Faculty Mothers: Continuing the Conversation

Listening ear. Moral support. Advisor. Counselor. Professor. Mother?

I’m in the midst of reading Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family, by Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel–both of whom are well-published professors of educational leadership.[1] Ward and Wolf-Wendel aren’t the first authors to address this topic; other notable contributions to the conversation include Mama, Ph.D. (and the subsequent Papa, Ph.D.), Parenting and ProfessingThe Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serveand Academic Motherhood in a Post-Second Wave Context. Within the first few pages, Ward and Wolf-Wendel differentiate their book from previous volumes. They point out that while most other writers have addressed the significant challenges of combining motherhood and academia, the 120 women they interviewed also stressed the joys that they find in their dual roles as well as the ways in which academia can offer autonomy and flexible scheduling to accommodate family commitments. As they dig deeper into the content of their interviews, though, it becomes increasingly clear that academics continue to struggle with the work-family balance and with student and institutional perceptions of female professors as surrogate mother-figures. Here, the participants in Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s study echo the frustrations articulated by female faculty across the United States. 

Academia certainly does offer greater flexibility than other occupations. Professors do not teach 9 to 5, which means that many parents can arrange their teaching load around their children’s schedules. As Ward and Wolf-Wendel point out, though, academia (like family work) is “greedy” in nature: “Academic work is distinct in that it can be, quite literally, never-ending. There are always articles to read, papers to grade, syllabi to update, and proposals to write” (51). The portability of academic work through laptops and email means that work can be (and usually is) ever-present at home as well.

woman on laptopIn their study, the two authors interviewed academic mothers across a variety of institutions: research institutions, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. Their results revealed common concerns as well as significant differences. Professors at research institutions face the most pressure in the publish-or-perish mindset, but they also receive very clear expectations on the tenure track, which aids them significantly in the balancing act. Community college professors express the most satisfaction in their jobs and in their ability to combine work and family – in large part because many of their students, too, balance work and family commitments, and perhaps therefore have fewer expectations of their professors in the hours outside of class.

Faculty interviews indicate that the liberal arts college may offer the most barriers to successfully juggling work and family. Most liberal arts colleges promote the “community,” or even “family,” aspect of their campus experience as a way to attract and retain students and faculty alike. From day one, first-year students are grouped in small cohorts as a way to develop community bonds, and students have the opportunity to develop close relationships with their faculty advisors. At my own institution, faculty advisors are encouraged to invite students to their homes for dinner. Having grown up as the daughter of a professor at another liberal arts college, I recall many dinners with students in our home during my childhood. From both perspectives, then, I’ve seen the benefits of these nurturing relationships. However, I’ve also seen work-life-balance-sign (and the book’s interview subjects echo this) that female faculty are far more likely to be tapped for such nurturing and service-oriented positions. Colleagues of mine recently conducted a study of students at a peer institution regarding their gendered perceptions of and expectations for professors. Students as a whole were surprisingly honest in stating their differing expectations for male and female faculty. They expected female professors to make extra time for them, to counsel them, and to extend deadlines and alter assignments; while some also expected this of their male professors, they were far more understanding when the men could not – or would not – accommodate them.[2]

Such expectations also intersect with the liberal arts college push for building a close-knit campus community. Whereas female faculty at research institutions feel that benchmarks for teaching, research, and service were made clear, their counterparts at liberal arts colleges more often experience an ambiguity of expectations, particularly when it comes to evening commitments that interfere with family. What it means to be part of a tight-knit and supportive community is often unclear. As one professor questioned, “Does that mean I go to one basketball game a year or one theater production? Or do I go to all the senior recitals for students who have been in my classes? What exactly?” (129) 

woman pulling hair outWhat seems to be true across institutions of higher education, regardless of scope or size, is the lack of established family leave policies. This theme is echoed through all of the recent literature. Again and again, academic mothers get to reinvent the wheel when they plan for maternity leave – arranging for colleagues to cover a few classes here and there, requesting a reduced teaching load, or moving some sections to an online format. Some of the mothers interviewed by Ward and Wolf-Wendel took no leave at all, and many spoke of trying to time their pregnancies for summer delivery. Others expressed concerns about fairness and equity when different faculty negotiated different leaves. In every case, professors arranged family leave on a case-by-case basis within their individual departments – and many noted the lack of institutional models for their experiences. (Clearly, this same obstacle surrounding family leave presents itself to fathers in academia as well, a topic that received excellent and diverse treatment by the essayists in Papa, Ph.D.

Academic institutions are often viewed as bastions of liberal privilege, but if they can continue to get by without family leave policies then it points to a deficit in the larger institutional mindset. Despite the flexibility that academic mothers claim to enjoy in their work in general, they are not staying the course. Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s research shows that while more women and mothers are entering academia as assistant professors, this still has not translated into higher numbers of female full professors, nor into an increased number of female administrators. The pipeline is leaking across disciplines and across institutional types. What institutional changes do we need to make to stop these leaks?[3]


[1] Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

[2] Karen Sheriff LeVan and Marissa King presented their research findings in a workshop entitled, “This is Me Loving You,” on the Bethel College (KS) campus, October 26, 2013 (material not yet published). 

[3] I would direct readers to Ward and Wolf-Wendel’s many helpful suggestions in their conclusion, but I am also interested in hearing from readers about their own ideas for institutional change.