A Family-Unfriendly Workplace

Have you ever felt like you were discriminated against because of your gender in the workplace?

[Long pause.] I don’t know if it’s discrimination because of gender. I think there’s actually a lot of effort at this institution to not do that, and under current administrations I feel like that’s been very successful. I don’t think that we always—even with good intentions—find ways to be non-discriminatory, but it hasn’t felt blatant. I’ll give you an example. In my tenure process, because I’m a woman, they wanted to have a woman on my committee, and it was very clear that that was why that person was being selected. It’s not, in my mind, a good selection for any other reason. It ended up not being a good match for a variety of reasons, one being that if a woman is put on [the committee], it would be helpful if she had children so that she understands the perspective of a person on the tenure track who has children. There were all these disciplinary ways that it wasn’t a good match, but to put a woman on without having someone who can understand the full realm of challenges, I thought was difficult. It has always been an issue in all of my committees. It’s either been all men or the token woman who was selected to be a woman without thinking more holistically about what would work best for the candidate or for the process.

Arguably, a man with kids and parental responsibilities might have been a better fit.


Do you think there are specific gender relations or male domination in your workplace?

I don’t know if it’s male-dominated. I think the way that universities function and are set up definitely benefits people without major family responsibilities. So I think that men with children can also struggle if they’re really involved in their children’s lives. But I don’t know other people who aren’t women who really carry the same home workload that I do. I know men who are very involved in their children’s upbringing—and every marriage is different—but I also do the majority of the cooking, the majority of the cleaning, the majority of the bill paying, and a lot of that has to do with the relationship that I’m in and the particulars of where [my partner] is from, their cultural background. It’s been a huge improvement over a very long time, but it’s always a work in progress, and I do think there tend to be differences of gender in the household. My experience has been that women multitask better, and that they don’t take as much down time. So even if there’s a goal to both carry the same load at home, it isn’t always realized. Here’s another example. I had a child while I was on the tenure track, and it was recommended for me to stop my clock. There are positives and negatives to that, but to slow women down because of that has implications not only financially but also for the whole process. On one hand, that’s supposed to be positive; on the other, frequently not only is tenure slowed down but also promotion to full professor because of family responsibilities. On one level, well, isn’t that great that there’s some flexibility—but on another level, again, there’s not only prestige but also serious financial implications for going through that process more slowly. For a person with financial obligations at home, that can be really difficult.

But I also want to talk about graduate school, my time prior to coming here. I should have been more prepared. You think you understand the career path that you’re going to take, but I should have been more prepared. In my undergraduate degree—it was very interesting—I worked mainly with women, which did not happen with my master’s or my PhD. I very much worked with women [as an undergraduate], and it was interesting that none of them had a traditional family. One had grown children and at this point was probably in her sixties. Another was close to that age and had adopted two children as a single parent late in life, so that hadn’t impeded her tenure process. But beyond that, I realized, a lot of women—even sometimes men—either choose not to have children or are encouraged to just have one child. It didn’t begin to become clear until I’d been to multiple places that this was a pattern. In my master’s program, I worked with very few women, but I did notice that the men I was working with were definitely struggling with families. They were on the tenure track or recently tenured, and they were having a hard time balancing work with family. But when I got to my PhD program, it really became clear. There were no tenured women in my department, and the woman I worked most closely with actually had a nervous breakdown in the year that I worked with her. It wasn’t only gender-related issues—she went through a divorce, and she was a single mother. But it was definitely also the stress of the job on top of that. All of the men that I worked with had either no children or one child. As you talked to people, you realized just how difficult it is for both men and women in academia, and how frequently people either delay having children until after the tenure process (at which point, in some cases, it’s too late) or have one child or no children. This is a career that doesn’t outwardly state that it’s not child friendly. There is some flexibility—people who don’t know the profession think, “Oh, you have summers off, you only teach so many hours a week!”—but they don’t see how it all comes together. I’ve never had a summer off. I work even harder in the summers, while having my children around. I’ve had to do that for financial reasons, plus for my scholarship, and because we’re pressured to do research with students in the summers. I’ve had to take on a series of paying positions in the summer for 100% financial reasons, because that’s the time when we’re allowed to do so. But it’s also true that there are children around in the summers, so for me that’s the most stressful time of the year. All year is incredibly intense, partially because the job has no set hours. There are just constant deadlines, you’re supposed to be available when students need you and for all of these different reasons, on top of your research and your teaching and your service, which can actually be quite intense. It is not unusual to get emails from people at 3:00 in the morning, whether students or other faculty members. It is not unusual to be doing things on campus on weekday evenings, events and dinners. It is not unusual for me to work seven days a week—I always do. I can’t think of a time when I don’t, even over the holidays. That does not match very well with a family. So the idea that there’s flexibility is very different than the reality of what is actually expected.

