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Mothers on the tenure track interview by Heather Hewett


Heather Hewett: And yet, while we can try to address these issues through individual decisions, they're institutional -- and schools vary so much. Some are changing, some not. Any ideas about how to change the ones that aren't there yet?

Andrea O'Reilly: I agree. Change can only come if women leave the motherhood closet... i.e., be out as a mother. But many women don't, because they know it would be career suicide. So they engage in what has been termed discrimination avoidance.

Caroline Grant: I'm a big fan of steady pestering for change. If your campus doesn't offer what it should, show the administrators how they're doing it at Family Friendly University and say "why not us?" When Princeton made leaves automatic for new parents, it made headlines, and you know administrators at other schools noticed.

Elrena Evans: Well... because I went to Penn State, I think, and was trained to always ask "What's in it for you/me?" -- it's a great school, really! -- how can we make schools see that this is in their best interest? Or, to take a more negative approach, how can we make it difficult for them if they don't accommodate mothers?

Caroline Grant: Do the cost-benefit analysis, then. You invest X amount of money to train a grad student, and then she has a baby, you don't support her, and she leaves... Don't universities see the problem with that?

Elrena Evans: But then I get depressed when I encounter people who think that mothers shouldn't be academics, and probably women shouldn't either... we've had a couple of people leave comments to that effect on the Mama PhD Inside Higher Ed blog, and it just makes me so angry. I want to write back and say, "What rock did you crawl out from under? Go back!"

Andrea O'Reilly: Time and time again in my interviews, moms stressed the absolute importance of modeling and mentoring. Having a mom as a professor normalizes it all and makes it seem doable.

Caroline Grant: Yes, models and mentors! I spent most of graduate school searching for them.

Andrea O'Reilly: It seems we have to make changes at the level of policy and attitudes… The women I spoke to said that you can have the progressive policies in place that you want, but if women are not going to use them for fear of not being seen as a "real" academic, they are not worth much. We must make it normal to have professors with babies in their office, pregnant bellies, etc.

Elrena Evans: Andrea, I agree. The same way we have to work to make anything become normalized, right?

Caroline Grant: Yes, Andrea, it's true, it's got to be normalized. I write about this in my essay; even when I was pregnant, teaching at Stanford, I didn't see anyone else out there like me, and it made me feel terribly isolated -- until I made friends with another adjunct who was pregnant with twins.

Elrena Evans: Which is funny, Caroline, because wasn't it Nicole Cooley who said she liked pregnancy because it felt so transgressive?

Caroline Grant: Yes, though I didn't feel that. Irena Smith talks about feeling disempowered, too -- and also at Stanford -- that she was made to feel like a teen mom, knocked up, etc. I should say that Stanford is a fabulous place, really, and my boss was terrifically helpful... But the culture of any Research 1 institution is a little bit intense.

Heather Hewett: I suppose the oversupply of academic labor mitigates the realization that it makes sense for institutions to hold onto who they've hired and trained -- and the scarcity of jobs makes it hard for individuals to advocate for what they need.

Elrena Evans: Heather, yes, exactly. That was definitely the feeling at Penn State among the grad students, who were trying to unionize when I was there -- you don't like the way we treat you? There's ten people out there who will gladly take your place.

Caroline Grant: And yes, Heather, it's true, the oversupply of grad students and scarcity of jobs doesn't help. But I still wouldn't discourage people from going into higher ed.

Andrea O'Reilly: What depresses me though is how little things seem to have changed. I had my kids 20-plus years ago, and I am interviewing mom grad students... and nothing really seems to have changed at the level of attitudes or policy.

Elrena Evans: I absolutely felt like the only pregnant person in the whole wide world in grad school! I'm banking on everything changing before my kids are old enough to be making these sorts of decisions. Ever the optimist!

Heather Hewett: I'm struck by the fact that all of you agree that we need to change attitudes as well as policy -- and I wonder if that's why you all chose to collect stories, albeit in different ways. Is there something about personal stories that are particularly powerful for the situation facing moms in academia?

Caroline Grant: Yes, yes, yes. I think personal stories draw you in and make them relate on a level that a numbers report just can't achieve. Elrena and I were challenged a bit on that point, early in our work on the book, and we felt strongly about making the book conversational, not confrontational.

Elrena Evans: I think it's kind of like the research that's been done on birthing narratives -- why do women feel compelled to tell their birth stories again and again, sometimes to people they barely know -- there's strength in sharing these stories, in knowing that you're not, as one of our contributors put it, a statistical outlier.

I like to think of personal essays and more quantitative research as parts of the same whole. Research can give us numbers, data, percentages, "facts" if you will, but the personal essay can provide the story behind the data. I know that for me, personally, it's one thing to read that X number of women delay children until after tenure, for example; but it gives me a completely different perspective to read about what that was like for a specific woman, the longing, the waiting, the eventual fulfillment of her "heart's desire," as one of our contributors writes. And then I can take that story, and begin to imagine all the others behind the numbers, and it really makes me look at the research differently.

Andrea O'Reilly: That leads to another theme. I found Joan Williams' concept of the wall in academe a fitting metaphor. Today I think that women, if they act enough like one of the boys, can make it academe... but once they become moms, they hit full-throttle that academic wall that completely blindsides them. So my work is looking at how moms are getting through and around that wall. And for many it is the detour route -- i.e., taking an academic post that is more compatible with motherhood (not at a research university).

Elrena Evans: One of our essays, by Martha Ellis Crone, is called "One of the Boys" and she says just that: until she got pregnant and was confronted with her biology, she could hack it.

Caroline Grant: Breaking through the glass ceiling without getting showered and bloodied by glass? At least it's an ivory ceiling....

Elrena Evans: Ivory's pretty tough, though.

Andrea O'Reilly: Yes, one of my interviewees had this experience. She was a full professor with several important books out, but the minute she started to show she was treated completely differently. Instead of talking about political theory as they once did, they just stared at her belly dumbstruck.

Elrena Evans: That reminds me of Caroline's essay, where she describes being introduced to her new colleagues as a pregnant woman, and how that affected their response to her -- "Caroline Grant, mother-to-be."

Caroline Grant: That anecdote, Andrea, makes me glad (for the first time!) that I was pregnant as an adjunct: the stakes were so low. My department chair was delighted, my students were entertained... It was worrisome and uncertain in many ways (financial, etc.) and unsettling to my identity in ways, too... but I wasn't having to re-prove myself.

next page:
childbearing on the tenure track -- when, and how many?

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