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Why women leaders are MIA from academic life

Tovah Klein
Tovah Klein is the Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and an Associate Professor of Psychology.

I never doubted I'd "do-it-all." But the work-family conundrum took on new meaning for me several years ago when, in the middle of teaching a psychology course, I received a message that my oldest had been in an accident at school.

Not to worry, I was told: he was fine and in good hands. Steeling myself against maternal instincts, I continued teaching. Ironically, the day's topic was work and family. Then came the second message: "Your son looks worse than originally reported." Careful not to reveal the frazzled mother bubbling beneath my professorial exterior, I calmly excused myself, then frantically rushed my six-year-old to the E.R. with a head injury and concussion. He recovered faster than me.

An academic career is lauded as ideal for mothers, partly due to its perceived flexibility. If it's so good, then why do women outnumber men in graduate school but make up 26% of full professors and just 23% of college presidents, a number that hasn't changed in 10 years?

The gate to academic leadership is tenure, awarded (or not) after 7 years. The ideal candidate produces early, consistently, works double-time, with no downtime. Success is based on "publish or perish." And at the moment of reckoning, it's either "up or out." Get tenure, you stay; don't, you're jobless.

How does this work for mothers? The average age at Ph.D. completion is 34. A woman typically earns tenure after 40, near the end of her natural childbearing clock.

This rigid time-line sets a collision course where tenure and biological clocks tick in unison. A U.C. Berkeley study shows that having a baby in the first five years of an academic career slashes women's chances of tenure but boosts fathers' tenure rates.

Perhaps this is why studies show women leaving academia in far greater numbers than men. In separate reports, the American Association of University Professors and the federal government expressed concern over the lack of female leadership in academia. Among their concerns was the lack of female voices in research agendas and the shortage of women academics as role models.

A few innovations notwithstanding, there is little evidence that universities are doing enough to address the issue. Not surprising when only 14% of doctoral-granting universities are headed by women.

Why the shortage of female advancement and leadership in academics? Five years ago, with three young children, an advancing career, and my energy sapped, I was living proof of the dilemma. Wanting to know more about the experience of academic mothers, I began an interview study of academic women with toddlers. Most were on the tenure track (or tenured). Several moved off the tenure track in anticipation of becoming mothers. Common themes emerged quickly.

The intense demands of early parenthood clashed with the most demanding moments in their careers. Pregnancy, nursing, and raising children each require tremendous emotional investment and energy.

Women described living in "survival mode," and "treading water," doing barely enough to hold on so they'd still be "in the game" when their children were older. Maternity leaves were pressured by what was NOT being achieved.

Women modified goals, curtailed conference travel. This could be disastrous for careers, since after declining talk opportunities, "the invitations stop coming altogether."

No one sang the blues, nor blamed the workplace or children. They simply felt the two arenas were in perpetual, unresolvable conflict. "I don't think there is a balance. One is always striving to topple the other."

Having children brought unanticipated changes. Motherhood made them better scholars and teachers, more human, gave new angles on their subjects. Still, feeling successful in either domain remained elusive: "Something has to give...I wasn't aware that I'd be making such compromises with my career, my children, and my relationship by trying to do it all." The near unanimous conclusion for these academic mothers was, "Balancing work and children is a myth."

Yet, desires to thrive as scholars abounded. Raising children takes years, not the six weeks of maternity or one-semester parental leave. So, women envisioned achievements over longer periods. A science professor framed it: "Some things will take the lead at different times... It's just going to have to come in these waves, where it'll go from one focus to the other in a more long-term scale."

And the highly-touted flexibility? Double-edged. Women appreciated being able to adjust schedules to be with children, "But doing that means I work every single night and weekends." Another noted: "I work a million hours..."

Something has to change in order to make academia more appealing to talented women. But what?

Academic leaders must start to envision a tenure path that recognizes the realities of mothers' lives. This may mean recognizing gradual career starts and transforming the seven-year fast track tenure structure to include part-time tenure-eligible options and longer tenure timelines (10-12 years) without penalizing childcare interruptions. Of course structural changes would also need cultural changes, so that academic communities acknowledge that slower does not equal less worthy.And, as in every work realm, on-site affordable childcare is a must.

An academic environment where women can pursue motherhood and successful careers offers benefits for everyone: more tenured women; more women as college presidents and academic leaders; more role models for future generations. These transformations can only be better for mothers, for children, for students and the institutions themselves, and for fathers and men as well.

