Tenure and Toddlers

by Kieran Healy on November 24, 2003

I’ve written before about the way debates about work-family conflict are framed. In general, men with children are not thought to face work/family choices. Alternatives to this way of thinking about it — analyzing the institutions that structure people’s choices, for example — are often dismissed as utopian flim-flam. It’s a good example of how social facts are mistaken for natural facts. Quite sensible people — who know that it’s silly to argue that cloning, contraceptives and representative government are wrong because they are “unnatural,” for instance — can often be found insisting that the Pleistocene Savannah has set implacable constraints on the institutional design of work/family policies in postindustrial democracies. This is not in itself a clearly wrong claim, but, oddly, the particular constraints closely approximate the gender division of labor not of the Pleistocene Savannah but of portions of the U.S. middle class between 1945 and 1960.

I bring this up because I read an interesting report on the impact of children on men’s and women’s careers in academia. There are several ways to put the findings, but here’s one:

Twelve to fourteen years out from the Ph.D., 62 percent of tenured women in the humanities and social sciences and 50 percent of those in the sciences do not have children in the household. By contrast, only 39 percent of tenured men in social sciences and humanities and 30 percent of those in the sciences do not have children in the household …



Antoni Jaume 11.24.03 at 10:16 pm

I’ve made a cursory glance at the reference, but I’ve not found a breaking in categories that would have given a better understanding, like couple status, and specialties, while it says that sciences (which I take means physics, maths, chemistry , biology, … since you put social sciences with humanities) seem to be less of a burden in order to be a mother. Does that means that social sciences and humanities people are hostiles to motherhood?



Thomas 11.24.03 at 11:16 pm

Perhaps this means that male academics are more often in households with those who prefer children, while female academics are more often in households with those who prefer not to have children:

“The dual-career dilemma is more of a problem for women than men, since, as other studies have established, most women academics are married to men with advanced degrees, and most academic men are not married to women with advanced degrees.”


st 11.24.03 at 11:33 pm

In my PhD granting institution which is a top research school, all the female profs were not married and had no kids whereas all the male faculty were married and most had kids. However, in my current job, which is a teaching-oriented institution, there is no such difference (all women faculties in my department are married with children and some have grandchildren). The obvious culprit here is the pressure to publish in top-tier journals. Although teaching schools have higher teaching loads (typically four courses each semester), the faculty can be on an autopilot mode after teaching a few semesters). Of course, my observation based on sample size = 2. The differnce between teaching-oriented vs. research-oriented faculty in relation to work-family conflict is all the more striking because the researching faculty , at least in social sciences, can work from home most of the work week while the teaching faculty have to show up for work every day to the heavy teaching load — it is almost like 8-5 job.


st 11.24.03 at 11:41 pm

Oops. There should be “due” between day and to in the second last line above.


Querulous 11.25.03 at 12:51 am

We all love our variables, sociologists social variables, biologists biological variables. But how does one account for the fact that across all cultures at all times on average and by a good margin (a) men are more violent than women and (b) women (to describe it in a way that can be measured) spend more time with their kids, especially their small kids, than men do with theirs.


Ruth 11.25.03 at 1:53 am

Hmm…I noted long ago that in my department (at a “teaching” college, but one that does require research), of the six men, all but one have children; of the six women, all but one do not. True, the women tend to be younger than the men (and thus still have time to have families), but the two junior male faculty members have kids, and the two senior women don’t. Oh yeah — did I mention that at least three of those six men have had stay-at-home wives during their children’s early years?


harry 11.25.03 at 2:24 am

Arlie Hochshild has a FANTASTIC essay on this very subject in her new book The Commercialisation of Intimate Life — except that the essay is about 30 years old, and still stands up incredibly well.

I teach in a ‘research’ oriented department, and none of the (5) women have children; whereas most of the men do. Of the younger men who have had children I think I’m the only one whose wife did not stay at home for any of the pre-school years, and we waited to have kids quite consciously till I was pretty sure I’d get tenure. But I regret that (in so far as I can regret anything that affected which children I ended up with) — I think we should have had kids younger and had more of them, the consequences be damned.

I think men have an easier time for three reasons.

1) They have wives, whereas women typically have husbands.

2) It is cute when a man brings a kid into work/takes time off to look after a sick kid/puts family before work in general; whereas people just expect women to do that, so women get no brownie points for doing it.

3) Men are (a bit) older than the women they are married to, so they are further along the career path already when the pressure to have kids becomes intense.

One thing that gets missed, often, in these discussions, is the sheer, and frequently unpredicted, desire people have to be with their children once their children are born. I feel this very intensely myself, and could not stand to be in a relationship where I was the secondary parent. So I take a day a week off to be with my preschooler, and keep short working hours to spend time with my school-age daughter. My experience is that few men feel this as intensely as I do, but many women do, and they make their choices accordingly (as I would, and would have done, if there had been a conflict between academic tenure and child-rearing). But, much as I think of myself as a feminist, my stance toward my parenting is not at all guided by ideological principle, just by sheer selfishness.


