Surprise! Babies can harm the careers of academic women

According to Inside Higher Ed, a recent landmark study on the affect of babies on academic careers reveals that – surprise! – baby-having often has negative affects on the careers of academic women, and for academic men. . .yeah, not so much.

Do babies matter to academic careers? It’s a question three researchers have spent a decade answering, and their findings are now available in what may be the most comprehensive look at gender, family and academe ever published. (Spoiler alert: the answer is “yes.”)

The book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, out this month from Rutgers University Press, includes new studies and builds on existing data about the effects of childbearing and rearing on men’s and women’s careers in higher education, from graduate school to retirement. Written by long-term collaborators Mary Anne Mason, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley; Nicholas Wolfinger, associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah; and Marc Goulden, director of data initiatives at Berkeley, the work also looks at the effects of successful careers in academe on professors’ personal lives. It makes the case for more family-friendly institutional policies, arguing that such initiatives ultimately could save money for colleges by reducing “brain drain,” and includes best practices from real institutions trying to even out the playing field both for mothers and fathers who want better work-life balance.

I took issue, though, with this quote from Prof. Marc Goulden (Berkeley), one of the primary researchers:

Furthermore, academic women who advance through the faculty ranks have historically paid a considerable price for doing so, in the form of much lower rates of family formation, fertility, and higher rates of family dissolution.

Unless they’ve done detailed interviews with academic women about their hopes, dreams, desires, and plans (which it doesn’t seem at a glance that they have [EDIT: Nope, my bad, they did conduct interviews – see the comment from Prof. Wolfinger. I stand by not liking the implication of the quote, though.]) then it’s a gross mistake to assume that “lower rates of family formation [and] fertility” are automatically academic women somehow “paying a price”. Some women just don’t want children. Some women just don’t want a traditional family structure. And it wouldn’t surprise me if these women are over-represented in academia

6 thoughts on “Surprise! Babies can harm the careers of academic women

  1. We conducted many interviews with faculty, grad students, and post-docs. According to data from the ten-campus University of California system, many academic women–and some men–do say they had fewer children than they would have liked. This finding is reported in the book.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Prof. Wolfinger – and that’s really good to know. I still take issue with the quote itself (“paid a higher price. . .in the form of. . .” suggests that lower rates of fertility and traditional family formation are themselves bad things or generally negative when present in the lives of academic women). But I suspect what I’m objecting to is just an infelicitous choice of words. I look forward to reading the book!

  3. Magicalersatz, that’s a good point taken at the micro level, given that vis-à-vis the preferences and priorities of a given individual, this “price” may be be viewed as negligible, modest and/or fair. (Leaving aside the extent to which low rates of fertility and traditional family formation are negative at the macro or societal level, which is of course another discussion.)

    Professor Wolfinger, to Magicalersatz’s comment I would add that same reasoning/objection to the choice of words also works in the other direction and applies to such phrases as “harms the careers of” or “has a negative effect on the careers …”. To borrow Magicalersatz’s expression, that’s assuming that the career outcomes of women academics who do choose to have babies and form families automatically constitute those women somehow “paying a price”.

    Also looking forward to the book.

  4. Speaking of this, there’s a great piece in today’s WaPo — in fact, I’m just going to post it as a new item.

  5. I appear to have a comment held up in the queue. This seems to be happening all the time, would appreciate the mods’ help with a permanent fix.

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