How has having children impacted your experience in the workplace, both with your colleagues and your students and in terms of your professional aspirations?

One of the greatest impediments in terms of the workplace is the schedule. The way public schools work means there’s not a lot of agreement about whether my kids go back after Labor Day (and I’m here two weeks before that), whether it’s the school bus in the morning or the school bus in the afternoon. We have a structure at the university where we try to get people to teach non-“peak” class sessions, and that’s very difficult for people with children. Luckily, within my department, people have been understanding. But when I’ve tried to do cross-disciplinary courses or teach in other departments, it’ll often be suggested that I should teach at 8:00 am, or at these other odd hours. The idea is to spread classes out throughout the day so they don’t overlap, but my kids’ school day doesn’t start until 9:10 am. There’s a conflict when people assume I can be on campus for a 7:30 meeting, unless I can find childcare in the morning, which is not always possible. And I don’t want to be putting my children in childcare at 7:00 am when it’s only occasional that I need to do that. I want to be there for their morning, feed them breakfast, and make sure they’re ready for the day. So that’s a daily impediment, I constantly get requests for appointments that interfere with that time. It’s not that I don’t work into the evening to make up for it—I work 60 hours a week, and I always have. But I have to have those times to take a child to a dentist appointment, or a doctor’s appointment, or all the things that have to happen that could be in conflict with the standard workday.

As far as students go, I think students actually love being around kids in general. I try not to bring my children to campus too much, but when I do, occasionally, I find that students are thrilled to see a cute kid. I’m sure if it got in the way of our ability to get work done it would be a problem, but I don’t do it enough that that happens. My department is very open to having children around, because several of us are at a point where we have children. So that doesn’t seem to be as much of an impediment as meetings with administrators, which are hard to schedule and often happen at times when I wouldn’t normally schedule childcare. That’s also true for some collaborative things that I very much want to be a part of. They often happen late in the day after the school bus would have come home, or in the evenings, or early morning breakfast.

And it’s not just a time thing, it’s a financial thing. I mean, childcare is incredibly expensive, and I already pay for full-time childcare. So when you’re adding hours on top of that, it’s just too much. I know that if I worked in the private sector, I’d be able to afford that. But as someone in higher education, I have zero help. I never use babysitters. An hour to help me with cleaning each week would be just be the fantasy of my life. There’s no nanny, there’s no other childcare. I do swap with other faculty members and other parents. I may ask someone if they can watch my child for an hour, but that means there’s another hour or more that I’m watching their child. So it has an impact on the whole family. Even though I don’t necessarily feel I have an equal load in the household, there’s a lot of times when my husband has to schedule what he does around the things I’m doing. The other person needs to have flexibility as well. So it has an impact on everybody.

Do you think your experience with your students is different because of your gender?

