Hiring and maternity cover

A somewhat ponderous post:

I was having a conversation the other day about the following features of academic departments, which seems deeply problematic:

a) In academic posts (unlike, it seems, in other jobs), when an employee takes maternity leave, it isn’t automatically the case that a replacement is hired; rather, the workload is distributed amongst colleagues in the department.
b) these colleagues, then, face significant burden when a colleague takes maternity leave.
c) The people who face this potential burden are involved in hiring processes.

To ascertain the extent of the problem, clearly we’d need to know things like:
i. how pervasive is a)? I know that some departments get temporary staff to cover, others don’t.
ii. it certainly seems like this *could* impact on hiring practices, to the detriment of women; how might we ascertain whether it does, and to what extent?

The person with whom I was discussing raises the following interesting point:
“One thing it struck me about the policy: the lower the proportion of women already in the department you’re applying to, the less likely this factor is to adversely affect your chances; does that make it a form of discrimination that is undercut by other forms?”

Any further thoughts on this?
(Thanks to JW for raising this.)

9 thoughts on “Hiring and maternity cover

  1. Interesting thought proposed, I just have a quick question: isn’t it the same case for faculty who go on sabbatical? In academic posts when an employee goes on sabbatical, or is visiting another University for a year, it isn’t automatic that a replacement (even if in the form of an adjunct) is hired, but rather the workload is distributed amongst colleagues.

  2. Well, in my department and college, the department always does get adjunct replacement money for faculty members who go on sabbatical.
    And at my university there is no maternity leave whatsoever. No policy, nothing. If you take it, you use your sick leave time. Just how a department handles replacements is up to negotiations between the chair and the dean.

  3. True Anon,

    This is also the case when a faculty member takes sick leave. The difference being that sabbaticals and to a lesser extent sick leave (even though in some schools, sick leave is what one gets for the arrival of a child) are accepted features of university culture, whereas parental leave is something that is often perceived as ‘new’ and makes gender salient in new ways in many departments.

    Many women ‘make it’ in male dominated disciplines by becoming honorary men. Honorary men don’t complain about sexist jokes or about ways that university culture is hyper masculine. They sure as heck don’t get pregnant or take time off for families, and being perceived as a feminist is a kiss of death.

    I am sympathetic to complaints that maternity leave, and sabbaticals and sick leave (although I have _never_ heard complaints about the later two and frequently here complaints about the former) places unfair burdens on a department. This is an issue of basic fairness and also a gender issue because it is often women who do the sort of unrewarded institutional housekeeping work that keeps departments functioning through rocky times.

    But we can start to address these sorts of things at an institutional level. My thoughts:
    1) Call it parental rather than maternity leave and create an option for whoever is a primary caretaker to take the leave.
    2) Have the provost’s office provide $$ to hire temporary faculty to cover classes. This is a very small amount of money.
    3) Make very public the costs of a faculty member leaving a position. In the sciences it can cost between 500,000 to over a million dollars to run a search and get a new person’s lab up and running. It can take upward of 10 years for the university to recoup those costs from indirect grant dollars. In comparison, hiring a temporary teacher is next to nothing.
    4) Turn the hiring question on its head. Many departments are frustrated by the lack of women in applicant pools and challenges recruiting the women who are there. A good parental leave policy, and one that a department can show that faculty members actually use, can be a powerful recruiting tool. If a department really wants to attract and keep excellent faculty. a policy like this can make a big difference.

    A final note. It is important to keep in mind the variety of constraints that faculty in different disciplines face. Teaching and committee work is relatively easy to cover. Excellent scientists often teach very little. Their biggest career constraint is gaining federal grant money and keeping graduate students and post docs productive. A university may have an excellent leave policy, but in many cases, one simply cannot shut down a lab. Grants are competitive and a year long publication gap could mean no more grant money, which means no more job… . In this respect those of us in philosophy are pretty lucky.