By Tovah Klein

 |  July 22, 2010; 6:20 AM ET |  Category:  Women in leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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This is the exact reason why I hesitate to apply for PhD programs. I'm 27. I'd like to have children and trying to do both frightens me, especially because I know how few academic jobs are out there right now. My decision has been to wait on furthering my education, I have a Masters'. I can teach and work for now. When I have kids and they're a little older I'll still have time to do the work I love. That being said, I would support more flexible hours for men and for women.

I would also support a change in what gets you tenure. We are teaching students, some acknowledgment that teaching well is important, as equally important as publishing, would be appreciated. I would rather be known as a great educator than someone who spent all her time in the library researching topics fascinating to a few.

Posted by: meredythbyrd | August 4, 2010 8:35 AM

I think many of the people who are disparaging this column miss the point. I've commented more completely on my blog:


There aren't any ads. It's just where I write about the upcoming highered apocalypse.

Posted by: readywriting | July 24, 2010 1:18 PM

This is just indicative of the pressures society places on women to do and have it all. Somehow we are supposed be perfect parents and have successful careers with no modification for circumstances. The glass ceiling has been removed somewhat, but other obstacles have taken its place. That is why women are generally less happy today than in the past.


Posted by: JunieV | July 23, 2010 10:27 PM

This is a very complex issue. In my opinion, one problem is the idea that if a person has not attained a particular level of achievement by a rather young age, that person is destined to never make anything of herself (or, for that matter, himself) in terms of an academic career. Some persons simply progress at different rates, and, considering that academic careers are often much longer than other careers, some slack would not appear to be of much harm. The current model is predicated on the idea that everyone has an equal chance at success, and that failure is purely a reflection of that person's paucity of true intellectual ability, or, worse, lack of dedication to the work. Because many talented women are rightly refusing to give up their chance to become parents, this paradigm no longer holds and should be revised.

Posted by: CMNC | July 22, 2010 11:37 PM

Nobody hops from tenure to a high level administration job. There are steps such as chairing a department or coordinating a program, perhaps serving in governance, appointment as a dean. What all of these have in common is the potential to make people angry and to be blamed for what goes wrong. Women who plunge in with the best of intentions as department chairs or coordinators sometimes want out at the end of one term--if not earlier. (For that matter, many men feel the same way, but I think men are more likely to hang on to the ladder for the money on the next rung.)
The college's where I've studied and worked have been pretty accommodating toward mothers of small children; I think the real problem is something else.

Posted by: jlhare1 | July 22, 2010 11:33 PM

When I got married, my wife who was teaching at university, gave up her job and became housewife and mother for more than 15 years. We had a moderate sized apartment, her work at home was not so much, and it happened all the time that when I came home I would hear the sounds of her piano.

My daughter by contrast, HAS to have a job, indeed she has to have TWO just to get by.

Is she better off?

Only if we buy into feminist propaganda.

Should women have the right to a career? Absolutely.

Should women be paid fairly when they work?

But when we demand that everything is 50-50 we are in fact, depriving women of the choice not to always be like men.

If some women want a man's life but most do not, then you are NOT going to have a 50-50 world, you might only have a 70-30 world, where the 70% have made a free choice to be different.

And then a demand that it MUST be 50-50 is actually a demand to make most women into slaves to the feminist conception of how the world must be.

America is obsessed with equality, which is mistaken to be the same as "sameness" and this obsession becomes a prison.

Can we leave that prison? I don't know.

Posted by: rohit57 | July 22, 2010 8:28 PM

Obertal52 said: Why is it a tragedy that women choose motherhood? Have we really lost our way this much?

No, it is not a tragedy, but it is a tragedy that we regard it as a tragedy. And yes we HAVE lost our way.

Things will not change until "what gender roles mean" is something defined by ALL American women and men, and not mainly by feminists. That way, I am glad of the entry of conservative women like Palin into this debate. No matter how much feminists ridicule her, she is here to stay, and high IQ or not so high IQ, what she says does matter.

She has more children than Hillary and Michelle put together and that is something which gives her a certain natural credibility.

Conventional feminists have their agenda, and there is NOTHING WRONG with that agenda. What is wrong is when they manage to bamboozle us into thinking that their agenda is something that we must all buy into for all women, because it is The Future.

American men are on a guilt trip over "What they have done to women" and they cannot apologize enough to this group which has in actuality a high life expectancy, a low chance of going to prison and a better chance of going to college.

But male guilt is male guilt and feminists have played that guilt for all it is worth, to the detriment of family and to the detriment of most women.