Absolutely. There’s definitely not as much respect. I think students recognize when somebody works really hard, but there are certainly some things in my evaluations that I know would not have been written—and I’ve read enough of other people’s evaluations, in different service roles, to know that there’s a gender difference for sure. There are drawbacks, but I think there are benefits. Sometimes, women can be more approachable. So I do find that I get extra requests for letters and extra requests for help, partially because that’s my personality, but partially people sometimes feel more comfortable approaching women or assuming that they’ll be open to that. I enjoy that interaction, I want to have that type of relationship with students, but sometimes students are not even aware of the demands that they’re putting on people. As far as being a woman in the classroom goes, I think it can add to your teaching, because you’re aware of some of the basics—I definitely feel maternal sometimes, thinking about how my students slept, how many meals they’ve skipped. And I’ve definitely had very intimate conversations with people about sexual violence, about partner violence, about mental health. Students feel they can talk to me about that. I don’t know that they feel that with everyone. Again, it could be personality, but I do think some of it is gender related. So I think there are benefits, but understand that it all takes time. I’m a person, so I like having personal interactions with people, but if you spend an hour doing that, it’s an hour that you haven’t spent doing your research or other things you’re expected to be doing.

Another area that I think is very gendered is the amount of service people do. Women tend to carry a much higher service load. I’m a community person, I want to contribute, I want to be involved, but I think I’m sometimes encouraged to sign up for different things or do different types of teaching because of my flexibility and my willingness to cooperate. There’s additional time that goes into preparing more for different classes, as well as a higher service load. Sometimes they want to have gender representation, and we’re starting to have a larger number women, but there have certainly been unequal numbers. If you add all of that together, plus the household responsibilities, it definitely slows down people’s productivity in publications.

Do you think your research is considered differently because of your gender?

I haven’t felt discriminated against in terms of who reads what or that type of thing. I do know that sometimes what is required for my scholarship, which is long periods of fieldwork, is made more difficult. So I’ve shifted how I do my research, which could have some negatives since so much of what I did historically was spend months in the field, and I’m not able to do that with small children. I do think that’s had an impact. I do think gender plays a role just because of the topics that I look at. I tend to work in a male-dominated sphere in my research, so I’m often the only woman in the room when I’m doing interviews, and I’m certain that there are some differences there in terms of networking. It’s partially because of the region where I do my work. So I would say there are gender differences, but I don’t feel like people don’t use my articles or don’t read my material as a result of my gender.

Would you say that you have a healthy work-life balance?

No. Never. Not one minute of any day, ever, since I started working and having children. Not at all. I love when I talk to people who don’t have children about their break or their need for their time or whatever. If only I could have a quarter of what other people have. I’m dropping a child off on the way into work, I may get a call from a school saying something’s gone wrong, did you get the lunch packed, did you forget the homework—my calmest moment is the five minutes between the school drop-off and campus. Beyond that, it’s constant multitasking. In my time with my family I’m answering emails, preparing classes, trying to get research done. I’m up late doing that stuff, so I’m cranky in the morning. The third Wednesday of each month, my kids get out of school early. So I’m constantly juggling. And I want to be an involved parent. Children grow up really fast. So sometimes I will go volunteer in the classroom, but that means that I have to find a way to juggle everything else to make that possible. But I don’t want to miss that—there’s nothing like seeing your child’s face light up when you walk into their classroom. And sometimes I see the face of the child whose parent is not there, who didn’t find that time. It’s the combination of both wanting to do it and also not wanting to be the one who doesn’t do it, because that really does harm your child.

As a women professor who has tenure, do you find it hard to be both positioned above other women professors without tenure but still feel a lot of pressure in the workplace because you have children?

