Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: An Impossible (?) Balancing Act

Monday, November 22, 2010

An Impossible (?) Balancing Act

A woman’s curse…no, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m talking about the infamous “second shift” and how it plays out in academia.
This past summer, I saw some seemingly contradictory findings regarding working women. In The Atlantic’s much-talked-about article “The End of Men,” I discovered that, in the year 2010, “women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same.” About a month later, I read another interesting article, this time in The Washington Post.  This author reviewed a recent study about the perils of being a working mother in academia, a topic that isn’t studied all that often.
Apparently all this progress attributed to working women does not fully apply when it comes to female professors. As the Washington Post article mentions, “The number of women in academia has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and women are fast approaching parity with men on college faculties. But in the top ranks, men still far outnumber women. Sixty-one percent of male professors have tenure, compared with 43 percent of female faculty, according to a 2009-10 AAUP survey.”
So...what's going on here?

What’s going on is that the tenure system seems to be totally incompatible with a woman’s biological clock. As Mona Lisa Vito might say, it’s “TICKIN’ LIKE THIS!” and academia is marching to a completely different rhythm. Essentially, women who want both a productive academic career and a family have a tough decision to make. Either they can give up on one of their dreams, or attempt balancing a career and a life in a feat which, to some, seems impossible. As one interviewed mother-professor said:  “I think this whole myth that you can have a job, have a deep relationship with your children, and have a great relationship with your partner, which they’ve been telling women since the 70s, it’s just bull. It’s just completely not true.” And another: “One of the costs of working full time and parenting is that I don't feel that I do either job as well as I could, or should.”
But why is this any different for professors than other women? And, if it has to do with being a professor, why aren’t male professors complaining?
Sadly, it seems the flexible schedule that makes the job of a professor so attractive is also what makes it so perilous to women. All that free time you think you’ll have when you’re not teaching classes (I mean, come on, how much time can teaching and grading for three classes take!? Or so you might say…) is not actually free time. The teaching may not seem like much (though I’d bet it takes up a lot more time than most people would guess, especially if the professor is good and cares about her classes), but “scholarly demands of the job--writing papers, applying for grants, pursuing research--are unending.”  A professor may be able to alter her schedule to accommodate a doctor’s appointment or her child’s school play pretty easily, but she’ll pay for that “wasted time” later. She’ll have to catch up on all those extras if she actually wants to stay afloat in an academic environment.
And, though male professors have to contend with this craziness too, the parenting/balance issues don’t seem to affect men the same way. In fact, as one of the few other scholars to research this topic, John Curtis has taken note of this discrepancy. “Fathers bear fewer parenting burdens than mothers, and faculty fathers who do sacrifice work for parenting tend to be admired and rewarded, while the mother who makes the same choice is ‘seen as neglecting her job,’ Curtis said.”
Basically, the problem seems to be that being a professor and a mom (and probably also a wife) are careers that entail a lot more than what you might initially think is in the job description. They’re literally full-time jobs. They take up more than 40 hours a week. If you let them, they can take up your entire life. So combining them successfully seems pretty nearly impossible. Unless you’re Hermione Granger and have a time turner, how can you really be expected to do both well?
As if there weren’t enough problems with the tenure system already (e.g. What happens if you have to go to Alaska to teach at Juno Community College!?). As if there isn’t already enough to discourage talented women from pursuing careers in academia. Now we have to add this to list! I think the researchers mentioned in the Washington Post article said it best when they wrote: “If we believe that women who are mothers are a valuable part of the academic system, then we need to rethink the structure of the tenure system in profound ways.” But is a restructuring just another full-time job that won’t fit into a 24-hour day?
Worst of all for us grad. students: These women say that being a professor who’s also a mother feels like being a “perpetual graduate student.” What does that say about our lives!?

PS Check out this comic for more evidence:

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