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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2004

Tenure Track & Reproductive Track on Collision Course

Wendy Robbins
You have probably never been called "Professor Pregnant." I have. A pregnant faculty body was an oddity back in the 1970s. Who would have guessed that combining an academic career with children would remain so fraught with obstacles a generation later? Why are gifted young professional women with a string of university degrees stopping, or dropping, out of the professoriate, saying "it just ain't worth it"? Or, at the other extreme, why are career women delaying childbearing until almost age 40, sometimes banking their eggs, only to run the punishing marathon of new reproductive technologies?

In the era when I had my children, women professors were so scarce and so lacking a sense of tradition that Canadian novelist Marian Engel tried different titles for her pioneering story about a lusty, intelligent, misfit academic - first, No Clouds of Glory (with its self-mocking, Wordsworthian overtones), then Sarah Bastard's Notebook, which was more to the point. "Bastard" captures that sense of alienation and illegitimacy that, a decade later, would lead to other angst-ridden labels, such as "chilly climate" and, its internalized counterpart, "feeling-like-a-fraud."

The percentage of professors in Canada who are women is still remarkably low - 33.9 per cent of all "female university teachers," according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (which relegates Canada to 12th place). And according to CAUT's 2004 Almanac, 28.7 per cent of full-time professors at all ranks and only 15.1 per cent of full professors are women. Women faculty who try to combine an academic career with children are an even scarcer group.

According to the 2001 Census, 49.6 per cent of all academic women aged 35-39 (considered by experts to be the most pertinent cohort) reported having no children under the age of 12 at home. This compares with figures of 45.6 per cent of all women PhDs, 42.3 per cent of women lawyers, and only 32.9 per cent of women physicians. This system of reporting supplies an incomplete picture of children and family formation. It does not account for non-custodial parents, may not account for shared-custody parents and misses parents of older children, for example. But it does indicate that the "baby gap" is not just a matter of "more education, fewer children."

Women PhDs on the whole have more children than those women PhDs who have chosen university teaching as a career. And women lawyers and doctors, also highly-educated professional women, have more children still. Women academics practically qualify as an endangered species. How will we reproduce ourselves? We aren't having children and we are neither diverse nor ideal role models for our students.

One of my academic friends tells me of how a woman graduate student came to her recently for some personal and professional mentoring. "You are the only one in the department," the student began, "who has a life." By this she meant my friend has not only an academic job, but also a partner and a child.

My own daughter, a brilliant young woman with a doctorate and a Yale law degree, is thinking about switching from practising to teaching law - a cherished, long-term goal, moved forward now in part in the belief that her work hours as an academic would be, if not fewer, at least more flexible and more compatible with starting a family. The new baby gap evidence, however, suggests the contrary, and it points to the need for research to identify what other types of pressures and practices specific to, or exacerbated by, the academy are contributing factors.

New data also reveal some interesting differences between Canadian academic women's and men's marital status. Female professors are more likely than their male counterparts to never marry (29.8 per cent vs. 25.5 per cent), and much more likely to divorce (15.3 per cent for women vs. 9.6 per cent for men.)1

At the University of California, Berkeley, Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden have done extensive research on the impact of babies on tenure and vice versa (labelling the phenomenon of "the tenure baby"). We need similar qualitative research in Canada. Their recommendations for such things as the option to acquire tenure on a part-time basis, provide a blueprint for universities interested in attracting and retaining new faculty. As Jane Jenson, a "social architecture" authority at the University of Montreal, argues in her new report on Canadian social policy, in general the post-1945 vision no longer fits current realities. A fundamental rethink and redesign are called for.

There is truth in the slogan "every mother is a working mother." And there may be truth in Lisa Belkin's New York Times article "The Opt-Out Revolution" (26 Oct. 2003) that opined: "Why don't women run the world? Maybe it's because they don't want to." But there is also truth in the economic analysis that shows the staggering effect on women's financial well-being of taking time off without pay, or with reduced pay, especially early on, and the risks of becoming "deskilled." On the other side of the coin are the health consequences of chronic, multiple-role stress.

Parenting leaves, open to women and men, hold the potential for change, even if, for now, considerably more women than men opt to use them. But you would be hard-pressed to find a diaper-change table, or weekend or drop-in childcare, or job-splitting, on most campuses. And that's just the beginning. Imagine a world - or even just a university - where bearing and raising children, and other profound acts of care giving, might be perceived, not as diluting one's professional focus, but enriching it.

1 The data are in Ivory Towers: Feminist Audits 2004 ( Ivory Towers is produced annually for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, PAR-L and CAUT.

Wendy Robbins, on sabbatical leave from the University of New Brunswick, is CAUT's 2004 visiting scholar. Professor Robbins wishes to acknowledge the expert assistance of Doug Norris, director general of Statistics Canada's social statistics branch, and Michael Ornstein, director of the Institute for Social Research at York University, in the project of culling data from the 2001 Census on children of female professors.