The structure of academia and women’s job prospects

The Girl Detective has an excellent post up at Feministe, arguing that “the very structure of academia is hurting women’s chances at securing full-time jobs”. It’s largely based on her experiences as a white part-time English instructor on the US. I’d be very grateful for thoughts from others with different experiences.

7 thoughts on “The structure of academia and women’s job prospects

  1. The Feministe post points out that children, elder care, and house work, often constitute an unfair burden for female academics. However, I’m left wondering why these academic women end up in, or tolerate, such relationships. The author almost seems to take it as a fact that women academics are going to end up in such situations, but it seems to me they should, in some regards, be in the best position to know better. One potential problem to making structural changes to the academy to accommodate such unbalanced relationships is that you simply perpetuate the unfair burden.

  2. Matthew, I think you raise an interesting question and I don’t know what the answer is. I do think things are more complicated though. In my department (I’m a grad student) there are three grad students with kids–two women and one man. The man has a wife who has been a SAHM for over a year since the baby’s birth. The two women have husbands who work in professional careers similar to academia. I don’t know the particular distribution of childcare/housework the two women have with their husbands, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they share things 50/50 in their relationship. Even if they have managed the feat of creating an egalitarian relationship, there is still the fact that since the man in the dept has an inegalitarian relationship in terms of childcare, he is still likely at an advantage over the two women. So even if female academics were successful in negotiating egalitarian relationships, that alone wouldn’t be enough to put them on equal footing with their male colleagues, since SAHmothers are still significantly more common than SAHfathers.

    Maybe women could try to convince their husbands to be SAHfathers to the same extent that women are SAHmothers, but this is probably an even more impossible task given 1) there is still quite a stigma against SAHfathers amongst even supposedly enlightened people, 2) I believe it is still the case that in heterosexual marriages women tend to be a few years younger and men tend to be more highly educated than women. If that is the situation in the majority of heterosexual couplings of female academics, then it’s likely their husbands tend to have similarly high career expectations and are further along in their careers and/or making more money than the women are. And even despite these difficulties, there is still the question of whether it would be a good thing overall if more men took over the traditional SAHM role. (Sure it might help female academics if their husband took over most of the child-raising and cooking and cleaning, but wouldn’t those men then suffer the same disadvantages that SAHMs often do–namely, doing a full time job plus overtime with no pay, no social security building up, and little respect.)

    I also think you are right that there is a danger that academia trying to accommodate women’s greater burden of children and housework might just end up helping men refrain from changing. It’s kind of a catch-22. At my university, for instance, when you have a child you can get one semester off of teaching duties (whether you are male or female), but if you are a woman giving birth that leave is automatic, while if you are a male whose partner is giving birth (not sure how this all works in the case of adoption or same-sex couples) it’s not automatic, you have to request it (though you are guaranteed to get it). Apparently there was some feminist objection to this policy since it appeared to send the message that it was somehow more obvious that women would need to/want to take time off to be with their baby than that men would need to/want to do so.

    The response from the university was very interesting. Apparently, when the university had looked at how faculty members were actually using their leave in these cases, they found huge differences between the men and women. The women used the leave as true leave from work–they did very little work related tasks and spent the time as it was intended–bonding with their babies. But many of the men used the leave as a sabbatical–as time off from teaching that let them focus on their research. So when the men and the women came back to work, the men were now 4 months ahead of the women. (My guess is that the men used the leave this way not because they weren’t interested in the baby, but because their non-academic female spouse was very likely on maternity leave at the same time as they had their leave. But paternity leave isn’t that common in non-academic circles–and even if it is offered it probably often isn’t taken–so the female academics were probably much less likely to have their spouse at home at the same time as their leave.) So the university figured, why should we make these leaves (which cost $) automatic for men if most of them are just using them to get ahead in terms of research; better that they have to go out of their way to request one which ups the likelihood that they want to take the leave for its intended purpose.

