I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a week now, ever since I saw a presentation by the ASA’s Director of Research – the venerable Roberta Spalter-Roth – at the Work and Family Researchers Network (WFRN) Conference in New York City.*
But, I just wasn’t sure where to start. Until today, when a colleague sent along a piece from The Atlantic Magazine today, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
I don’t want to focus on Slaughter’s piece. Instead I wanted to point out one small kernel that I found to be particularly striking, Slaughter’s argument that one of the few places that work-life balance is really possible is in academia. Slaughter sees herself as writing about work-life balance from a place of privilege, and not just a financial one:
Before my service in government, I’d spent my career in academia: as a law professor and then as the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed to be, and still get the work done. I had to travel frequently, but I found I could make up for that with an extended period at home or a family vacation.
She goes on to say, “I knew that I was lucky in my career choice, but I had no idea how lucky…”
In many ways, Slaughter’s assertion runs contrary to what academics might think about their own experiences. The greediness of academia, the ability to work 24-7 if you wanted (and to still not accomplish everything you’d like), leads many academics to feel constantly pulled toward work and away from “non-work”/family/life. Slaughter’s experience as tenure-track and then tenured faculty is also not the universal experience of academics today given the rise in contingent faculty. That said, even faculty on the elusive tenure-track lament the issues with work-life balance. Although last week’s conference was about the intersections of work and family across a variety of sectors, a number of sessions focused exclusively on the experience of academics: How can we make academia more family-friendly? What family-friendly policies help (or hurt) faculty? How can we reduce the turnover of women in academia by addressing concerns about balance? Why aren’t more women in administration?
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were murmurs of optimism. For example, in a presentation on her upcoming book with Lisa Wolf-Wendel – Academic Motherhood: Managing Work and Family, Kelly Ward encouraged faculty to share the positive sides, even the joy, of academic motherhood. Others shared success stories. The murmurs reached a crescendo when Roberta took the podium and shared her most recent ASA brief, “Mothers in Pursuit of Ideal Academic Careers” (with Nicole Van Vooren). According to Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren, for sociologists at least, Slaughter is right.
Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren’s results, based on data collected in the ASA’s longitudinal PhD+10 survey, suggests that women with children are more likely than any other gender*parental status group to have “ideal careers.” For those unfamiliar with the ASA’s categorization scheme, ideal careers are “careers that 10 years post-PhD are marked by tenure, high scholarly productivity [both peer-reviewed articles and books] in innovative areas of research, external grants, and leadership and recognition in the discipline [teaching and research awards].” These characteristics are measured not just through attaining these things, but also the continued desire to pursue them. The two other career trajectories that emerged in analyses were alternative and marginal. Those in “alternative careers” teach more, have fewer publications, and do more public sociology. Those who are low on both the ideal and alternative dimensions (often adjunct or contingent faculty who aren’t connected to scholarly networks) are classified as “marginal career” faculty.
Roberta was clear – these results were not what she expected. Given the research about family-friendliness (or lack thereof) in academia, issues with ideal-worker norms among faculty, and depressing research on the influence (and use) of family-friendly policies, she expected that women with children would fare the worst and would be the least likely to be in ideal careers.
On the contrary, she reports, when academic mothers are groomed in prestigious departments and are provided with departmental resources as faculty (e.g., teaching assistants, travel money), they are seven times as likely as fathers, childless men, and childless women to be in ideal careers. Using family-friendly policies didn’t make a difference. After sharing these findings, Roberta, in typical no-nonsense fashion, offered this wisdom: “We need to concentrate less on work-family policies and more on other resources for faculty.”
Certainly, just because academic mothers (and, more specifically with this data set, academic sociologist mothers) are in these ideal careers doesn’t mean that they’ve struck a balance or that they’re satisfied. Perhaps those who opted out of a tenure-track or R1 position in hopes of achieving this balance are the most satisfied with career and family? Nope. Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren found that faculty in ideal careers were the most likely to be satisfied with both career and family. Furthermore, those in marginal careers not only didn’t have higher family satisfaction than those in ideal or alternative careers, but had much higher rates of dissatisfaction regarding both career and family than those in ideal careers.
In trying to wrap my head around this, I asked Roberta about survey attrition. Was it that women in “ideal careers” were likely to stay in the academic circles (and the ASA survey’s respondents) and mothers who didn’t achieve that career trajectory had the luxury of opting out in a way that men, particularly those with children, didn’t? With cultural forces what they are, isn’t a man more likely to remain in a marginal or alternative career than a woman? Doesn’t a woman with children have an “excuse” to step out of academia that those in other structural positions might not as readily have? (I don’t know about these things, it was just conjecture). She admitted that attrition is an issue and they’re not sure, but that men and women dropped out of the sample in equal numbers.
So, now with the controversial Slaughter piece as another voice, I’m ready to say it: Academics are extremely lucky when it comes to their ability to balance work and life (whether one’s life is about yoga, intimacy, children, aging parents, or racy romance novels).
Not all academics, to be sure. Other disciplines, contingent faculty, and those with a multitude of forces pulling at them from every direction (e.g., the sandwich generation, struggling to balance both children and parents), certainly can struggle. However, I think we’re doing a disservice to our graduate students (and our most promising undergrads) when we continue to put forth the unbalanced, ideal worker image.
All too often we talk – whether intentionally or not – to our students about all the things we have to do, not the things we get to do. Women, especially, are unlikely to talk about their families or hobbies, so as not to signal that they’re less committed to their positions than their male colleagues. In a conversation with a third-year student in my own department, I realized that she thought that I was the only female faculty member with children. In fact, at that time, there were four of us!
In part because of our reticence to share our experiences, I find that most graduate students know very little about how the faculty in their departments balance work and family. They watch with keen eyes – the women, in particular – to try to catch a glimpse of insight on how it might be done, what might be possible. However, relying on these observations alone – and observations filtered through their cultural biases, no less – they’re woefully uninformed. Convinced that they can’t have the balance they want, these students (including an increasing number of men who aspire to egalitarian relationships and parenting) choose to take non-academic jobs or teaching-heavy positions with limited institutional support. They don’t realize what Slaughter, Spalter-Roth, and Van Vooren know to be true, a well-supported academic position (which is often at a research intensive institution, with light teaching loads) is an ideal place to strike a balance between work and life.
This is not to say that it is not more difficult for women than men. It doesn’t even touch the dual-career couple issues that complicate academic careers. It’s not to say that “ideal careers” are better than other ones. I, in no way, am suggesting that we shouldn’t push for change in the academy and outside of it. This is only to say that compared to workers in so many other positions – even ones who don’t have to take their work home with them, who aren’t in greedy institutions, who work set hours every week – academia has a lot to offer those who yearn for a life outside of work. And we really, really need to start sharing the perks of this life with those around us. I am afraid that we are perpetuating the gender (and family-status) stratification in our ranks with all our negativity. Even if it’s ultimately sins of omission, and not commission, we need to be cautious about the impressions we foster.
* Recently blogged about at Family Inequality.