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For working mothers in academia, tenure track is often a tough balancing act

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

The tenure system of academia is uniquely incompatible with the biological clocks of working women, according to a new study, one of the first to examine the persistent "leak" of talented women from the pipeline that produces professors.

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For women intent on becoming both scholars and mothers, the timing of the tenure track could not be worse. The average female doctorate is awarded at 34, an age when many college-educated women are starting families. Tenure, a defining moment in a professor's career, is decided roughly seven years later, just as the parenting window is closing.

Researchers from Barnard College in New York interviewed 21 women, all striving to be supermoms at the most demanding time in their careers. Many of the women portrayed their work and family lives in irreconcilable conflict. One mother described working in "survival mode," just doing "the things that I can to not be kicked out." Another said she was no longer being invited to career-building speaking gigs. A third faced the hard truth that she was "never going to be one of those superstars."

The findings, presented last month at a conference of the American Association of University Professors, challenge the common perception that a faculty job might be a wise choice for an aspiring mother, given the flexible hours and generous vacation.

More broadly, the study underscores the perils of working motherhood at a time when the recession has driven more mothers into the workforce. The "opt-out revolution" of overeducated stay-at-home moms has waned.

Karla Murdock, a 42-year-old assistant professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, attained tenure as a working mom with a second child on the way. Daughter Anna is now 9; son Will is 6. She was not among the unidentified faculty interviewed for the Barnard study.

Murdock said she and her veterinarian husband juggle work and parenting as well as anyone, sharing chores and pickup times. "I have worked really hard to strike this balance," Murdock said.

And yet: "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."

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.

Little prior research has addressed the conflicts facing working mothers in academia, the Barnard authors said. One 2005 Virginia Tech report found a disproportionate share of women among "voluntary departures" from faculty jobs; women represented one-fifth of the faculty but two-fifths of departures, and they were more likely than men to report feelings of intimidation, harassment and discrimination.

The report encourages universities to envision alternatives to the seven-year tenure cycle, career pathways that would reward women who entered academia later in life.

"There's not a good model for having your children and becoming an academic at 45," said Tovah Klein, director of the Center for Toddler Development at Barnard. She wrote the paper with colleague Danielle Auriemma.

Klein and Auriemma urge colleges to offer strong parental leave policies and on-campus child care, amenities that vary considerably among institutions.

Working fathers, in theory, ought to suffer the same setbacks as mothers in their quest for tenure. But research shows that parenthood has an opposite, positive effect on men's abilities "to move ahead in academic careers," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at AAUP. 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.

For mothers, the celebrated flexibility of a faculty job is both "an asset and a hindrance," the Barnard researchers say in their eight-page paper.

Professors have few set hours and can largely come and go as they please. But the scholarly demands of the job -- writing papers, applying for grants, pursuing research -- are unending. Working mothers who devote day and evening hours to parenting duties end up repaying the time at night and on weekends, feeling somewhat like perpetual graduate students.

"You tend to carve out your time for research between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the kids are asleep," said Tracy Fitzsimmons, 43, a political scientist who is president of Shenandoah University in Virginia -- and mother of three.

"You could choose to meet the bus when your child gets off," she said, "but it means you'll pay for it at midnight that night."


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