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.

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David Harley

I have watched leakage at each of these points.

Indeed, there are also leakages at earlier stages. Is there a disproportion among students finishing their dissertations? Family commitments and a lack of proper supervision can be hurdles.

Is there a disproportion among students completing a dissertation in a marketable field? We are all familiar with the ways in which a topic can be branded as a “women’s topic” and therefore unsuitable, even among many women full professors who have had to make it through the existing system and had to internalize the existing values.

Recruiting methods vary, but there are always gong to be professors who ask inappropriate questions, whether because they didn’t read the submitted work or because they don’t understand the methods used or the current debates within the subdiscipline concerned. There is an assumption that one can just recognize “quality,” whatever that is. It’s usually little more than a degree from a famous department or recommendations from famous professors, even though such infulences may not be acknowledged.

And then, and then, there’s the imbalanced valuation of the tasks to which women professors are directed, the parts of the student assessment which are highly regarded, and the lack of awareness of the outside factors such as caring for sick children or elderly relations which a woman is not expected to refuse. I should say that the same handicaps can affect men with comparable attributes or responsibilities.

Many more issues can be raised, such as the way that women are often given offices in a different part of the building to those assigned to senior men, the lack of any clear direction as to whether junior staff, men or women, should spend time going to conferences and taking on disciplinary responsibilities outside the university, taking on departmental or university responsibilities, or just work on finishing the work in hand.

At every stage, the invisible conflicts within academia are likely to have a disproportionate effect on women, although single or childless women may well be able to achieve the status of “honorary men,” if they can jump through all the necessary hoops. In each of the following examples, women are likely to be at a disadvantage, because the key decisions are going to be taken by older men. However openminded they think they are, those who have achieved success will have a vision of what makes someone promising. That is likely to lead to men being given a higher rating, unless they are married to highflying and therefore highly mobile partners.

In the absence of clear guidance, mentoring and transparent processes, in the absence of university oversight to identify patterns of unobserved discrimination, it is all too easy for those responsible for decisions about hiring and firing to have entirely different criteria and to pick out the characteristics that strike them as good reasons for turning down an application.

Older professors may still believe strongly in the characteristics appropriate to a teaching college, whereas younger ones may value only research productivity, as rated in their own subdiscipline. It may be that the senior ranks of the department are crammed with people hired in from outside, who have no long memory of how processes have been conducted at the institution or who have never had to go through such a process themselves, especially if hired from abroad.

Above all, there is academia’s dirty little secret, one seen worldwide. Academia is dynastic, with professors supporting the careers of students from one group and opposing those from another, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work. The careers of the students supervised by conflicting professors can be blighted, not just at hiring but at every stage, such as whether an article is accepted for publication or whether a grant is supplied for a major research project which would employ several promising postdocs..

Senior professors push forward the younger colleagues who look most like their ideal version of themselves, someone who will support them in matters intellectual and departmental, while shouldering the responsibilities which the highflying academic no longer wants to shoulder. Hiring debates are often contests for precedence, especially in non-metropolitan colleges where such matters can have a disproportionate role in the self-esteem of professors.

This can even trail on into the future, with academics hoping that they will not be forgotten among the next generation. There was one Ivy League college where a cohort of senior professors each hung on past normal retirement age in the hope of finding a suitable heir who would carry on the same kind of work. The careers and approaches of such professors may well be based on those of their own mentors, Thus, the Cold War opposition to social history or the successful creation of empirical social history can continue to be defended in some departments. New subdisciplines been hard to establish, in the sciences and the arts, because there were no practitioners as senior members of existing departments.


Sharing the lengthy thread from my FB post about the article:

Maria Elena Buszek This has always been a biggie: “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.” Pretty much the only negative comment a student’s written on my evals in the last three years is: “She SEEMS nice in class, but she’s NOT in-person”…which is code for “I came to see her to talk her into something, and she wasn’t having it.” I thought this one would lessen with age, but it hasn’t.
February 4 at 9:21am · Unlike · 4

Maria Elena Buszek That said, though, I’m in a department where the chair is a woman/mom slightly younger than my own mom, and all the other women with kids are the main earners in their families, most with work-from-home partners. Also, significant faculty governance cross-campus that “gets it.” So, there’s not a lot of pushing the “nurturing” from the colleague side.
February 4 at 9:24am · Unlike · 3

Jacqueline Antonovich I was recently in a meeting with faculty and they were discussing an event which would take place between 4-6pm. One of male faculty members suggested that we provide some sort of child care for faculty children. On one hand, I thought, how progressive and awesome. On the other hand, I thought, well, he can get away with that because he is a man.
February 4 at 9:28am · Like · 6

Cheryl Lemus My job allows me to work from home (I teach full time online), but there are still expectations of me as a mother that still play a role in a virtual campus.
February 4 at 9:52am · Like

