The proportion of full-time female faculty members in the U.S. almost doubled from 1984 to 2008 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008). Yet, women continue to “leak” from the academic pipeline, especially from the tenure track. Of women faculty nationally, 31% hold non-tenure-track positions, 26% are on the tenure track, and 43% have tenure (AAUP, 2010). Compare this to male faculty: Although a lower percentage of the men start out on the tenure track, a much higher percentage of them, compared to women, hold tenure, and far fewer are on the non-tenure-track.
The question is— where do the women go and why? Understanding how motherhood affects the careers of academic women is one place to look. The childbearing years coincide directly with climbing the tenure ladder, leading women to delay or forgo having children. Only 1/3 of women who start on the tenure track without a child will ever have one (Mason and Goulden, 2004). Faculty women report having fewer children than they desired, or putting off having kids until after gaining tenure. Such findings suggest that the academic career may be a difficult place to combine career and motherhood.
Why might this be the case? Timing. The average age at which women receive the doctorate is 34, the time when college-educated women are beginning families (Marcus, 2007). Add seven (or more) years to tenure and a woman is in her 40‟s.
Yet, there is a paucity of attention paid to academic women as mothers. An example of this inattention comes from a 2005 report from the Provost‟s office at Virginia Tech, that summarized exit surveys of „voluntary departures‟ among tenured and tenure-track faculty. Women averaged 40% of the „voluntary departures‟, mainly pre-tenure, while they were only 20.6% of the tenured and tenure-track faculty. Women were significantly more likely to report feeling intimidated, harassed, or discriminated against in their departments, yet nowhere in the report were work-family issues discussed.
Explanations for why the women leave: Women opt-out, or do they? The notion that professional women freely choose not to work after becoming mothers- has been pushed in the media. The data suggests otherwise, with the majority of educated women with young children in the work force. In 2007, over 70% of women with children worked outside the home (Halpern, 2008). Statistics are similar for highly educated women in their thirties where 2/3 of those with a young child work outside the home (Boushey, 2005).
Another explanation for fewer women on the tenure track is that women choose the softer, less secure, lower paying academic routes, either in anticipation of having children or once they become mothers. Again, the notion of „choice‟ has been questioned and calls for further study. In light of women‟s increasing presence in the academy, and their higher rates of leaving, work/family issues deserve far greater attention. A 2003 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that having children can have a devastating impact on the careers of academic women but not men (Wilson, 2003).
What is clear is that women in academia face unique challenges, which require further investigation if we are to create an academic environment that is supportive of women as parents, particularly during the early years of career and parenting.
Given the many unknowns about why women leave, our qualitative study was designed to explore academic women‟s experiences combining career and parenthood. We chose mothers of young children because the toddler years are particularly challenging for parents. Broad questions guided the study- What challenges do the women face? What changes occur when they become mothers? How does it feel to meet the demands of being a mother and a faculty member?
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