In their new book, The Ph.D. Parenthood Trap: Caught Between Work and Family in Academia (Georgetown University Press), Kerry F. Crawford and Leah C. Windsor review the many impacts of parenthood on professors. They cover practical issues such as breastfeeding, and the more philosophical, such as trying to find work-life balance. Crawford, an associate professor of political science at James Madison University in Virginia, and Windsor, a research associate professor at the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, answered questions via email. And one question they answer in their author biographies: Crawford has three young children and Windsor has two.
Q: Many of the trends you discuss are bad, but some people say, “Well, it was worse when I got my Ph.D.” How do you answer them?
A: One of the bright spots of the book is that there is near-unanimous agreement that things are better now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. There are some fights that we don’t have to fight anymore — like quantifying and proving the fact that women are tenured and promoted at lower rates than are men. Many colleges now do implicit bias training for hiring and promotion and tenure committees, for example, and the Me Too movement has exposed some egregious behavior by senior faculty in the discipline. Some traditionally male-dominated organizations, like the Society for Political Methodology, have taken deliberate steps to increase equity at conferences, such as requesting that chairs and discussants call on women+ [a term that includes trans women and those who are not on the binary for sexual identity] first during the question-and-answer period of panel presentations (since research shows that women+ and men tend to participate at roughly equal rates when women+ are called on first).
However, we still have a very long way to go. Most advocacy has been by women for women, and men need to be included in the solutions, because equity is not just a woman’s problem. In our book, we address the lower-order processes that lead to the more obvious higher-order processes (such as pay gap and disparity in service assignments). We need to focus on mentorship, especially by enlisting the “young, woke and tenured” men faculty who are uniquely situated to change departmental and institutional cultures. Women+ (and BIPOC, first-generation and LGBTQIA+ scholars) still face more issues than do men in academia. Many institutions still do not have paid parental leave. Women+ especially are unduly burdened during family formation — in our book we talk about the invisible challenges of miscarriages, fertility treatments and the physically demanding years of sleep deprivation with young children at home. We argue that academia is more like a game of chutes and ladders than a linear pipeline that “leaks” women+. Mentorship helps. Knowing the hidden curriculum rules of the game helps. And transparently communicated and equitably applied policies certainly help.
Q: How much are the problems parenthood problems vs. motherhood problems? Do new mothers and fathers have the same sets of problems?
A: In writing our book, it became evident that gender bias is the problem. Women+ and men who go against gender norms are both penalized. Hard-bargaining, determined women+ are still considered aggressive — a negative personality and work trait. Men who are active “primary parents” — picking up kids from school, being the principal caregiver or even an equal caregiver — also report feeling penalized and concerned about their research productivity and teaching evaluations. Single parents of any gender have to make it all work without a partner to pick up the slack. Same-sex or queer couples face discrimination in family formation and parental leave at work and carry the burden of societal discrimination and the threat of erosion of their legal rights. So these are very much parenthood problems that apply to people of all genders.
However, the gender double bind — the phenomenon that says women and men should behave according to traditional gender roles — still works against women more than men. Women who bring their children to meetings are considered unprofessional, while men are considered doting, sensitive fathers. Women+ who become pregnant and give birth face a range of physical and emotional experiences that men do not face, such as the very real hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and postpartum. Women who choose to pause the tenure clock face backlash, as if that year should be filled with increased research productivity.
On the other hand, men have the opportunity to abuse parental leave and use it for getting ahead on research, or going on the job market to move to a better institution, simply because they do not face the same postpartum physical demands and recovery process that women who give birth endure. Men are praised for parenthood, while women are penalized. There are many opportunities that actively involved parents of any gender miss out on because of caregiving responsibilities, especially when children are young. Still, conferencing and networking while pregnant or with a breastfeeding infant is incredibly challenging, and these are burdens that pregnant and lactating people uniquely face. Parental leave is often negotiated informally and with some variation across faculty who take leave; women+ who tend to be assigned online courses or departmental/university service responsibilities that tend to be lower profile than those that men fulfill. Decent accommodations for parents, and especially for women+, often depend on sympathetic supervisors and colleagues, rather than on sound, equitable policies.
We also highlight families that grow through adoption, which is how many academics have become parents. We feature several vignettes in our book from academic parents who adopted children, and the special challenges they faced in that process. Graduate student women+ parents are likely the most disadvantaged in the family formation process, as few programs provide health insurance, and they are often told to delay parenthood until posttenure. Our survey of academic parents shows that while this is common advice, it’s rarely followed. We say, bring children into your family when it is right for you.
Q: One of your chapters is on breastfeeding and lactation. What are the trends in this area?