Rachel Epp Buller What do you mean, Cheryl?
February 4 at 9:59am · Like

Carla Tilghman As an adjunct, I don’t have some of the obligations of full-time faculty (nor the privileges or pay). The two art departments I work for have female chairs, only one of whom has had children while working. Curiously, I find that I use being a mom quite often in my teaching. When students are slacking a bit in their reading I’ve been known to say “Don’t make me use ‘mom-voice’ on you.” It seems to me that being a mom gives me a certain kind of authority and psychological distance from my students that I use. I’m not their buddy, or their peer or their friend. I’m in the “mom” category, which does come with a certain kind of cache. I’m friendly (the cool mom), I’m aware of contemporary issues and technology (the hip mom) and sometimes I crack down on them (the mean mom… or just a bitch). I even had a student confide in me about his personal life struggles saying that I reminded him OF his mom. (What was interesting about his case what that he didn’t end up with the grade he wanted and so had to discover that I wasn’t his mom, I was his teacher with different responsibilities.)
February 4 at 10:38am · Like · 3

Carla Tilghman On a separate but related note…. I’m also a grad. student at the moment and being a mom as a grad. student is also interesting. It changes the dynamic with faculty who are also parents as they are more aware of the different pulls on my time. With faculty who are not parents…. I’ve found that many of them (men and women) have no sympathy for parenting obligations at all. “Well… you chose to be a parent.” is something that I’ve been told when I was struggling with a sick kid and a deadline. Some faculty lose respect for their female students when they become parents… assuming that the women will no longer be as committed to scholarship. This standard doesn’t seem to be applied to men. Again, this is something that has been said to me by child-less faculty members.
February 4 at 10:43am · Like · 6

Maria Elena Buszek For Carla: http://thoughtcatalog.files.wordpress.com/…/tumblr…

February 4 at 11:32am · Unlike · 3 · Remove Preview

Elissa Auerbach Great essay, Rach! I need to read this book asap. I teach at a liberal arts college where I have a heavy teaching load and service expectations. I currently have in my calendar about 50 hours of departmental events (mostly evening) to attend this semester, not including committee meetings, advising, etc. I honestly don’t know how I will manage once my toddler gets to the age where she has evening homework or needs shuttling to after-school activities. And, yes, students seem to take the slightest whiff of criticism from a female faculty member much more personally than they do from our male counterparts. I’ve also noticed that some female faculty I know who have children have gotten more support from male faculty than they have from female faculty without children. Luckily, I have a chair and dean (both men, both fathers) that have been hugely supportive in making allowances for me to help me balance my teaching schedule with family. What we really need more of here is institutional support, especially in the form of campus daycare services and maternity/paternity leave.
February 4 at 11:37am · Unlike · 3

Maria Elena Buszek ^ Elissa, this was one of the (many) reasons I left tenure at an art institute: ZERO institutional support/faculty governance, which affects EVERYTHING. Also, the unfortunate experience of lack of support from older women, many of whom took a “we-were-hazed-and-so-should-you” attitude, rather than wanting to stop the cycle. (Even those with children: one once said, on a faculty listserv, “you young women should stop complaining [about a lack of family-friendly policies], as WE did it without FMLA!”) I’m now at a research institution with, among other things, a campus preschool.
February 4 at 11:41am · Like

Elissa Auerbach Maria, a campus preschool? Frown. I want that. You’ve been to our teeny, tiny town. You know how much we need those sorts of services here on campus! It’s like a desert out here. …I think academia offers the sort of environment where people can easily focus on work at the expense of family (whether or not they have kids). I can understand faculty having trouble relating to faculty who prioritize their kids. But what has shocked me is what some female faculty have no problem saying to other female faculty with kids–things that perhaps the feminist movement has conditioned men not to say.
February 4 at 11:48am · Like

Maria Elena Buszek YES! A FIVE-STAR preschool! It’s not free, but it’s right here on campus, and exists because CU-wide faculty/admin have prioritized getting more families into the universities (faculty, students, AND staff, who all have access…albeit, through a lottery). I’m a great example of someone “poached” from my previous institution for exactly these kinds of policies…it makes sense to everybody, as it’s a single thing that has a ripple effect of improving the quality of the community/education.
February 4 at 11:53am · Unlike · 5

Rachel Epp Buller Well, now we all want to join Maria at the CU-Denver campus, but these “innovative” approaches should just be common sense on a large scale. Elissa, I’m shocked by the hours in your calendar – but then, I suspect that most of us would be shocked if we all counted up the extracurricular hours we put in supporting the community.
February 4 at 1:37pm · Like · 3

Rachel Epp Buller The UK has institutionalized many more of these policies than we have: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/…/2010631.article

No kidding: research is as demanding as a newborn
Research is like a baby – insistently demanding and on its own timetable, as Rebecca Braun found on maternity leave
February 4 at 1:41pm · Like · Remove Preview

Carla Tilghman I’m interested in what women have done in the academy to fit into an already existing patriarchal system that is increasingly face-paced… rather than make more significant changes. We’re consistently seeing more and more women in the academy (ironically and not coincidently at the same time Higher Ed is being de-funded). However, I see the same system of publish or perish and the time-table for all of that has accelerated dramatically in the last decade or so. Why AREN’T we promoting the idea that scholarship takes time and thought and contemplation. And that having balanced lives is good for not just the individual but also the institution. We’ve seem Slow Fashion and Slow Cloth movements…. let’s start a Slow Uni movement!!!!
February 4 at 2:43pm · Like · 3