    I also wonder to what extent some of these burdens are specifically related to the physical stuff that goes along with pregnancy and birth. I am a woman in a same-sex relationship and my partner will be the one to give birth, and I’m kind of interested to see how being the non-birth mother might make things different for me as a mother in academia than for women who give birth. Much of the research on the baby gap in academia (how men do better when they are married with children and women do worse) looks at babies that are born to heterosexual couples only. I do wonder how things might be different in the case of a same-sex couple or an adoption rather than a birth. Right off the bat, I would think there’d be a big advantage in not being a birth mother in not having to go through 9 months of pregnancy plus recovery after birth which I’m sure slows down productivity. Then there’s the potential increased freedom and productivity of not breastfeeding/pumping at work. I also wonder if the perception of women might differ depending on whether her colleagues know it is her body that is bringing forth this child. In my own department, I can’t really imagine coming into the office or being in seminar while obviously pregnant. I think people just wouldn’t know how to treat a pregnant woman because it would be hard to treat her as an unembodied Cartesian mind (as I think philosophers like to do) while the baby is kicking. I wonder if it will be to my benefit that my colleagues will never be forced to see me as embodied in that way.

  3. Universities are configured for men’s lives and US society is generally one with very rigid gender lines that are presented to children as soon as they walk, if not before.

    It would indeed be remarkable that women put up with it if they had alternatives.

    It is a great credit to them that many women are trying to change this.

  4. Universities might be configured for some kind of men’s life, but certainly not all men’s. Like many corporate structures universities don’t always favor men who wish to spend time focusing on their families. I certainly get plenty of sideways glances when I bring my 4yo daughter to the office.

    You make it sound like women are in some way powerless in the men they choose, or in shaping the relationships they have. (There are no good men so we have to lump it with what we’ve got.) But I think it would be a mistake to think that there aren’t at least some fair minded men who are trying to change things as well.

    No of this is to deny that there are men in the academy that take advantage of their positions or to deny that there are structural problems that disadvantage women.

  5. Thanks, Matthew,

    I think you are adding nuance to the discussion. Perhaps I was wrong in not seeing that in your first post.

    I’m not sure how to approach the issues in a more textured way. Let me comment that I remember too well the dismay with which my women friends and, to some extent I, in a small northeastern university town, came to grips with the fact that our husbands were willing to tolerant much lower standards in living than we were. Filthy house? Fine. let’s just do our research. Kids? Sure, he’ll stay home with them, but they can’t bother him at all.

    So that was one way it worked out that we all did more than ‘our share.’ Now, to be accurate, Mr. jj mostly didn’t do this, but even he led me to wonder whether men were deaf to distress signals from children.

    I suppose what I’m trying to suggest is that what actually ends up happening may be more a matter of small negotiations than larger acquiescence. Virginia Valian has a good discussion of the ways in which small disadvantages accumulate to leave women with significant career loses. Perhaps something like that can happen on the domestic scene.

    If society provides a picture of basic acceptability, it might be hard for most of us – as we compromise our way through problems – to deviate very far from that.

    Well, some late night thoughts. I hope they make sense.

  6. Another perspective: Once we absorb the fact that the loss of women’s potential contributions to the production of knowledge in universities is immense and regrettable, we can start to think about changes that can be made to better accommodate women. This is tricky, because few would advocate creating an easier ‘women’s PhD,’ for example. Policies that are configured to help men in similar positions are also sometimes very helpful; family leave is an example. Simple housekeeping grants for single parents might be a huge help, etc.

  7. I believe that New York Times Magazine article mentioned above pointed out that there was a significant gap between perceptions that housework was split `fairly’ and an actual 50-50 distribution of labor: 60-40 and even 70-30 will be perceived as fair by both members of a straight couple, no matter how hectic their public careers, and even if they are rhetorically committed to an egalitarian relationship.

    So, Matthew, it may be that a significant percentage of female academics don’t even realise their disadvantage.

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