families and the academy.

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-WendelAcademic 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.

15 thoughts on “families and the academy.”

  1. Great post! You’ve convinced me to assign some of this research (and hopefully a forthcoming Collett article?) in my grad Gender course next spring.

    Also, thanks for the shout out. Made me laugh! :)


  2. Thanks for this post, Jessica. I’ve been chewing on that same comment in the Slaughter article all day today (which in so many ways I think is just terrific), and you have really hit the nail on the head.


  3. I chose to become an academic because I knew I really wanted to be a mother. I think you are exactly right, and the Slaughter article was great too. Now as a early 30-something grad student with just a year or two to go, and three young children, I think I made a great decision, especially to go to school where I go to school.


  4. Great post, and yes, counterintuitive. I have a vague feeling that something isn’t right here, but can’t identify it. I’ve shared this post and will be curious to see more responses to it.


    1. I agree that something seems amiss, but I’m convinced that it’s just a sign that there’s more work to be done and these are important questions to ask. This is one slice of academia and academics. It’s worth looking at the differences and how these finding hold up today, with faculty resources and positions like these being cut, increases in dual-academic couples, etc.


  5. “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.””

    Wait a minute, huh? Seven times more likely? What? I don’t believe that mothers are seven times more likely than fathers or single men or women to be in tenured jobs with high scholarly productivity. Look around you, that isn’t the marginal. Either that is a misprint or she is talking about an effect coefficient after other stuff has been controlled. Seven percent more likely I’d believe, seven times more likely I don’t believe. Even as an effect coefficient, it does not pass the plausibility test.

    So, looking at the report and Figure 5. Something is screwed up. The figure is labeled as “standardized regression coefficient” although the use of categorical analysis implies an mlogit. “Seven times” would be an incorrect interpretation of a standardized regression coefficient. It is the phrase used for an odds coefficient. But the numbers still don’t look right. Only the “significant” coefficients are in the graph, and we don’t see the standard errors. There are a lot of independent variables and the sample size is not that big when you start disaggregating that way. There is probably multicollinearity. We have no discussion of a sensitivity analysis. We don’t have the kind of methodological details we need to evaluate the model, and we can be pretty sure that the sentence quoted above is an incorrect interpretation of whatever it is that is in the figure.

    None of this, by the way, is to disagree with the point that a professorship is a very good job for someone who wants to parent. You have a good income, flexible hours, control over your time. In the world of actual jobs (as opposed to the fantasy world where you get paid enormous sums to sit around and do nothing), I can’t think of a better job for linking parenting and work.


    1. “Wait a minute, huh? Seven times more likely? What? I don’t believe that mothers are seven times more likely than fathers or single men or women to be in tenured jobs with high scholarly productivity.”

      I pulled the finding directly from the “main findings” on the first page. I think that she means to say that, of individuals with these resources (when they’ve graduated from a highly-ranked grad program and have institutional support), mothers are seven times more likely than the other groups to be in “ideal careers.”

      As you point out, it’s really difficult to scrutinize the interpretation because (and Roberta specially addressed this in the talk) the ASA uses colorful figures in their briefs – because of the wide intended audience, according to Spalter-Roth – rather than “complicated” tables. Omitting the tables also makes it tough to talk about or summarize the findings in the post because I felt constrained to the language and interpretation provided.

      That said, there are a number of important things to remember that I didn’t highlight in the original post to try to keep it from getting too long. (You allude to some of them in your comment, so these caveats are more for people whose only exposure is reading this post and the comments):

      1. This is a cohort study. Yes, looking around me it’s clear that women with children are not over-represented in “ideal careers.” My mentor was upfront about the choices that she and many of her peers made when they chose to pursue what the ASA calls “ideal careers” over having children, a choice she felt was necessary to achieve what she wanted professionally. While we don’t have other data to compare it to, looking at a group of younger scholars could be a nice way of seeing a shift in the thinking of those in these types of positions.

      2. Timing is ignored (a previous ASA brief looked specifically at the timing of children). There’s something about the language in this brief that can project the image that these women were climbing up the tenure ladder pregnant and with a toddler in tow. The way it’s presented makes it almost seem like there’s a motherhood premium, pushing people along. This isn’t the case. Women in the sample are classified as mothers whether they had a child in grad school, long before they even started, or if they waited until post-tenure. It’s unfortunate, but likely stems from the small sample size that you bring up. I think that part of what Spalter-Roth is saying is that women are more likely to have children when they’re in ideal careers than in the other types because they have these resources that faculty in other types of positions don’t have (and that family-friendly policies don’t seem to make a significant difference in those decisions). Bringing this back to Slaughter, I got the sense that she had her kids post-tenure, a very different experience than doing it earlier.

