Mommies on the tenure track

How does motherhood affect scholarship at an Ivy League college?

Published March 20, 2006 8:05PM (EST)

A friend passed along the March/April issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, which features on its cover a story called "The Baby Gamble: Can Mothers Succeed in Academia?"

The story inside examines the timing crunch for women who get out of Ph.D. programs and onto the tenure track -- the stretch during which they are expected to publish, teach, publish, serve on committees, publish, advise, publish, present papers and publish to prove themselves world-class scholars worthy of tenure -- during their 30s, exactly the moment they may want to be starting families.

Reporter Nadya Labi talked to Yale professors across disciplines about the impact of motherhood on their careers. She quotes a speech in which comp lit professor Vilashini Cooppan (now at UC-Santa Cruz) addressed the challenges of "second and third shift work women academics do" -- from early morning feedings to housework to crap administrative work women may be asked to do more often than their male colleagues. Cooppan told her audience that she had come to "loathe the fiction of flexibility: the notion that somehow it's all easier for academics because we can just move the hours around."

In contrast, Labi quotes Meg Urry -- the first and only tenured woman in Yale's physics department -- pooh-poohing the struggles of parenting for academics. "Seventy percent of women with children under the age of two work. Most work in inflexible jobs where they don't make much money and can't use compensation to ease their lives," Urry tells Labi. "If anyone can do it better, it's women in academia."

I understand both of these perspectives. My mother was tenured as an English professor when I was too young to remember, though in those days, the profession seemed slightly less obsessed with publication lists as long as your arm. There were surely advantages in her schedule. She sometimes got home early, and had chunks of summers off, despite teaching summer school. But when she was home, she was working: staying up late into the night grading papers, reading texts and preparing lessons, and, when she could, working on her scholarship. She published two books; had she not had children, she might have published many more.

In any case, the Yale story includes some pretty telling statistics. Labi writes that the university does as well or better than many comparable institutions when it comes to hiring and giving tenure to women. And yet there are 75 tenured male professors in the social sciences to 15 female. One hundred and eight tenured men to nine women in the physical sciences. In the humanities: 94 men to 40 women. And there are 33 tenured men in the biological sciences to seven tenured women. Altogether, in the Arts and Sciences faculty, there are 310 men with tenure and 71 women.

It's a good story, though I do wish that Labi had interviewed some people in the Yale administration to get their reaction to some of these issues.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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