First Ladies of the Academy

The last presidential election cycle in the United States raised many, many questions. One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?”  When the incoming First Lady didn’t do exactly as her predecessors had, or as many had decided was traditional, many thinkpieces were written and hot takes had.** While it can seem like a laughably lighthearted question, the kind of thing relegated to the lifestyle section of national newspapers, I’d argue it’s more important than ever – and incredibly relevant to academia.

Cultural norms are often only visible after they are broken, and this has been true for the perceived (in)actions of the current first lady.  Consider this passage from a Huffington Post piece:

In February, Melania Trump broke a longstanding tradition that the first lady accompanies the spouse of a visiting foreign leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, was alone during her visit to Washington. The White House claimed Melania Trump’s absence was the result of a scheduling error with Abe.

Brower called the White House’s handling of the visit “embarrassing.”

“You’re being a rude host, really,” Brower said. “Part of the job of the first lady is to escort spouses, men or women, around Washington, and you kind of just suck it up and do it, even if you don’t want to.”

The first lady is expected to do a bunch of hostess work, despite not being a paid employee and/or elected official. [The focus of this post isn’t really on the presidential spouse, so check out one primer on the ‘traditional’ role of the first lady as conceived of by the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum.  Or check out the whole website of the National First Ladies Library. ] And as the “embarrassing” quip shows, her behavior apparently reflects on the president (her husband) AND the country as a whole. Moreover, the end of the passage demonstrates that opting out of this role isn’t, actually, optional.

So, what does this have to do with academia? Well, this industry is rife with first ladies. Most university presidents are men, and many of those men are married to women. Those women are expected to play the role of first ladies for the university – and the expectations for the role are very similar, including hostess duties, fundraising, appearing at public events, and acting as an all-around ambassador of the institution.

A 2011 study by the Council of Independent Colleges on the spouses of university presidents found a wide range in the amount of time first ladies (and spouses) spent on university business and whether/how much spouses were compensated. Compensating spouses of presidents comes with its own set of debates (as it should) – especially at universities that otherwise do not have partner hire programs for staff and faculty. The 2011 study found two-thirds of spouses of university presidents have some kind of formal appointment with the university, yet I highly, highly doubt as high a percent (or the same universities) do the same for the rest of their employees and their spouses. Doubt may be the best I can do, as good data on these policies is sparse.***.  Seems important to look into further, especially as most faculty and staff probably work for a university longer than a university president does.

The US still hasn’t decided how it feels about the role of first lady and what to do if someone doesn’t want to take it on. I’d say the same is true for the academy. I am certainly not the first person to raise this question about what the role of spouses of university presidents and whether it should be compensated. One thoughtful piece, framed as a two-sided debate, about this question in academia was published online by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges back in 2013 [read it here].

BUT, and this is a big caveat, it was written by two men. Even though the writer arguing *against* compensating university spouses is the husband of a woman university president****, it is very likely his experience as the spouse of a university president – and the expectations of him by others – are vastly different.  I can only hope that the organization revisits the topic with (at least) two women contributors, including a university president and a spouse of a university president. Of course, since both of these roles are seen as institutional spokespeople, likely no one in a current role would be able to speak openly about this topic.  And it shouldn’t just be decided by people who have benefited from, and want to participate in, the status quo.

So let’s take it to the comments. What do you think the role of first ladies in the academy should be?  Should it be compensated? Is it fair to formally hire spouses of university presidents at schools that won’t do the same for the spouses of other employees?


** In fact, if the other candidate had won, the country would have seen just as many thinkpieces, as the “first lady” would have been a man for the first time in the history of the country. The question is broader than, and outside of, political persuasion.
*** One article mentioned that a study of 360 deans said that “80%” of them claimed their institution would “do something” for the spouse of a faculty hire. That hardly counts as a policy or evidence, and without a policy it’s not clear it would be (or has been) applied evenly to faculty and spouses, regardless of gender of either.
****the man arguing for compensation for spouses of university presidents is a university president himself
Further reading:
2016 report (~150 pages) from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities “The Lives of Presidential Partners in Higher Education Institutions

A woman’s place is on the syllabus

We’ve been busy. Organizing, mourning, resting, strategizing, spending time with loved ones – not to mention all our paid (+unpaid) labor as academics.

