Archive for Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Motherhood may derail tenure-track faculty

January 18, 2005


Stacey White is working on her academic juggling act.

By day, she teaches in Kansas University's School of Architecture and Urban Design.

At night, she tends to her two children -- 4-year-old Thomas and 2-year-old Isaac. She sometimes grades papers after her children go to bed.

White is joining a growing number of female faculty members who are pursuing academic life while raising a family. But in doing so, statistics show, she may be hurting her chances for gaining tenure and securing her future in academia.

Officially, KU's policy -- like policies at nearly all American universities -- says tenure review committees must ignore the fact some women take more time to apply for tenure because they have children.

"I have to believe that's the case," White said. "For my sanity."

But some research shows that may not be true, and that women with children are less likely to gain tenure than their counterparts without children.

Donna Ginther, KU associate professor of economics, has completed two such studies. Among humanities faculty members nationwide, women were 8 percent less likely to be awarded tenure than their male counterparts, and she said the presence of children accounted for 2 percent of the difference.

In her own field, economics, being a married woman with children decreases the probability of gaining tenure by 10 percentage points across the nation.

"Having a child while you're an assistant professor is a risky proposition," Ginther said. "I think it has to do with the supply and demand of faculty. For most disciplines, there is an excess available of people wanting to be on the tenure track. Women who have children have very little bargaining power."

Scott and Stacey White play with their sons Isaac, 2, foreground,
and Thomas, 4. Stacey White, an assistant professor at Kansas
University, opted to take longer to pursue tenure in order to have
her two children.

Scott and Stacey White play with their sons Isaac, 2, foreground, and Thomas, 4. Stacey White, an assistant professor at Kansas University, opted to take longer to pursue tenure in order to have her two children.

Tenure security

Gaining tenure status gives faculty members additional academic freedoms because it means a panel of peers endorsed the work they completed in their probationary period.

Faculty members typically have six years to apply for tenure. Those not granted tenure after their review process typically are given a notice of nonreappointment.

Faculty who have children during their probationary period can request to have their "tenure clock" stopped for a year, giving them seven years to be awarded tenure instead of the typical six. Extensions also are available for other reasons, such as having an illness or receiving a research grant that takes a faculty member off the KU campus.

No one tracks how many KU faculty members who have babies stop their tenure clock. But two recent surveys at other universities show many do not take advantage of the extension. At the University of Michigan, for example, 42 percent of women didn't request to stop their tenure clock, with two-thirds of them saying they feared it would harm their careers.

A study at the University of California campuses showed similar results: 48 percent didn't go off the tenure clock, with 41 percent of those saying the decision was because of fear it would hurt their careers.

Lisa Wolf-Wendel, associate professor of teaching and leadership at KU, is familiar with those concerns. She and a colleague from Washington State University recently completed interviews with 120 female faculty members to get their thoughts on earning tenure.

"There's a real fear out there among a lot of women," Wolf-Wendel said, noting the reluctance to take advantage of the tenure-clock extension. "Whether it's fear or choice or whatever, not that many people are doing it (extending the clock)."

Several options

Wolf-Wendel is among those who didn't stop her clock when she gave birth to her first child, which occurred during her probationary period. In her case, she said, it wasn't out of fear; it was because she knew being away from the office would mean more work for her colleagues.

She was back in front of her class teaching a week after giving birth.

"I felt healthy enough to go back," she said. "I had a healthy, happy, mellow baby."

Ginther, the economics professor, was so concerned about the possible effect of children on her job that she waited until after she had tenure to start a family.

"I had advice early on from my senior colleagues (at another university) to wait until after I had tenure," she said. "A senior female colleague said it would send the wrong message if I had a baby."

White, the architecture professor, was on the other end of the spectrum. She had her tenure clock stopped twice when she had her children.

She said she thought the decision ultimately would help her career.

"Especially with my first child, I didn't know what to expect in terms of being a mom and balancing work and family," she said. "I figured anything I could do to give myself a little extra time was good. It was definitely a good decision to make."

Good news

Sandra Gautt, vice provost for faculty development, said she thought it could help if senior female faculty share their experiences with junior faculty and graduate students.

"The tenure process is high-anxiety," she said. "We provide lots of opportunities to talk about the process and visit with senior faculty, and the anxiety is still there. Reassurance is good, but it's about your life, and it's about an issue of performance expectations."

Wolf-Wendel's study offers hope to women hoping to balance faculty life and family life.

Previous research has predominately shown that female faculty who have children are typically unhappier than their childless counterparts. But most of those contacted by Wolf-Wendel were content with their situations.

"Faculty life gives them flexibility, and having children gave them a sense of perspective on what they do," Wolf-Wendel said. "For these women, when they went home, they got a break from work, and when they went to work they got a break from being a parent."

Count White in that group of happy academic parents.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," she said, "but I wouldn't trade any of it. I love my family and I love my job."

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