  4. My wife and I had our first child at the start of the spring 2008 term. She also worked at the same university, though as a staff member. We were told by the HR department that I had the opportunity to take some state-required leave, but that I’d only get 60% salary during that time (paid for by the state), and that since the university wouldn’t be paying me, they also wouldn’t make their normal contributions for insurance, retirement, etc…. So between loss of salary, retirement contributions, and insurance, that would coust about $3500 for a month. I know that a number of female faculty (in other departments) have been able to negotiate an entire term release from the classroom with the dean and/or provost, but in exchange for some adminstrative work (I’m not sure how demanding it was) and with the stipulation that they couldn’t discuss the arrangement with other faculty.

    I was fortunate to have a few colleagues willing to cover my classes for me for about 2 weeks, but I know it was burdonsome on them and my chair wasn’t very supportive or helpful in arranging even this.

    During the entire process, the university seemed very pleased that they did the minimum required by state and federal law.

  5. recently, when one of my colleagues was out on maternity leave, and uni/dept precedent basically dumped all her service work on me (i was the only other jr faculty in the dept). i often caught myself getting irritated at her, and having to redirect the frustration to the various administrators who had failed to set up some sort of procedure for dealing with the service burden of faculty on leave. it is probably fair to assume that most everyone will need to take leave of some sort (illness, FMLA, research) at some time in his/her career. if there were some sort of system that set up a fair redistribution of workload, i think people may be more open to taking on an extra burden now and then, seeing it as the price they pay for their own leave.

  6. I am surprised by the number of people making comparisons between maternity leave and other forms of leave (research sabbatical, sick leave).

    Surely maternity leave can’t be counted as using any sabbatical entitlement? And women using maternity leave are not any less likely than anyone else to require sick leave at some point in their career. So the whole problem is that maternity leave is additional to the kinds of leave also had by men.

    (And classifying maternity as a kind of sickness, as at Calypso’s institution, seems utterly outrageous to me.)

    The idea of a parallel leave for fathers is interesting, and often cited as a way of leveling the playing field. But the suggestion that parents choose who gets the caring leave won’t level the playing field. Not until its possible for men to get pregnant and give birth, that is.

    In response to the original post: it may not be possible to measure such an influence on hiring decisions, (i) because it may be unconscious and (ii) because it is anyway difficult to judge the relative weights of all the conscious factors involved in a complex decision.

    I think the answer in the UK (where I work) is simple. The decision should be taken out of the hands of the institution altogether. Maternity leave should mean a temporary lectureship automatically provided by the state funding bodies (with no impact on other funding for the institution). This would be good news for young academics in their first few years after PhDs, too. If only we had a decent trade union that represented academics only …

    But in the US, while different solutions may well be appropriate in different places, alphafeminist might be right about turning the issue on its head.

  7. Hi all and thanks for the thoughts.
    Thanks JW for emphasising the crucial differences between sabbatical and sick leave, and maternity leave – namely, that whilst the former might mean both men and women sometimes impose burdens on other colleagues, maternity leave is only imposed by women!

    (Clearly paternity leave also imposes a burden, as KT notes – but for a lesser period of time. Still, a sufficiently great burden that a friend of mine who recently became a father was praised for eschewing his paternity leave. shame.)

    JW – re the proposal of state funded replacement hires; is this what happens with other professions (excuse my ignorance!)? If so, its strange that academia is out of this loop…

    Comment 5 from anonanon shows how important such a step could be not just in supporting those faculty who want to take maternity/paternity leave, but in creating good stress-free workplace relations!

    Interestingly, wrt the 2 week paternity leave – it might be hard to hire cover for this short amount of time. More sense to have the option of more leave? Of course (for a whole bunch of other reasons, bien sur)!!!

  8. In reply to 5:

    I don’t know what happens in other state sector professions in general, but I do know that maternity cover is usual for schoolteachers, and . . .

    . . . I know of one university in UK where the policy is to hire replacement when a non-academic member of staff goes on maternity leave but not when an academic one does.

    The problem is only that the university has an incentive to scrimp; taking the cost out of their budget would remove it.

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