Posted by: rohit57 | July 22, 2010 8:19 PM

This associate professor should have written, "(h)e recovered faster than I." Instead she wrote "(h)e recovered faster than me."
Even the highly educated these days don't seem to know when to use "me" and "I" in a sentence.

Posted by: mmd4 | July 22, 2010 3:00 PM

To Password11:
One doesn't really know what kind of father one's husband-to-be will be like until he becomes a father. Also, until one is a mother oneself, one doesn't really know how to pick a man who will be the kind of father for one's children that one wants. Before we had children, my husband thought he was going to be a different kind of father than what he ended up being. He thought he was going to be a hands-on family man and not overly ambitious in his career, but he turned out to be completely the opposite once the children were born. In other words, until we experience something, we might not know who we really are in that situation.

Posted by: cleo3 | July 22, 2010 1:45 PM

And why didn't the father take care of the child at the hospital?

When husbands who are equal parents, wives can be equals in the office.

Posted by: em71 | July 22, 2010 1:41 PM

Similar stories abound in the private sector. When you choose your family over your career that often is a career limiting decision. Or career ending. I heard a horror story once of a woman who was on maternity leave and was given a poor review because she hadn't contributed as much. A lot of that revolves around the bs forced distribution of the workforce. A different topic altogether though. Anyway, yup, no matter what line of work you are in, if you don't "sell your soul", your career can become stunted or outright ended.

Posted by: A1965bigdog | July 22, 2010 1:31 PM

My observation regarding "jobs at the top" is that the downside, basically, is that it consumes your entire life. Men tend to define themselves by their vocation and their status is pretty much directly related to their level of attainment. Most of the women I've known have a more balanced view of life. Although they are just as capable as men in every endeavor that requires brain rather than brawn, more women than men opt out for the satisfaction that diversity in life offers an individual. Having done that myself (as a man), it seems the sanest way to live your life.

Posted by: ihave4ducks | July 22, 2010 1:24 PM

Daycares, summer camps, schools...all of them require people to contact in the event of an emergency. There's nothing to say that mom's name and phone number HAS to be the first one listed if it's a two-parent household.

My husband has been listed as the primary contact for a few years now, ever since he made a disparaging comment about my parenting skills and relationship with the children, etc. Now that HE'S the one who gets the phone calls if one of them misbehaves, takes ill and has to go home, etc., he's piped down.

Posted by: Skowronek | July 22, 2010 12:05 PM

This is a very simplistic analysis. The main reason that full proffesors and college presidents are men is that it takes 30 years to get there. While now the majority of graduate students are women (which I applaud), 30 years ago the ratio was very different.

Look at the same ratios in 30 years (or even 10) and it will be a very different story. It is largely a cohort effect.

Posted by: wobbleman47 | July 22, 2010 12:00 PM

I think that the main problem is a total disregard for the reality of what a child needs versus what adults feel they need. Numerous studies show the importance of early parent-child relationships and stable, loving home environments that are best done by those who have the most at stake, ie the parents. Why is it a tragedy that women choose motherhood? Have we really lost our way this much? It is not a surprise, nor a secret that having children means you put their well-being ahead of your own interests. This is how the future is built. For those who continue to value worldly status and have lost their maternal instincts somewhere in the media or through their own "education", or even in their pursuit to shed their womanhood completely and try to live like men, I recommend looking at summaries of neuroscientific knowledge at Harvard's www.developingchild.net or "The Scientist in the Crib" by Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl. Then, when you see how crucial dedicated motherhood is for a young child and how a "brand-name" university says it's so, you might deem it worthy of your precious time.

Former six-figure earner, graduate of "brand-name" university, who came to the realization that I can be replaced at work, not at home.

Posted by: obertal52 | July 22, 2010 11:10 AM

If you have an inferior class of candidates you want to maintain positions in a particular field, arbitrary and irrelevant rules, regulations, and restrictions on participation must be applied, in order for that class to maintain dominance in that field.

Universities are not the only place where this phenomena occurs.

Posted by: gmss | July 22, 2010 10:53 AM

Great post!

Posted by: Donutango | July 22, 2010 10:53 AM

for other consideration... take UF.. where the chemistry department hires 2nd and 3rd tier males, but only wants to interview 1st tier woman canidates.
(that's from a former chair who said they didn't want to "settle" on a woman, yet he was at best a 2nd tier candidate himself.)

Posted by: newagent99 | July 22, 2010 10:49 AM

So we should change the rules for women? Is that fair to the men who do the work and meet the requirements?