Invisible Adjunct 11.25.03 at 3:09 am

“Perhaps this means that male academics are more often in households with those who prefer children, while female academics are more often in households with those who prefer not to have children:”

Perhaps. But I think not very likely. According to the report cited by Kieran, 61 percent of tenured males in the social sciences and humanities have children, while only 38 percent of tenured females are similarly childed. Unless there are some major difference in the tastes, habits, goals and aspirations of tenured males relative to tenured females (and if there *are*, why hasn’t anybody noticed them?), it is extremely unlikely that this glaring discrepancy can be reduced to a matter of “preference.” And what is “preference,” anyway? I’m sure we’d all prefer three squares a day with indoor plumbing. Some of us get to take this “preference” for granted, while others never have the chance to realize this “preference.”


Matt McIrvin 11.25.03 at 5:39 am

This has always bothered me, too. Even if there is some biological tendency that makes women on average better at, or more inclined toward, staying home and raising children than men, it doesn’t follow that this is going to be the temperamentally optimal choice for every couple; and it seems as if economic and social forces too often make the choice for them on the side of daddy-as-breadwinner. I’d like to at least see some more acknowledgement that this assumption is being made and some attempt at justification for it, instead of the unspoken slippage that so often happens in editorials and social-analysis articles from “parent at home” to “mother at home” as if this were the only viable possibility.


Jennie 11.25.03 at 9:32 am

In my department (Psychology), women make up 75% of undergraduate admissions and 10% of professors. That’s an appalling drop-out rate in my view. Of the professorial female staff, a considerable proportion have remained childless.

I do have children, and have had the opportunity to experience what it is like trying to ascend the career ladder as a mother. The simple fact is, I do not have as much time available for research as my male or childless female colleagues. That necessarily impacts on my competitiveness. As another poster said, the intense desire to spend time with their children seems to be more common in women than men, and so this inequality of available time between fathers and mothers is not likely to go away soon.

I have an idea for how to level the playing field for parents (particularly women) but it is likely to be met with derision, particularly by the childless. I’m going to say it anyway because I feel defiant at the moment. My view is that academia should recognise that passing on academic genes (via babies) is just as important for keeping the discipline going as passing on knowledge (via teaching and publications). Parents should therefore be able to trade off parenting input against teaching responsibilities. In short, if you don’t have any children you should have to do more teaching.

Kate (ducking and running)


Laura 11.25.03 at 3:20 pm

(I had to put my toddler in front of the TV, so that I could post this comment.)

I think it’s clear that a huge problem exists for women with kids in academia. But what is to be done about it? Kate suggests that those without children should compensate. While I agree, this does lead to much resentment by the childless.

The Invisible Adjunct and others have advocated for a different line of workers at universities. One with more respect and higher salaries than adjuncts, but with less responsibility and pay than a full time tenure track professor.

I would love such a position. With two kids and a husband with a career, I couldn’t handle a tenure track position right now. But I could manage a position with a little less responsibility and one that would enable me to transition into a tenure track job in a few years.


reuben 11.25.03 at 5:34 pm

“academic genes”?

What did I inherit from my mom? Waitressness?

But your great salutation lets you off the hook, I think.


reuben 11.25.03 at 5:35 pm

oops – signoff, not salutation.


Thomas 11.25.03 at 7:22 pm

InvisibleAdjunct–I think you’ve missed my point. Here’s a bit more context. According to the census bureau, the percentage of women aged 40-44 without children is (or, was a couple of years ago) 19%. I can’t find ready statistics for the %age of men at the same age without children. I’m guessing that it is similar.

If that’s accurate (a big and uncertain assumption), what do we see? That the percentage of tenured men with children is much lower than we see in the broader population.

Perhaps that has something to do with the preferences of tenured men?

If tenured men are less likely than other men to have children, and if tenured women are much more likely to marry tenured men than tenured men are to marry tenured women, then what would we expect?