I do feel a responsibility to make sure that we change things for the better, now that I feel I can say things openly. This institution is really trying to be aware of this. I think we really have made gains. There are a lot of women administrators, more than there had been in the past. I don’t want to get into all of the horror stories I’ve heard, even from beyond ten years ago, about parental leave. When you talk to people from prior to my time, you see that things have gotten a lot better. But I do feel like we need to do more. I go out of my way to make comments when things are inconvenient for people with families. I feel like a fool when I bring it up in work-related instances, but I do it on purpose, because some people have that as well and don’t feel like they can say anything—if somebody suggests that we meet at 8:00 am, for example, or if somebody suggests something that would be very difficult. I know other people do that as well. I did a faculty seminar abroad, in which you travel for five weeks, and it was the longest I’ve ever been away from my family. It took a huge toll on all of us. It was a great experience, I don’t regret it, but we need to think about ways to make that more possible for people who can’t leave for that long. My mother is now retired, so I have to have her come in, and she has to buy a plane ticket—there are all these other family instances when I need to do research or go to conferences. You need to have a large support structure. Sometimes I have it, sometimes I don’t. I don’t have people here, it’s just my husband and I. In work-related instances, I feel like I have an obligation to make sure that we’re constantly aware of these things, whether it’s reviewing somebody’s file or, when we’re recruiting people to come work here. I’ve been told by HR that you’re not supposed to make comments about whether there are good schools in the area, because that would imply an assumption about candidates’ family status. If someone asks me about schools, I’ve been told I’m supposed to change the subject. And I said that when I came here, I had a small child, and that was one of my biggest questions. I wanted to talk to faculty members who had children. I’ve had people who are thinking of coming here contact me and ask me about schools, neighborhoods, and all kinds of things that you would want to know. But people in HR tell me you’re supposed to change the topic when people ask these questions that are not supposed to come into the hiring process. I was blatantly asked on job interviews at other institutions whether I was married and if I had children, so I know that other places are even worse. That’s illegal, and very intimidating. So on one level, I’m glad that we’re aware and trying not to discriminate against people, but it’s also very different than giving the idea that we’re family friendly, or that having a child is not going to be a negative, that you should be able to make that part of your decision.

Did you take any sort of leave when you had your kids? What was your experience of the university policy like?

I did. I got conflicting information, and I’ve gotten conflicting information talking to people about it since, about how much you’re supposed to still carry independent studies or oversee research, or do committee work. So I continued to be very, very active on campus until my due date. People in other departments are told, “We don’t expect to see you, this is your time.” So I think it’s more departmental than university policy, but that has gotten a lot better. I do know people who have been turned down. But there’s now parental leave as well, paid for both partners. Adjuncts are a completely different case, though, and that’s definitely a problem here and in other places. I don’t know the policy for staff, but in most places it’s eight weeks, and that’s not enough.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

[Long pause.] I guess I would end on a somewhat optimistic note as far as gender equality goes. I think it’s very clear that more women now who had not gone for promotion to full professor are doing that and are very successful. I think that women are respected here for their scholarship, they’re respected for their teaching, certainly respected for their service—because there’s a lot of it. But I think the area where we need more improvement is the family-friendly policies. There’s room for that, there can be flexibility, but it’s not only gender—the work-family balance is just off, not only for women. I know I feel it more, given that I’m so involved in my household and with my children. So I’m probably on the extreme end, but I do work with male colleagues who also have a hard time, and I’ve heard some serious tension and concern from their spouses. It has an impact on families. I know a lot of academics, and not necessarily at this university, who are divorced. There are lots of reasons, I can’t say that it’s just work related, but I can tell you that I know a lot of people who got divorced the year they got tenure. That process destroys relationships and it destroys families. This isn’t necessarily something that the university can change, because it’s a much bigger problem. And I guess we should be glad that there is still a tenure process, since there are places where that is being eliminated. I would have loved to teach part-time while my children were little, but the way this career works, if you do that you probably will never get a tenure-track job. So I didn’t risk it, but I would have loved to juggle less during those five or ten years, because the clock does tick.

I have a close friend in Richmond, not at this institution, who froze her eggs and had babies later. They’re wonderful parents, but it’s tiring to be a not-young mother doing the late nights, and there are so many things that come along with that for children. It’s a lot of pressure. It seems like we should be able to find some way for people not to have to take such extreme measures. And I do have friends, not at this institution who waited until after tenure to try to get pregnant and have found that they waited too long. They’ve been trying for years and will probably not have their own children as a result. And that is an incredibly high cost.