Or perhaps we should be asking why there are more women in grad school. Is that unfair to men?

Posted by: chucky-el | July 22, 2010 10:47 AM

I fully agree with the argument of the article that beating the tenure clock and parenthood are very much at odds with each other. No doubt, far more women than men are affected since domestic duties are not shared equally on average.

Yet, the point made by MIDGECOATES is a good one: men with children face this problem too, especially when their wives work in demanding professions. The spouse with the more "flexible" schedule, male or female, will naturally get more of the parental duties. All these things add up over time, and progress on the tenure track is slowed.

My point is this: the solution should be oriented toward making the tenure track more family-friendly in general. If we describe the problem as being one that only affects women, and our solutions are only targeted at women, we just reinforce gender stereotypes. We should want both men and women to be able to be good parents and succeed in an academic career.

Posted by: jkh1970 | July 22, 2010 10:37 AM

Although things have changed somewhat, women still bear the greatest burden of child-rearing. But this problem isn't a result of sexism. This is clearly a worker-rights issue. Nobody grants enough flexibility to those trying to balance their career and parenting duties regardless of gender - it's not just mothers.

The arguments presented here would have been received much better, and been far more accurate, if they had come from a parenting/career perspective. Instead, this comes across as complaining that mommies need special treatment (uh!) and that isn't true - all parents need more flexibility in the workplace.

Posted by: NewMoon | July 22, 2010 10:32 AM

This isn't unique to academia; it's everywhere. The workplace is stifling for women AND men, because it is still set up for a one-at-home/one-at-work world in which very few of us live our entire lives anymore. For our country to be competitive down the road, we MUST acknowledge that one can be 100% dedicated to 40 hours in the office while still being 100% dedicated to other aspects of our lives the other 120+ hours. We labor under the myth that the only worthwhile workers are those who strive to spend as much of their 24 hour days dedicated solely to their work. That's hogwash--and there is an argument to be made that having a full and complete life of one's choosing makes for more productive workers. I agree with those who argue that tenure and other rites of workplace passage are hazing.

Research time should be spent on how to structure workplaces that allow for us to breathe outside the office and reward us for what we do during the time we are in the office rather than penalizing us for time spent outside the office (regardless of whether that time spent away is on parenting or any other pursuit). Just because some play the game of workplace promtion and know how to win doesn't make it a game worth playing anymore. We are humans, not machines, and acknowledging that can only help move us all forward--men and women alike. It can also help our nation's bottome line...but it's a long-term benefit, and lately we are so short-time minded that I wonder how it can happen without research or some authority saying that it's Good.

Posted by: HSerof3 | July 22, 2010 10:12 AM

Well, if there are two parents on the scene, then they both have a stake in raising the kid(s). I don't see why only one of them would ever feel that they're superfluous to their own child. Or children.

Posted by: Skowronek | July 22, 2010 10:03 AM

And why were *you* the parent getting the messages about the injured kid?

The academic world is not kind for work/life balance, especially during tenure time. The difference is that the male professors tend to let the vast majority of the child rearing fall to their wives, and most of the female professors I've known still try to maintain more than 50% of the burden. You don't have to be a sexist to see that the men are getting more done for the university.

There seems to be an idea that workers can go from devoting 70-100 hours a week to their job and downshift it to 30-40 without slowing their climb up the corporate or academic ladder--as long as they're Mommies. Try applying that logic to any other external activity (athletic training, volunteer work, caring for a sick relative) and see how much sympathy and how many pay raises you get.

Posted by: hbc1 | July 22, 2010 10:02 AM

I didn't know the average age for a Ph.D was 34. Shouldn't it be something like 27 or 28 (i.e. 5 to 6 years after the bachelor's)?

The only university with the clout to put through the type of tenure changes advocated here is Harvard, which has had a woman president for about 5 years now.

Posted by: corco02az | July 22, 2010 10:00 AM

This article is fantastic, and shouldn't just be applied to academics. Women in all professions need options, such as flexible work arrangements, so they don't have to sacrifice work for family (and vice versa).

Posted by: mfpadvisor | July 22, 2010 9:56 AM

It's not just motherhood and males not doing their fair share- sexism is more stealth these days and the glass ceiling is still alive and well.

Posted by: lsf07 | July 22, 2010 9:52 AM

Motherhood is a very large reason that the female sex exists. It will always get in the way of the hardcore feminists. It is a fact of life.

The only way women can achieve a manly way of life is to completely deny their womanhood. It's easy for lesbians but very difficult for normal women.