      3. Aspirations (or lack thereof) are an important part of the classification into these career types. Once again, because of the structure of the report, it’s difficult to see just how much aspirations (versus achievement) are driving these findings. Another interesting presentation at the conference was by Hannah Valantine from the Stanford School of Medicine. She talked about her own academic trajectory as an example of a trajectory/long-term model that they’re using in her college. She took on less leadership and research, etc. early on in her career when she was trying to get tenure and when her kids were young, but she knew that she would balance it out with increased scholarship and involvement as time went on. Of course, Dr. Valantine was tremendously accomplished, but the point was that even when she was experiencing a “down” time with regard to productivity or leadership, she aspired to have a prolific career in the long-term. The way Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren measure “ideal careers” could be tapping into some of the optimism of mothers that may or may not be ultimately achieved.

      This got way longer than I anticipated, so I’ll stop there, but there are definitely issues with the ASA study, brief, and findings. That said, I really used it to open a dialogue that I think is important and that you and I ultimately agree upon. It is possible to balance work and family in academia, even in “ideal careers.” It also makes a nice case that these teaching-intensive jobs that our students often turn to because they want to achieve balance are not necessarily what they seem.


  6. Jessica, amazing post. Thanks so much for bringing all this up. As I read the post and the comments, I wonder if the take-home message here is really about the elite*academic effect being the opposite of the usual elite*professional career effect. In business, law, and I imagine even non-profit, those amazing/lucky women (and men) who occupy the top spots pay for it in time. And while certainly that is true of academics as well, academics tend to receive more institutional support when they are in elite, R1 institutions. Travel money, the expectation that they will miss classes for conferences, etc.

    So, I am with you in and Roberta Spalter-Roth in trying to sort out what kinds of supports really help. Flexibility, money, time, administrative support? I bet it helps dads, too.


    1. That’s an interesting interaction effect there, Tina. I’ll bet you’re right.

      I’m sure that such things also help dads, too, like you say, but it doesn’t come out so much in the ASA brief. It’s important that future research consider marital status and partner’s work status. For example, mothers in elite institutions could also be more likely to have a stay-at-home partner or one who works part-time.


  7. Michaela and LaToya: It’s going to be interesting to see the reaction to the Slaughter piece. It seems to have stirred up a lot of dialogue, including her position writing as a tenured-academic at an elite institution.


  8. While I understand why this sort of a research project requires some sort of classification to distinguish between different types of employment situations, it really saddens me that in this day and age our discipline is still treating a good tenure-track job at anything other than an R1 institution as “alternative.” This sort of practice is part of what continues to make the job searches of new grads so fraught; it is also methodologically problematic to conflate such a vast array of career experiences. I would suggest that work-life balance looks very different when comparing an elite liberal arts college job, a job in a department with a non-elite graduate program, a job in a public bachelor’s granting college, and a job in a community college–but all of these are conflated in the analysis.


    1. I think it’s incorrect to assume that the brief suggests that all the “ideal career” people are at R1 universities. If you look at the variables used, it could be people who work anywhere where there is an average (or below-average) teaching load. Other variables like “wants a leadership position in a professional society,” “wants to write an influential monograph,” “wants to win a teaching award,” and others are also certainly true of people outside of R1s.

      Certainly work-life balance looks different across the types of institutions that you list. I think it looks better than in a lot of other occupations, though, throughout academia.


  9. Thanks for the post on the Spalter-Roth talk. I missed that while attending other great sessions at WFRN.

    One key point from the Slaughter essay is the importance of schedule control, defined as control over when, (sometimes) where, and how much one works:
    “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.”

    In most workplaces, schedule control is strongly associated with occupational status and autonomy regarding what you do and how you do your work. So Slaughter as professor and dean could set her own schedule based on what needed to be done both at work and at home. Administrative support staff probably couldn’t or could only with the permission of their supervisors. So there’s unequal access to this work resource within the same organization as well as across types of organizations.

    I think we, as academics and especially those who are tenured or tenure-track, should celebrate our schedule control and the way it supports high engagement in both our work and non-work lives. It is also important to identify the specific work conditions (here schedule control) and try to promote them more broadly.


    1. Well said, Erin. Slaughter herself seems to have centered on schedule control as the key to her experiences in finding balance as an academic (from a follow-up article where she says she’ll stop using the phrase “Having It All”):

      As much as reframing is needed, we cannot take our eyes off the central fact that motivated my decision to speak out. It is women who are leaving the career fast track in large numbers as they have children, which is why the pools of women for big leadership jobs are still distressingly small. So let’s start right there, by giving women the all-important flexibility they need to make their work and family work together. It is very striking that two very hostile attacks on my piece, by Linda Hirshman on this site and Katie Roiphe in the Financial Times, are both from women who are themselves academics and thus who have precisely the ability to manage their own schedules that made it possible for me to juggle work and family all the way up through a deanship and again today.


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