It seems to me there’s something about academic life generally that makes one unlikely to have children, and that the more academics there are in a household, the less likely that there will be children in that household.


eszter 11.25.03 at 9:47 pm

Kate’s suggestion that profs without kids should teach more doesn’t address the gendered aspect of the problem at all. I can’t find the citation, but I recall figures that women with children have the lowest tenure rates while men with children have the highest tenure rates. So this is not simply about having kids, it’s about women having kids. So if you were to reduce the teaching load of both men and women with kids then it may lead to additional advantages of men with kids over everyone else.


eszter 11.25.03 at 10:03 pm

I should probably clarify my earlier comment to note that there may be a change in how things look as more and more of the fathers of young children are likely to be in dual-career couples. I suspect men with kids used to have higher tenure rates because they had stay-at-home partners taking care of everything. This could be in decline, but I don’t have the figures.


a single childless ABD 11.26.03 at 2:51 am

I love kids, and am all for family-friendly policies at colleges and universities (and everywhere), even if it means fewer benefits for me, personally. But surely you can’t seriously suggest that the childless should “pick up the slack” for their colleagues with children. I would love to be married, but never found the right guy; I would love to have kids; and I envy my friends who are happily married with children. And while I’m very supportive of them, both in terms of moral and child care support, I get just a little bit tired of the constant whining of how they can’t have it all. Oh no, one of my friends says, I have this beautiful little baby and so I’ve gotten a whole year behind on my dissertation. Well, I don’t have it all either.


harry 11.26.03 at 2:36 pm

If Arlie Hochshild is right about THE Second Shift then more men having wives with careers shouldn’t make much differnece, Eszter — men now have wives who go out to work AND take care of everything at home (one of the reasons things are so hard for women academics with children).

Single childless’s point is important — having children is a choice we make (at least it is for most academics), and rarely for purely public good-type reasons (even though children are a public good, people tend to produce them for private good reasons). We choose when and whether to have children under given budget constraints, and it suddenly transfering reseources from the childless to the parents just gives them somethng like a consumer rent.

This is one of many reasons why things are so difficult. Any work-place centered measures targetted to parents penalises the childless and reduces the incentives for women to get men to do more child-rearing and domestic work and for men to take it up. The fundamental problem is NOT in my view with the structure of the workplace but with 1) the structure of the economy (high production; low leisure) and 2) the fact that men don’t do an equal share of domestic, including child-rearing, labour (which is, I think, Kieran’s point). Dealing with these is hard and I’m not optimistic about work-place based solutions. Nor, I have to say, am I that enthused about the commercialisation of child-rearing, which is the preferred feminist solution, but which, ina sexist world, may well increase the inequality of child-rearing between the sexes (women do almost all the commericalised child-care) and also plays into the ‘Work is Rewarding, Childrearing Isn’t’ view that a) is false and b)is not what we want to be telling men.


debbi 11.26.03 at 10:48 pm

I’d like to dive in on just a tiny part of this discussion, the part where people begin noticing the slide from “stay at home parent” and “stay at home mother” and then ask why that slide is happening.

Before I had my son I would have been right there, saying “hang on, why this assumption?” And then I nursed a newborn. Round the clock. Every two hours or so. For months. Luckily for me, I was in law school at the time and could take him everywhere with me. Okay, not the library, but I took him everywhere else until he started chasing the professors’ shoelaces. This flexibility was especially lucky for me, as the pump and I failed to “bond.” My body could very well tell the difference between my lovely, cuddly son and a machine.

Now I’m at work full time and my son hangs out with his dad. When our little guy is in school his father will start working again. But my point is that for me it wouldn’t have been physically possible to be separate for eight hours a day throughout the first year of my son’s life.

We need to figure out better ways to make it possible for families to integrate work and child raising. But there are some physical imperatives that need to be accomodated, particularly in the first year of a child’s life.


dsquared 11.27.03 at 8:03 am

Single childless’s point is important — having children is a choice we make (at least it is for most academics), and rarely for purely public good-type reasons (even though children are a public good, people tend to produce them for private good reasons). We choose when and whether to have children under given budget constraints, and it suddenly transfering reseources from the childless to the parents just gives them somethng like a consumer rent

Harry mate, you got the economics right here then fluffed the conclusion. If babies are public goods produced for private good reasons (ie, if they have positive externalities, and they do), then subsidising them is not a “consumer rent”; it’s compensation to parents for having more babies than they would choose to have in isolation.


harry 11.27.03 at 8:34 pm

I need to get this right. If I emphasize the ‘suddenly’ haven’t I got the economics right? I meant that statically we’d be giving people more than was required to get them to reproduce (since they’d already had as many as they would have had under the previous regime). Isn’t that a rent?
(You probably know I defer to you on these questions, so I’m not arguing just asking).

Obviously, there would be dynamic effects of the policy too, and the rent would evaporate (for some, but not all — some people’s choices about how many kids to have will be unaffected by the material incentives because they either like having them so much, or dislike having them so much). But I also wanted to make the point that individual firms (or universities) are not repsonsible for solutions to any of this — the government is, and should regulate all firms accordingly.


Claire 12.08.03 at 7:34 pm

I worry a lot about the children vs academic career thing, although for me the issue is hopefully many years off.

I don’t agree that people without children should be made to work more. That should never be an option.

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