Vey few women even want to do this.

Posted by: battleground51 | July 22, 2010 9:45 AM

truly1 - you see, it's that touchy-feely stuff that gets you into trouble.

Stay home and tend the kids. Prepare a nice meal for your husband. Get off the road so the rest of us can be safe.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | July 22, 2010 9:29 AM

@ Adrienne:

If by "pain in the asz" you mean that I require decent, respectful treatment in the workplace and that I require a profession that also accommodates motherhood, then YES I am a pain in the asz and I will wear that label proudly.

Everyone benefits when women demand the ability to be fully human AND participate in the marketplace.

Posted by: truly1 | July 22, 2010 9:27 AM

This is not a special burden for women only. Men in academia have always worked "every night and weekends". The difference is that they had wives at home to raise their children and take care of all those domestic details necessary for comfortable living.
My master's adviser came back to the lab every night after nine (he was watching his children from dinner-time up until then). When I told my doctoral adviser that I was taking Thurs-Sun off to get married and go on a 3-day honeymoon, he told me, "The day I got married, I was back in the lab that afternoon."

Posted by: midgecoates | July 22, 2010 9:25 AM

This dilemma is faced by every educated, talented woman in our society and the longer we pretend that it doesn't matter or that mother's dilemmas are isolated to that individual woman, the longer we will squander a tresure-trove of intellect.

We cannot afford to be a nation that continues to tell mothers to suck it up or step off. We need their smarts and we also need healthy children. In the 1960's and 1970's women pushed to have men's opportunities. Now it is time to push for opportunities that co-exist with family needs.

"survival mode" and "treading water" is no way to live; no way to be productive; and no way to be a mom. Our society ignores this issue at our own peril.

Posted by: truly1 | July 22, 2010 9:23 AM

no, it is not motherhood. it is that women are a pain in the asz.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | July 22, 2010 9:08 AM

Tenure is a completely arbitrary mechanism that is counter productive and should be abolished. It's basically a prolonged hazing to get into the boys club, and promotes long term stagnation.

What is the point of tenure? Why not just use an at-will employment contract? The pressure to remain productive will still be there, particularly with grant/funding cycles, and unproductive members can be let go at any time, just like a real job.

Motherhood wasn't an issue for me, but I chose to leave academia because of the tenure stupidity. Not because I couldn't hack it - I was a well-published researcher with great prospects and ties - but rather because the tenure system codifies everything about the macho "I suffered and so should you" nonsense of research. It doesn't make for good science!

Posted by: capsfan16 | July 22, 2010 8:48 AM

Given that 90% of universities in the US are liberal bastions, I would have figured progressives and lefties would have had this solved years ago???

And btw, I think moms everywhere rock. It's the hardest job on earth! Thanks mom!

Posted by: zap123 | July 22, 2010 8:38 AM

"A U.C. Berkeley study shows that having a baby in the first five years of an academic career slashes women's chances of tenure but boosts fathers' tenure rates."

Because men don't need to take 6 weeks to three months off to recover from childbirth or bond with their baby like women do.

I can think of lots of ugly, annecdotal reasons why it would boost father's tenure rates, but none of them logical, and all of them kind of sexist. Does anyone have any real reasons why this might happen?

Posted by: Mazarin | July 22, 2010 8:28 AM

Simple answer; men are just smarter.

Posted by: password11 | July 22, 2010 8:04 AM

The underlying problem is the failure of women who want children to choose a spouse who is willing to do their half of the child rearing. They and their husbands think the universities and the government should accommodate their situation, but that is just arrogance.

By the way, the following statement doesn't ring true from my experience:
"Motherhood made them better scholars and teachers, more human, gave new angles on their subjects."

My observation is that mothers are less committed to academic work, and this is exhibited by less time spent. This quantity could be collected in future studies of this topic.

Posted by: tina5 | July 22, 2010 8:02 AM

Interesting, so academia hasn't figured out what the military has been doing for 30 years? Military women must be "tenured" i.e. must be promoted to stay. Is the problem a lack of tolerance of motherhood or are military women more motivated to stay and advance their career? It can't be that the military is more "friendly" to motherhood or can it?

Posted by: mil1 | July 22, 2010 7:16 AM

@Roger, Sorry to hear about your friend, What your friend needs is a free consultation with a personaly injury lawyer, here is the one that I know of http://bit.ly/aK73S0 hope he feels better soon

Posted by: briansusan | July 22, 2010 6:50 AM

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