Today I was part of a session on family-friendly policies in academia (policies that promote healthy policies that allow faculty to not have to choose between family and work). My role was small – I recorded a digital video of one of the presenters because she is currently on maternity leave and was unable to present in person. I showed up, sat politely (admittedly typing up notes as people spoke) and then pressed play on the recorded presentation. Watching these panels on gender issues gives me a strange emotional mix of hope and stomach ache that is usually followed by an after taste of anger at the inequities. Universities and the academic track from high school to a tenured faculty position is not friendly to women and definitely discourages those of us with the potential to carry babies from actually living up to that potential.
So what’s wrong? Originally I had written several pages of detail, but at the end of the day it boils down to one simple fact: When you are an academic, your work day doesn’t end at 5pm and there is no room for vacation time, sick time, or family leave in the academic year. Just as failing to show up for 8-12 weeks of a semester as a student can lead to failing grades and empty places on a student’s transcript, failing to show up for 8-12 weeks of a semester as a faculty member can lead to lose of benefits, and empty spaces in a person’s career dossier. Both these experiences can mean you don’t make it to the next step: the graduate school, a postdoc, a visiting faculty position, a tenure track faculty position or whatever you want your next step to be.
People are trying to find answers, but none of them are entirely healthy. For instance, the best option is to give birth at the beginning of the summer, after final grades are in and when you already don’t expect to get paid. But what if the kid comes early, bed rest is required, or you miss and the kid comes at the end of the semester? The other option is to teach a load of courses that adds of to one year’s worth of work in 1 semester (usually the one corresponding to the beginning of your pregnancy). But what if you have a rough pregnancy and can’t handle it and doing 1 years worth of teaching in 15 weeks? And there is always the solution of just getting someone to take your classes during the 6-12 weeks that correspond to family leave. But how is that fair to your students, who have to deal with two totally different teaching styles? There is no easy answer.
And there are also questions of child care (the professor’s day can be noon to 9 instead of 8 to 5), benefits (which end after 12 weeks leave), and promotion and tenure (it is hard to do research when you are trying to teach a double load and then trying to cope with a new kid).
So now I know more about all the solutions that people are trying to talk their universities into. None of them really seem satisfactory. I wonder if K-12 teachers feel the same pressures to not reproduce that are felt by college and university faculty.
If you are interested in learning more about women in science gender issues, check out this excellent site.