Ada Schmidt-Tieszen This subject interests me. I became a mother about 10 days before becoming a professor–and was probably the first full time female professor at my institution to be pregnant and give birth. That was 28 years ago…policies were certainly unclear. But if anyone is interested in a “historic” perspective, let me know.
February 5 at 9:33am · Like · 2

Rachel Epp Buller Yes, Ada, I’d be interested in hearing the rest of this story! Policies have continued to be unclear in the decades since, at most higher ed institutions around the country.
February 5 at 9:39am · Like · 1

Rebecca Barrett-Fox I’ll echo Carla’s comment that we can push for a more realistic, compassionate, holistic approach to scholarly lives–which benefit not only women with children but everyone with a family (so, that’s everyone). But we have to demand it, and many childless/childfree women don’t see themselves as invested in this, unfortunately. (Like many folks here, my harshest critics have been other women who don’t have children. I think it’s part hazing, part resentment, part feeling like women of my generation aren’t grateful enough for their barrier-breaking achievements. But I am grateful–and I understand why they felt that they had to forfeit children (if they wanted to be parents) because they likely DID have to do that.) And I’ve been at institutions where the policies have been, overall, family friendly (on-campus child care centers and high quality preschools) as well as places that weren’t; no place, though, has had a reasonable maternity leave plan. For me, being family-friendly is a must; I would not consider a job that didn’t allow me to prioritize my family–and they should be grateful for that because my work is enhanced by my parenting (which is part of what the book under review here argues). I wouldn’t be as sensitive as a scholar or confident as a teacher, I think, without having had children. Here at A-State, I have an OUTSTANDING dean (I rather feel about her as the knights of the round table felt about King Arthur!)–and it probably helps that her work is about radical mothering. So I hit the jackpot there. But I do think, more broadly, that others are out there who have similarly affirming attitudes. I went on a job interview with a baby–checked him in to daycare while I was on campus and took a few breaks during the interview process to nurse him; the university was accommodating–and if they hadn’t been, I would have known it wasn’t a good fit for me. The current chair of my dept. recently told me a story about a candidate who requested time out of her interview for breast pumping; he said that this made a positive impression on him as he figured that if she could handle juggling pumping and interviewing and had the confidence to share her needs, she would be a hard worker and a good colleague. There are those who aren’t so open-minded, of course. (A former chair of mine complained about my nursing. I suggested he try aversion therapy, increasing his exposure to nursing breasts slowly over time, until he could get the fuck over himself.) So most of my story has been positive… yet I see that the majority of women who I have encountered in my academic life do not have children–and academics (men or women or both–I’m not sure) have the lowest fertility rate among professionals, I believe. Delayed childbearing plays some part in this, no doubt, but that’s not the whole story. The majority of tenured folks in my department are women; the majority of them do no have children. The majority of my female friends from grad school are childfree. Does the profession demand this, or are women who prefer a childfree lifestyle more likely to head into scholarly life? (The comparisons to nuns are starting to appear here.) Is the issue children or anything as demanding as children? How does the feminization of adjunctification play in to this? The overrepresentation of women in the lower-paid faculty positions? The problem of the dual academic career? (Women, in general, are more apt to give up TT positions if their husbands are unhappy than men are if their wives are unhappy.) In the cohort of new faculty members here at A-State this year (maybe 60 of us?), Jason and I were the only dual hire; most folks with children have a stay-at-home spouse. I know of no other newly hired women with a young child, though I know of several male colleagues with stay-at-home wives and young babies. So it seems that, at least in the cases I’m seeing in my life, that women are not balancing young children with scholarly life. (And no one, male or female, dares have more than 2 children. I know of one remarkable hero of mine who has 5 children and was married to a high-powered academic. And I know of one woman who had 3–but the second pregnancy was with twins, so I’m not sure she would have had 3 otherwise.) Last thought: if university’s want to make the best hires, they need to be family-friendly. This is a recruitment and retention issue in the long-term. If your university isn’t living up to your needs, let your faculty senators know that you will look for one that will.
February 8 at 6:16pm · Like · 2

Carla Tilghman The last thought here is fantastic for full-time faculty, and less functional for contingent faculty. We need a simultaneous push for realistic academic requirements, family friendly hiring and more benefits for contingent faculty.
February 9 at 11:35am · Like · 1

Rachel Epp Buller Thought of Rebecca’s and Carla’s comments when I read this just now: http://jezebel.com/is-leaning-in-killing-you-try-leaning

Is ‘Leaning In’ Killing You? Try Leaning Out.
With all of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s talk about leaning in, few are talkin…See More
February 26 at 1:41pm · Like · 5 · Remove Preview

Rachel Hile She had me at “Manifestus,” too!
February 26 at 1:52pm · Unlike · 1

Maria Elena Buszek “FOR THE REST OF US!”
February 26 at 1:54pm · Unlike · 1

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