Friday, November 20, 2009

Women and the Academic Life

Last night I went to a small event for women grad students which included a question-and-answer panel with three women faculty members from the College of Engineering. My fellow grad students had a lot of good questions. One student asked, "What do you consider the biggest barrier to advancement for women in academia?" Almost immediately the answer was, "Having children." One of the woman professors had a small child and she explained that although ND has fairly good policies, it is still very stressful and the perception of women professors who choose to have children can sometimes be damaged. There is a policy here where a woman professor can "pause" the tenure clock after having a child, in effect gaining an extra year before the tenure review, which is typically in the 7th year after appointment. Although she was still teaching and doing research, returning to work six weeks (!) after her baby's birth, the perception was that she had an unfair advantage because of the extra year! She explained that she practiced attachment parenting (AP) and breastfed full-time, and that her son never took a bottle. I was thoroughly impressed with her since I think it would be challenging even for a full-time mom to do these things.

I don't think it was a coincidence that neither of the other two women had children (although I am not sure, I don't think they are married either). Academia can be a very stressful environment, and women bear the added burden of home and family responsibilities. It makes me sad that I even have to describe having children as a "burden." As of now I am steadfast in my goal of going into academia, but the more I hear other women talk about it, the more I realize that goal may very well change.

Sometimes I feel as though women like me get it from all sides. From secular colleagues we face the perception of being "unserious" if we choose to prioritize children above work. When I express that I would love to have children, fellow students tend to look askance at me. From traditional and conservative Catholics, we face accusations of being selfish because we choose to work. It really irritates me that in some Catholic circles, the implication is that you are a "bad mother" and "unwomanly" if you have any ambition or desire beyond that of being a SAHM. I've been excoriated several times on Catholic forums for daring to suggest that women can and should work for reasons other than extreme financial necessity. It makes little sense to me that God would give gifts and talents to all people and then expect half of the human race never to use those gifts. I have the utmost respect for SAHMs - my own mother was one - but to have it implied that I am a "bad Catholic" for not wanting to be one is really galling, especially when Church teaching says nothing of the kind.

I also think that Notre Dame can and should do more to support a balanced family life among faculty and students with children. The policy on pausing the tenure clock is a good one, when compared to secular universities, but is that enough to foster a healthy family life as the Church envisions it? I'm thinking no. Being supportive of families requires more than a good maternity leave policy. For example, I was surprised that the day care center on campus does not accept children younger than 2 years. (I know some Catholics think that if you put your kids in day care, you might as well feed them to Moloch, but it's a reality of modern life and it would be best for the very little ones to at least be on campus and in a Catholic environment.) I feel the goal should be, "As a Catholic university, we honor the primacy of the family in the spirit of Catholic teaching" rather than, "Hey, at least we're more family friendly than Harvard or Yale!"

There are no quick and easy answers here. Right now the best I can do is work hard, keep my options open, and be willing to go wherever God leads me, even if it ends up not being the path I would have chosen for myself.

1 comment:

bearing said...

Good post.

I was able to finish my engineering PhD at a public university without putting my children in day care thanks not to any university policy, but to my advisor who was extremely flexible and, let's face it, highly enough placed and highly enough regarded that he could do things the way he wanted to do them. Including paying me out of a special fund, since our department had a rule against paying part-time graduate students.

Also thanks to my husband's company, which had a very flexible family-flextime policy and a corporate culture that supported using it, so that he worked part time for nearly 4 years without anyone ever even hinting to him that he was making some kind of career mistake.

Blessed and lucky we were and are.