Harry’s post last week, and Kieran and Magistra’s comments on that post, reminded me of another problem with the academic labour market. In many professions, you have to be a certified, skilled and experienced person, but there is an upper-ceiling on what will be demanded and expected from you for hiring purposes. You have to be good and good enough, but you don’t have to be better than all the others. In fact, there may be no way to say who is better than the others if we compare candidates who are all above a certain threshold of competences and experience. In academia, it seems that the sky is the limit. So it is not good enough to have a PhD degree, some teaching experience, some experience in administration, some experience abroad and a handful of high-quality publications; no, you need more of this compared with your competitors on the job market. You don’t need to be just good; you need to be better than the others. So if there is someone competing for the same job, who has been able and willing to work significantly more hours than you over the last years, than all other things equal that person will have a more impressing CV and will be hired (except if this person is a really horrible character, or known to be a person who always causes trouble).
In such a job market, which in hiring people does not work on sufficiency principles but on comparative principles, anybody who has activities/responsibilities that are consuming lots of time outside academia are in an obvious sense professionally disadvantaged. Parents are one group belonging to this category, but other carers are in this category too, for example adults who provide care for other adults.
Is this morally problematic? Perhaps it is: shouldn’t parenthood and caring responsibilities be considered a normal state of affairs? (‘normal’ not in the sense that everybody has to pass through this stage, but rather that those who are in this stage should not be severely penalised for being parents or carers). Shouldn’t we design social institutions, including the labour market, in such a way that parenthood and other states of large caring responsibilities shouldn’t prevent us from also having labour market aspirations and opportunities?
On the other hand one should also try to look at this issue from the point of view of those who are childless (whether voluntarily or not). If you compare two job applications, and the nonparent has a stronger CV than the parent, then why should we hire the parent? After all, the nonparent could also have spent her time mountain climbing or watching TV; so should she now be penalized because she doesn’t have children?
So I think we’re in a dilemma. On the one hand parents should not pay too high a professional price for the fact that they are parents; on the other hand people who have chosen to devote their lives to their research should not be penalised for not being parents. It seems that the source of this little tragedy lies in the comparative principles of job allocation on the academic labour market. This is one thing that makes academia a worse labour market for parents and other carers than some other labour markets, especially for early-career people since they are the ones that need to be hired. I’m not sure I see a way out of this dilemma (if it really is a dilemma, that is).
Is this a women’s issue? In the current gender unjust world – yes, to a large degree. It is women who don’t have wives. It is women who bear and breastfeed the children and are paying the opportunity-cost-price for that. It is women who are subjected to stereotypes (including ‘unconscious’ ones) that discriminate against female professionals and that unjustifiably favour male professionals (Evidence? start with Valian). But gender egalitarianism wouldn’t solve this dilemma completely. Even in a truly genderegalitarian society, the parent-academic would not have what a nonparent-academic would have: lots and lots of time to passionately spend on their research – or be a workoholic, as some would say. There would be some redistribution of time between the two parents of the genderegalitarian household, but since they are parents they would still have much less noncare time at their disposal compared with nonparents and other noncarers. So gender structures are ‘gendering’ the dilemma and making it much worse for women than for men – but taking gender structures away would still not solve the moral tension between parents and nonparents on the academic labour market.