motherhood penalty, take 2

Thanks to Fer, New Soc Prof, Olderwoman, ORJ, Char and Carly for their great comments on the previous post. This is part of the reason I started this blog – I wanted to have these important conversations. Many of my thoughts are tied into what they said, so I’ll try to incorporate them all together.

As mentioned by NSP, OW, and ORJ, I do think that academia is a better place to be a mommy than most other places. In a prior life, I worked on Wall Street, and being a mommy was really not possible, at least not the type of mommy I wanted to be. It was one of the reasons I got out early. Young professionals mothers, a few years older than I, were told that their promotion track and salary and bonus would be frozen as long as their home responsibilities interfered with their work life. In banking, with children, it is almost impossible for that not to happen as the norms are 9 – 9 days. But this only seemed to apply to women, not men.

In academia, I see a huge differences, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to become a professor – the lifestyle. But, like Fer says, I do think that it’s more difficult to be a mommy in academia* than a childless woman OR a daddy. The biggest issue, it seems, is that you have the constraints on your time, which can hamper making connections and building networks. A professor asked me the other day if I’d like to be involved in a project over the summer that would take at least one full day from my weekend every weekend. As much as I’d love to be involved, I had to turn it down due to my family responsibilities. Now there are two issues with this – one, does that make me look less committed to my work (an argument made as to why mommies are disadvantaged, like ABC commenter said) and two, this professor is also a daddy – how is he negotiating the time away from his kids to do this work on the weekends?

Char says it should be the same constraints on daddies as mommies, but as Carly said, it’s not. The article showed that men actually receive an advantage from being daddies. Correll argues that role of a daddy and that of a committed competent worker are very much in line, while that of a mother and a committed competent worker are not congruent. In banking, being a daddy was not a big deal at all – while I saw at least 4 women be put on the frozen track, I saw countless others become daddies without the same consequence. Men were congratulated on providing for their growing families by staying late at work – incidentally, because many of them were avoiding their responsibilities at home!

Personally, I definitely feel the pressure to perform above and beyond my peers to prove that being a mommy does not make me less committed or competent, although many assume that it will. I had a professor say to me this weekend that I must be happy that the summer is coming so that I could “catch up.” This same professor told me that I should consider a week a successful one if I haven’t had to make too many excuses about turning in stuff late. This is all because I’m a mother to two small children – the expectation is that I am struggling, when in fact, I am not.

But of course, motherhood also intersects with race and class, so my anecdotal experience of feeling the need to be twice as good to get half as much respect may also come from my experiences being black and working-class. So it’s even more sobering to know that motherhood, in and of itself, has become yet another marker of low-status.

* actual citation, in case not able to access the link: Ward, Kelly and Lisa Wolf-Wendel. 2007. “Academic Motherhood: Managing Complex Roles in Research Institutions.” The Review of Higher Education 27: 233-257. 

4 thoughts on “motherhood penalty, take 2

  1. I have really enjoyed reading both of these posts — thanks for sharing all of the links and information.

    I have two young children, both of whom were born while I was in grad school. (I received my Ph.D. this past January, just a month shy of my youngest’s first birthday.) I was on the job market in 2007 and in 2006, when I was visibly (about 5.5 months) pregnant. I had the same thought process as NewSocProf — I was acutely aware of the potential for bias/discrimination based upon my pregnancy, but I figured that if a department didn’t want to hire me because I am a mother, then it would not be the supportive environment that I was looking for in the first place. As such, during my interviews I was always very open about being a mom — not that I had much choice the year I was pregnant! : ) Originally I really struggled with whether and to what extent to discuss my parenthood, but finally I decided that I wasn’t going to conceal who I am for the sake of potential employers, consequences be damned. In fact, I used faculty members’ reactions to my pregnancy/parenthood as kind of a litmus test for the departments I interviewed at. Of course, I can’t really know whether this strategy backfired or not (e.g., I have no way of knowing whether my being a mom was a deciding factor for search committees that voted not to extend me an offer), but I have never regretted being open about who I am and the realities of my family life.

