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Opinion Academia and motherhood: We can have both

Marney A. White and her husband, Erik Mayville, with their son, Lane, on the Yale campus in 2012. (Photo by Dreamscape Studio Photography)

Marney A. White is an associate professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Yale University. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in 1991 and a doctorate from Louisiana State University in 2003.

By Marney A. White

At least a few times every semester, I find myself in a discussion with a female student surrounding her confusion and anxiety over whether to start a family, and when. I think that these women are comfortable discussing these issues with me, despite the pervasive assumption that family lives should never be discussed in academia, because I break that rule.

During my introductory lecture for a large lecture class that I teach at Yale, I discuss the parameters and expectations for communication with me. Unlike “my day” as a college student, when communication with a professor was limited to attending office hours, students today send emails around the clock — sometimes with the expectation that they will be answered immediately. To prepare students for the possibility that I might not respond to emails sent at 11 p.m. the night before an assignment is due, I tell them that I do not respond to email after work hours or on the weekend. In justifying my choice to leave work at the office, I show a slide with a picture of my young son. I explain that since I work full-time, I have very limited time to spend with him. So when I am home for the night, I am attending to him and only him.

My purpose in showing the picture of my child is not really to justify my unavailability to students. It would be just as easy to simply say that I do not respond to emails at night. But I break the unwritten rule of “never discuss family at work” for a very deliberate reason: I want this generation of extremely successful students to know that, yes, one can have a satisfying career in a very competitive academic environment and still have a fulfilling home life.

I think that these strategies provide enough of an opening that these young students feel comfortable approaching me about these issues. And I welcome it.

I vividly recall my anxieties as I progressed through graduate school. I knew that I wanted an academic career, but I also wanted to have children. I remember when I was told by a senior faculty member, “If you have kids, you can kiss your career (in academics) goodbye.” As it turned out, I was promoted to associate professor at Yale shortly after my son’s second birthday. Another friend — and a tenured professor at an Ivy League university — has shared that when news of her impending motherhood reached a senior colleague, the older professor said, “I thought she was smarter than that.”

While I suspect (and hope!) that this message has not been transmitted to this younger generation so directly, I fear that they are hearing it anyway.

Recent research has identified bias against mothers in academia, with statistics showing that women with children are less likely to achieve tenure than their counterparts who do not have children.

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

The primary reasons for such a disparity are likely grounded in the same systemic problems that account for gender differences in pay. Women make less than men for doing the same job. This research uncovers that mothers in academia earn even less, whereas having children is actually a career advantage for men. Reading these findings, and thinking about them in the context of my job as a professor and adviser to students, I wonder whether there are other factors at play. It could be that when men want to have both a career and children, they are not cautioned against doing so and therefore do not restrict their options. Meanwhile, women who want to have children might be opting not to pursue tenure, believing it to be impossible to attain while balancing a young family.

I also posit that this academic climate could be responsible for shooing solid PhD candidates away from academic careers.

Issues surrounding career/family balance are challenging, and are relevant at every stage of our careers. However the trend that I have observed is this: Young women are tormented over the possibility that if they pursue an advanced degree, they will close off the possibility of eventually having a marriage or children. Regardless of their current relationship status, these women are distressed and trying to choose between what they perceive to be mutually exclusive options. A central issue for them is the fear that if they pursue a lasting relationship, they will be a career failure. The alternative, as they see it, is that they can pursue a productive career but that to do so will prevent them from having a family of their own.

We should be educating the next generation to understand that young people need not abandon one path in pursuit of the other. Certainly there are challenges that come with balancing a career and a family — and there is no perfect road map. But it can be done — and has been done — by many. We need to talk about it, and we need to create a culture wherein our younger colleagues can envision having children — if they so choose — while simultaneously being drawn to academic careers.

In reality, the academic career can be highly conducive to balancing a family. Flexible schedules, the ability to write lectures and grade papers from home, and a workload that follows the academic calendar of young children are all perks that make the academic career compatible with family life. While it is true that there are pay differences between women and men, the pitfalls for mothers in academics are no worse — and might be better — than for mothers in other competitive careers.

There are many reasons why, collectively, it is in our best interest to encourage younger peers to carefully consider and pursue holistic life goals alongside their career decisions. It has been known for some time that happier workers — those experiencing greater life satisfaction and more positive emotions — are more productive than their less satisfied co-workers. Similarly, individuals are more productive when they are happy. A separate line of research looking at the determinants of life satisfaction — both throughout the life span and in later life — has consistently found that family life is strongly associated with life satisfaction for men and women, at every stage of adulthood. Taken further, if we are to assume that happiness makes workers better at their jobs, should we not also encourage workers to take steps to optimize their quality of life at home?

To be sure, having children is not for everyone. And I am not suggesting that is the case. But I worry that we are perpetuating the elitist myth that one must sacrifice having a family as a way to guarantee academic success. We could be turning some really great human resources away.

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