Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

The Ivory Ceiling.

Created Dec 15 2008 - 8:59pm

[1]If ever there was a book with my name on it, the one I should have written, this is it: Mama PhD [2], edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant. Full disclosure. I’ve been an academic all my professional life. I began working toward my PhD when my kids were young and I was teaching at a university part time. I still get the guilt–chills recalling the classes I should have skipped but didn’t, the times I sent a child to school with a hacking cold instead of staying home with her as I knew I should have. I can summon a cold sweat all these years later if I allow myself to remember getting the call that my daughter had broken her arm sailing off a piece of gymnastic equipment and wondering whether I could finish teaching my class and still get to the emergency room on time instead of bolting out the door that very minute. These are the crises that haunt all working mothers, no matter what their jobs. But while it’s old news that corporations aren’t always kind to working mothers – everyone knows that – what gets less attention is the plight of academic women with young children.


Conventional wisdom has it that the teaching life, especially at the college or university level, is ideal for mothers. After all, there are those holiday breaks and summers off. And many university professors teach relatively few hours a week, though they must perform committee work and carry out serious scholarship to advance their careers. The trouble is that while women continue to receive graduate degrees and even entry-level academic jobs in growing numbers, the number of women who become tenured members of university faculties hasn’t grown in a generation. As Evans and Grant point out, the ivory tower has an unyielding ivory ceiling.


This isn’t to say that women don’t achieve tenure or the status of full professor. It is to say that if they have children, advancing toward the holy grail of tenure – like making partner in a law firm but with a seriously reduced paycheck – is often much slower and more fraught than it is for their male counterparts. In fact, women who have at least one child within five years of getting their doctorate are less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children early in their careers. Climbing that ladder to tenure requires a full time commitment – not just to teaching, but to university service, scholarship and publication– that simply doesn’t leave much room for caring for a family, despite those summers “off,” often the only time faculty members can find any time at all to write. As anyone who has tried to study or write with young children around, this time is hardly one’s own. Academic women often feel compelled to choose between having a child and getting tenure. One writer says she feels like “a head on a stick”; another talks about the academy’s “floating head syndrome” - the way scholars are expected to function as disembodied intellects, separate from bodies and families and the pleasures of non academic pursuits – that makes it difficult to blend personal life with a professional one. Judith Sanders points out that recent talk about exit and entrance ramps in women’s careers doesn’t apply yet to academic women. “We can’t leave and then come back ten years later with out-of-date references and no recent publications. We wouldn’t even get so much as an interview.”


Mama PhD [3] offers a series of lively personal essays from women who share varied experiences of being both mothers and academics, from struggling to keep down morning sickness while lecturing to a room full of students, to writing a dissertation while caring for a child with special needs, to negotiating viable maternity and family leave policies. Honest, funny, frustrated, provocative, and, yes, in love with their work, these writers don’t claim that their experience in the academy is more difficult than any other working mother’s. In fact, their suggestions for making the academy more congenial and their argument that doing so will improve its racial and social diversity, make good models for every workplace.

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