    All that said, I *did* have an older (mid-to-late 50s) male faculty member at one place I interviewed ask me, “So, you think you can manage being a schoolteacher with small children at home?” As you can probably imagine, I was utterly flabbergasted that he actually verbalized that thought to me.

    One last thing: I agree that, despite the very real hurdles mothers in academia face, all in all it’s a pretty forgiving field when compared to other professional environments. Like many of you, its relative compatibility with parenthood was a big reason why I pursued an academic career to begin with.


  2. I was thinking about these issues again, partly in response to a related post by belle at scatterplot

    Attributions that you are not serious if you are a mother are really irritating and are, I think, increasingly confined to people in male-dominated sexist-anyway professions and older men who had stay-at-home or otherwise supportive wives who are basically clueless or sexist or both.

    The deeper problem even for the non-sexist younger generation is individual competition and the work-home nexus. The very most productive young scholars I know are either childless or are men with stay-at-home wives who take care of the home front. It is physically possible for the genders to be reversed in this and I know of a few cases of stay-at-home dads who act like wives, in the sense of really running the home front, but they are quite rare and have little impact on averages. I know many more cases where both partners try to share child/home duties relatively equally.

    Unless you are willing to make it illegal for a person to choose to stay home with children and run the home front while her(his) spouse invests deeply in career, you are going to have these inequalities. I don’t think I’m willing to say that. Nor am I willing to demand that everyone have children whether they want to or not. There is a finite amount of time in a week and people make choices about how they allocate it.

    Of course, workplaces dominated by men who have the home front run by their wives are going to be inhospitable places for anyone who is trying to spend a significant amount of time with children and contribute to running a home. We can opt into workplaces that are more dominated by people juggling the two, where we fit in better.

    But trying to deal with this structurally seems hard. For professionals, our problem is not that we lack the resources to pay for child care and household help, it is that we don’t want to offload our child rearing entirely onto others. I realize that for grad students, the lack of money does impact choices, but it seems to me that there is a problem even when money is not an issue.


  3. I am finalizing my doctorate, with an infant, and am planning to have two more children and have a successful career in academia. How to do it? I don’t know, but having married the right man and being affiliated with enlightened institutions help. I can’t rely on relatives for childcare as they/we live on opposite sides of the Atlantic. I am wondering whether we have to think like our male colleagues to manage – although we, unlike them, do not have wives to clean up our mess.. I think I will just have to accept that I will not be 100% at work or at home for the next decade or so, but that in the long run everything will be ok. After all, in other (less affluent) parts of the world (and in our part of the world, 50-100 years ago) parents did not spend as much time with the children as ‘we’ do these days. Women and men had to work, period. And the children turned out to be decent human beings after all. How much of this challenge is gilt/sorrow on our part as mothers for missing out on our children, and how much of this challenge comes down to difficulties associated with finding and affording child care?

    Mothers and academics out there, does it matter whether you have 2 or 3 children? Is the ‘punishment’ the same, professionally speaking? Please share your experiences..I am hoping to have two, perhaps three, before I am 30 and have completed a post-doc..


  4. mimi: I don’t know about “punishment,” but my own view is that the disruptiveness of children rises at least with the square of the number of children and may be exponential. (Well, maybe there are diminishing marginal impacts after three children, I wouldn’t know as I only have two.) One child can be carted around to adult functions and can usually be expected to behave. Once you don’t outnumber them, you are going to live their life, they are not going to live yours, unless someone else is in charge of them. In my own case, the issue was always about how I wanted to live my life, and not about the availability of child care. From a professional income, paying for more or more expensive child care is financially possible if you are willing to live in a less expensive house, eat out less, take fewer trips, etc. I agree about rising standards: my mother stayed home and probably did not spend more time with us than I spent with my own children when they were young.

    HOWEVER, the other half of the problem is with the job. No job that wants 80 hours a week will ever be compatible with actual child rearing. The problem with professional careers is that you can always do more and get more prestige and honor for doing it. You always have to give up some prestige and honor if you want to do anything else but work.


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