their own Academy of Pediatrics advocates a year or more of nursing. Good luck pumping in a nasty bathroom with cinder block walls in a laboratory ladies.

    Both my children ended up being special needs, one of whom is autistic the other with ADHD and other chronic health conditions. I have totally had to lie before and say I need to go to a sales call when in reality it was because I had to take a kid to an appointment. I too experience the same kind of prejudice about not being a hard enough worker, even with my own staff. And yet, when you outsource your childrearing to nannies or employ housekeepers, you also get pooh poohed for not taking care of your own children.

    What disturbs me the most is when women baby shame each other. I have predicated my companies on letting people be people first, employees second and this means not punishing women for wanting to be moms. I have 7 staff and two of them are pregnant – and both have PhDs too, btw…I am breaking the cycle. We need to tell our stories and advocate for each other! I am not a “poster” or “blogger” but this is just plain wrong and we need to support one another.

  8. This post does a great job of putting it all in perspective. I struggle a lot with when to start a family, and reading this it just dawned on me that I’ll be judged no. matter. what. Frustrating, but also freeing.

    • Sadly, yes – by some people. Others, hopefully most, will be supportive – stick with those people. It *is* freeing – I personally don’t think any job/perfect scenario exists – and any situation can change (there are no guarantees!). But I also think it’s a good reminder to work to make it better for all the folks after us.

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