The academic cost of parenthood

“Career progress relative to opportunity: how many papers is a baby ‘worth’?”

Natascha Klocker, University of Wollongong
Danielle Drozdzewski, University of New South Wales

How many papers is a baby ‘worth’? We were prompted to ask this provocative question by recent experiences, working on appointment committees and writing research grants in Australia, where provisions to quantify research track-records ‘relative to opportunity’ call
for applicants to explain how fluctuations in their publication outputs have been impacted by ‘career interruptions’ such as childbearing. In this age of the increasingly neoliberal university—where every activity, output, and impact is audited (Castree, 2000; 2006)—our commentary seeks to question how decision makers account (or not) for the career impacts
of having children.

Our interest in this issue is both personal and political. We are both female early-career researchers and each of us had our first (and currently, only) child within one year of attaining
our doctorates. One of us has a continuing/tenured position at an Australian university; the other is on a fixed-term contract. The demands on our time have been stretched considerably since starting our families; and an acute watchfulness of output and productivity is never far
from our minds. We worry about not being able to keep up with the expected pace of publishing, gaining grants, and teaching in between, thus remaining competitive and employable. Of course, we are not the first academics to feel like this. Well-documented coping strategies
adopted by female (and some male) academics include: waiting until tenured before having children or not having children at all, timing children to fit the academic calendar, working part-time, increasing research collaborations, hiding caring responsibilities, sleeping less,
sacrificing personal lives and, for some, moving into the ‘second tier’ (1) or opting out of academia altogether. It is against the backdrop of such prospects, and in the spirit of finding ways to incorporate parental responsibilities into the expectations of academic labour, that we find ourselves taking seriously the seemingly callous question of how many outputs childbearing might be ‘worth’ within the academic workplace.

See more here.

From Environment and Planning A 2012, volume 44, pages 1271 – 1277

13 thoughts on “The academic cost of parenthood

  1. They left out ‘hiring a nanny to do everything with the kids’ as an option. It one sense it’s good they don’t see it as an option, but perhaps it should still be included. My mom got a job teaching physics at a university back in the mid-60s, and she was largely absent from my childhood. We were essentially raised (and bottle-fed) by the next door neighbour.

    And, of course, it’s frustrating that this is still seen as a woman’s issue. Parenthood rarely affects men’s careers.

  2. Here are two articles I wrote on this topic for Psychology Today. They include valuable statistics regarding the impact of childbearing on women’s careers (particularly in academia), along with some suggestions of how the workplace needs to be changed to keep up with its 21st century workforce. For those who think more daycare is the answer, the second article conveys important information regarding the impact of too much daycare too early in life on a child’s development.

  3. There is also the issue of involuntary childlessness and academia. I know several women who put off having children because they want to have a permanent position first. I know at least one who gave up on academia in her late 30s and is now trying (unsuccessfully as yet) to get pregnant. I know several others who left academia and had their first or second child subsequently. I know a woman who was turned down for a job in a large part because she had 4 children, and the SC thought she wouldn’t be able to cope with the strains of being an assistant professor. That same department doesn’t think twice about hiring men with several children.
    Academia’s immensely competitive, and having children – as a woman – very often signals to others that one doesn’t take one’s career too seriously. Some people say that this also applies to men, but in my personal experience, this is not the case. A man with children who is an academic = great philosopher and wonderful family guy. A woman with children who is an academic = doesn’t take her career too seriously, on the “mummy track”.

  4. There is also the issue of people assuming that woman without children gave up having children for their careers. Not that #5 Anonymous is necessarily making that assumption, but many people do make that assumption. Really, some of us simply did not want to have children.

    And agreed that women get criticized for their choices more than men, regardless of what those choices are.

  5. If is just false to say that parenthood does not affect men’s careers,

    there is some research showing that it makes them better, yep better.

    It’s called the fatherhood bonus, and dad’s do better than men without kids. Then there is the motherhood penalty, moms do worse than women without kids. (although there is some interesting work showing that single moms actually do pretty well, relatively speaking. I am travelling and don’t have time to share research or chat, but here are two secondary sources that could point you to data if you are interested:

  6. I have three children and have loved the combination of parenting and an academic career but I realize my circumstances are unusual. I have a lot of support and rather a large group of adults have been involved in my children’s lives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, etc) in addition to me and my partner (who isn’t an academic). I admit though I am shocked at senior male colleagues who express surprise at my combining parenthood and an academic career. One commented, “My wife could have never done what you’re doing when our children were little.” I didn’t say what I wanted to say, “Yes, but she was married to you.”

  7. Nice essay, weekwoman! If I may add: Humans have far longer childhoods than any other species. We are born completely helpless, can’t walk effectively until their second year, can’t process language effectively until about 3-4, can’t reason effectively until adolescence, and can’t enter into legal contracts until we reach the age of majority. Compare that to the 1-4 years it takes most other species to reach adulthood. During this protracted childhood, we require an enormous amount of parental care and investment. The answer to this NEVER was to put all of the financial care in the hands of one parent and all of the emotional/social/physical care in the hands of the other. The workplace demands that, and that’s what needs to be changed.

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