What’s not to like about teaching at Harvard? Ask women faculty members.

Harvard University faculty members report high satisfaction with their jobs (source: Washington Post)
Harvard University faculty members report high satisfaction with their jobs (source: Washington Post)

For what it’s worth, Harvard faculty members are pretty happy. More than 80 percent of them said in a recent survey that they’re “somewhat or very satisfied” with their jobs.

That may not be so surprising. To begin, there’s an awful lot to like about Harvard. Faculty members appreciate the university’s libraries, the freedom to try new teaching methods, their graduate and professional students, and the quality of the Harvard staff. They’re also teaching at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, so what’s not to like?

Harvard faculty members don’t like the things that most faculty members might not like: They don’t have enough time to do research. They’d like additional help getting grants. They’d like more financial support to attend conferences.

These issues don’t seem so troubling, so what’s the problem?

Well, if you look a bit deeper into the survey, some worrisome undercurrents appear, especially for women on the faculty. Fewer than half of Harvard’s female faculty members think that the climate in their school or department is as good for them as it is for male faculty. Women feel they have to work harder to be seen as legitimate scholars. And, they feel excluded from an informal network that might improve the perception of their research or help them move up the ladder. These are challenges that Harvard’s first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, may wish to address rather soon.

Other worries appear when considering non-academic responsibilities. Women on Harvard’s faculty spend a lot of time — in some cases twice as much time as men do — finding child care, taking care of elderly parents, locating good schools, and helping their kids with their homework.

As someone who teaches at George Washington University (though not at the tenured level), I wondered how applicable these results were to me and possibly to women at other universities. I also worked as both a resident advisor and as a teaching assistant while getting my Ph.D. at Harvard and led a section for a popular course at Harvard, so I have some perspective on life there.

Life at GWU is pretty good. I teach the courses I like to teach, I’ve had many students who would be at the top of their class regardless of where they studied, and I have regular interactions with top-notch faculty members. I’ve never felt that my work wasn’t viewed as legitimate as the work of my colleagues, or that I’ve been excluded from any informal network.

GWU offers subsidies for child care and for emergency child care services. Although I had made other arrangements for my child care when I joined GW in 2006, having this benefit would have been a factor in measuring my job satisfaction.

Overall, it’s hard to complain about the academic life. For one thing, it certainly offers a lot of non-monetary benefits. Although I’m obviously working as I write this piece, it’s also true that when I look out into my backyard, I see bright red cardinals fluttering around and mischievous gray squirrels digging up the tulip bulbs that seem so tasty to them. On occasion, I spot a deer munching away at the impatiens or, if I’m working late at night, a red fox scurrying through the yard, which I’ll admit gives me stress if our cat is still outside. For another, it gives a lot of flexibility during the day and in the summers.

As for the atmosphere at Harvard, being a teaching assistant was rewarding. I was a TA for Larry Summer’s public economics class, where I had some terrific students, most memorably Sheryl Sandberg, but many others as well. More than twenty years later, I remain in touch with a few of them (although I’m not on Sheryl’s Christmas card list). I also led a section in Harvard’s principles of economics course (“EC10″) where the mentoring for this very popular introductory course — EC10’s lead professor Greg Mankiw told me that about half of Harvard’s undergrads take the course — was good.

Given my job flexibility, I shouldn’t complain about household work. Yes, I know I do more housework than my husband does, but I’m also home a lot more than he is so I definitely notice the dishes in the sink or the clutter in the family room (much of which, I have to admit, I put there). Moreover, I can’t discount his significant contributions around the home. He unloads the dishwasher every morning while making coffee, seems to enjoy grocery shopping as much as I like cooking, and spends countless hours with our kids helping them navigate the sometimes rough waters of high school homework, college applications, and sports schedules.

On time spent on chores, my experience seems different from those of Harvard’s female faculty. Female assistant and associate professors at Harvard with children and with a working partner (or single) spend 40 hours a week on household duties while also working 60 hours a week at their professional job. This division of time leads to lots of stress, as The Washington Post’s Brigid Schulte recently reported.

I can imagine spending 60 hours a week doing my professional job, but it would be awfully hard to find a spare 40 hours a week on household duties on top of that. Who has the time to spend the equivalent of a full-time job keeping the house clean and taking care of kids while also holding down a full-time job?

Actually, many people don’t have a choice. If you have kids, the weekend may seem like one long drive from piano lessons to swim meets, birthday parties, and school plays. A mom has a legitimate reason to expect her spouse to share in these duties. But, at least for women at Harvard, it appears that many of them spend a significantly greater share of their time on these duties than their spouses. That division of labor may affect a woman’s ability to spend the hours on the academic research needed get tenure and suggests that the couple work toward parity in their household duties.

Doing that would seem to make everyone in the household happier.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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