As TSW writers and readers know all too well, our work (every dimension of it) didn’t just begin nor will it end with the change of any administration. For many of us though, the work  (every dimension of it) feels more urgent now than ever.

There’s a lot more to say, and lots of voices we want to feature in this space to speak, to listen, to make change.

And we also need to – and do – act “in real life.” *

There is SO MUCH to do though, that it can feel overwhelming. And in our role as academics, especially in a climate that wants to censure topics and conversations in the classroom (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) and eliminate academic freedom by eliminating tenure (Exhibit A, Exhibit B), what can we do?

I think lots of things, and lots of “small” things that add up. Which brings me to:

A woman’s place is in the syllabus.

Continue reading

Eliminating grant deadlines is a feminist issue

“You’re such a productive academic mama! I didn’t do anything the first 4 months after my kid was born.”

Reading this recently in my inbox was unsettling. It was in reference to the fact that I was writing and replying to emails, with an infant at home.  What the sender didn’t, doesn’t, understand is that I don’t feel like I have much of a choice.  As an early career academic trying to figure out The Next Steps (AKA someone hire / fund me please!), there are a round of grant + fellowship deadlines this fall that won’t come up again for at least another year. And by then I won’t be eligible for at least one of them. In other words, external forces just don’t care what else I have going on. Their deadlines are not negotiable.

To some extent, I get it. I really do. I’ve ended up backing out of or turning down several things this fall that understandably are time-sensitive and involve large groups of other people- conferences, workshops. Deadlines and set time-frames help organize these groups and keep everyone on task. And these opportunities are important, but I just couldn’t make them work this fall.* One workshop required that I teach a module to peers on a pre-determined schedule, which I couldn’t commit to [with an infant nursing on demand who isn’t taking a bottle]. One conference was willing to let me present remotely/electronically, but said I had to commit to being available to answer questions live [again, I didn’t think that was a realistic option personally].

But I truly do not believe that this kind of inflexibility needs to be true for all academic opportunities. I feel especially strong about this when it comes to grant deadlines.  Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

When should you (or your students) defend?

At first shrug, this sounds like a simple question: when should you defend your dissertation, whether that’s MS or PhD (or other terminal degrees like MFA)?  If you’re an advisor, when should you let your students defend?

The ‘right’ answer could be: when they’re ready. Of course! But the timing of that, in practice, is far more complicated.  I strongly believe part of good mentoring is helping students move onto The Next Thing – whether that’s another degree, a postdoc, an academic job, a non-academic job, or something else.  So the timing of students’ defense and graduation should help them get there.

What’s so complicated then?  Lots of things. Continue reading

Celebrating the village that ‘raised’ me

Earlier this week, Professor Terry McGlynn shared his story of how he found science as a career path on the Small Pond Science blog. As a woman in the academy who is also a scientist, I wanted to share some of my story.

Why? It’s not that I think I have a particular unique path to where I am now. Mostly I want to share it because there can be so many difficult things about being a woman in science and a woman in the academy. I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the path that led me here, to a mental and physical place where I work hard to do work I enjoy while mentoring women students in science – and to thank (although anonymously here) the many women mentors who helped get me here. It takes a village!

There’s certainly a stereotype that kids who have chemistry sets or collect fossils are the ones who grow up to be scientists. Maybe that’s true, but that wasn’t my path – and it wasn’t the way I was brought up. Continue reading

A Forced Career Gap? Pregnancy Between Positions

I’m writing about both happy news and … other news. The happy news is that the partner and I are expecting Kid #2. It’s something we’re hopeful and excited about, especially after an uncomfortable miscarriage. Maybe if I lived in a different place (I’m in the US) or a different time (please, I hope the next generation of academics and workers will have different working conditions), the news would end there. Yay for (planned) parenthood for the folks who want to be parents. End of story.

But it’s not.

This potential Kid#2 has a probable due date of right after I’m PhinisheD. Yes, right after I officially graduate, AKA in theory when I would be starting a new position. This has made postdoc and job searching – and overall career planning – very, very difficult.

Yes, it was my* decision to have Kid#1 and to try for Kid#2 *. Yes, technically it would be illegal for potential employers to refuse to hire me on the basis of me being a pregnant person ***. Yes, technically it would be illegal for potential employers to even ask me about a pregnancy or marriage or kids ****.

BUT. Continue reading