A: Breastfeeding and lactation are much less taboo today than in the past, and women+ are more likely to ask for and receive certain accommodations. Lactation rooms and stations are increasingly common on campus. Many survey respondents reported being given time during on-campus job interviews to breastfeed or express milk. However, women+ reported having many more challenges than successes in feeding their babies.
Conferences and job interviews are largely inhospitable environments for lactating women+. The mechanics of expressing milk can be complicated: some women+ do not respond well to breast pumps, and going too long without expressing milk can be a serious health hazard, resulting in a breast infection called mastitis. It’s tough to travel with an infant (or multiple children) in tow, and women+ often bring family or sitters to conferences so they can participate in professional events while simultaneously tending to their children. This means higher costs, extra luggage, divided attention and lots of snacks. Even if children stay at home, women+ still need time to express milk, which takes away time from networking. Several years ago, a woman made the news for pumping milk in the hotel lobby when she was refused accommodations.
Breastfeeding and lactation are tied up in the notion of professionalism. Academia still considers intellectual masculinity the professional standard — professors should wear blazers with elbow patches and spend their days reading and thinking in their offices. Exposed breasts for the purpose of sustaining young children are considered unprofessional. Women+ are still advised to remove wedding bands for job interviews and not disclose pregnancy or children. There are success stories of women+ interviewing while visibly pregnant — but this is certainly not the norm. The unencumbered scholar is considered the ideal, so many women suffer through job interviews with morning (or all-day) sickness, or engorged breasts from not expressing milk. In our book, we argue that academics are allowed to — and should have — lives outside of academia. It is not unprofessional to be a parent.
Q: You talk about “work-life balance.” Is it really possible in academe? Especially for those up for tenure?
A: We call it the work-life myth. There’s no balance — there’s just whatever rises to the top of the list of priorities for that day. We asked our survey respondents to choose three of the following — sleep, work, family, friends, exercise — and they overwhelmingly chose the first three, especially new parents. It’s difficult to feel like you have a good sense of balance when the early years of parenthood are filled with constant change and development. Parents often put themselves last, forgoing sleep or socializing in order to do what needs to be done. Leah’s family has a saying: you do what you have to do before you do what you want to do.
We think a better way of framing work-life balance is work-life boundaries. It’s virtually heretical to keep a 9-to-5 schedule in academe and not work evenings and weekends. There’s so much humblebragging, especially on social media, that is really unhealthy for academics generally, especially about working late into the night or on the weekends. Before the pandemic, the two of us did not work evenings or weekends, except for some special occasions like grading final exams or proofreading book manuscripts. Working all the time or idiosyncratically is not a model to be emulated. It is not sustainable, and it is built on the patriarchal assumption that the scholar is a man who has a support-wife at home. The era of the “absentminded professor” is over. Efficient is the new cool.
Q: What are some things colleges can do to help parents on their faculty?
A: In our book, we provide a list of suggestions at the end of each chapter aimed at individual faculty, department/unit heads and deans and other administrators. In our faculty survey, we found that while over all things are much better than several decades ago, one of the overwhelmingly frustrating trends is that faculty do not know what their department’s, college’s or university’s policies are. Knowledge is power. However, it is a two-way street. Policies about parental and bereavement leave, for example, should be equitably distributed and transparently applied. These should be communicated to all faculty during job interviews and not just at employee orientation. They should be easily and ubiquitously accessible.
Colleges and universities should provide health insurance for graduate students and contingent faculty. They should provide lactation rooms in every building and accommodate teaching schedules so that lactating women+ will have adequate time to express milk. Colleges and universities should also provide affordable on-campus childcare — this is one of the hugest burdens for academic parents. Because we are often not able to choose where we live as academics, we end up far from family, friends and support systems that are crucial for the well-being of parents and children during the early years. Paid parental leave is essential, and supervisors should ensure that men use this time for parenting, not publishing.
Colleges and universities should mandate implicit bias training to ensure that hiring and promotion decisions, campus policies, and day-to-day interactions make the academy a more welcoming, inclusive, equitable and accessible place for all scholars at all ranks.
We recognize that colleges and universities operate with resource constraints, so one of the key takeaways is that administrators and department heads should listen to their faculty and students. Ask in ways that facilitate honesty and openness and find out what needs exist on campus that could be met with the resources available. Throughout the pandemic, faculty parents bemoaned the emails from their administrators about wellness, self-care and restful breaks between semesters; these messages, while perhaps well intended, signaled a complete lack of awareness for the realities of parents navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with children in tow. Signaling concern for and commitment to retaining faculty and student parents doesn’t have to be incredibly costly, but it should be intentional.