Female faculty struggle to balance family and work commitments

March 31, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, director of Stanford’s American Studies program and professor of English, turned in her dissertation the month her first son was born.

“The dissertation weighed more than he did,” Fishkin reflected with a smile.

For Fishkin and other women in academia, however, balancing work and family life is an act that extends far beyond accruing degrees. Decades after the women’s movement first advocated equal rights and opportunities for women, the concept of “having it all” often remains removed from reality, notably so– according to Mackenzie Barnes, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature– in academia.

“I’ve heard a lot of push back to the ‘having it all’ conversation amongst my female peers,” Barnes said. “You have to, at some point, realize that you can’t be working 20 hours a day.”

Fishkin echoed Barnes’ sentiment that “having it all” is often near to impossible.

“The bottom line is: yes, you can have it all, but not at the same time,” Fishkin said. “It’s virtually impossible to be the kind of parent you want to be, the kind of researcher you want to be, the kind of teacher you want to be, all at the same time. There’s only 24 hours in the day– it does not compute.”

Despite this conflict, some working mothers in academia, such as Fishkin and Professor of Biology Deborah Gordon M.S. ’77, maintain that motherhood is too important to subordinate to an academic career, arguing instead that the academic community needs to adjust to accommodate working mothers.

“[Being a parent], knowing my children is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Gordon emphasized. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We have to keep talking and thinking about how to make it easier.”
Bridging the gap

The School of Medicine has been a focal point of such conversations at Stanford, in an effort led by Hannah Valantine, senior associate dean for diversity and leadership and professor of medicine.

Valantine, herself a working mother, described Stanford’s current work-life policies– including maternity leave and childcare– as “quite robust.” Even so, less than half of School of Medicine faculty members eligible for Stanford’s work-life flexibility plan avail themselves of the opportunity, according to a study conducted by Valantine and her team.

“When we asked why, we found that women don’t take as much of their maternal leave as they are offered,” Valantine explained. “They tend to take much less. In general, there is a feeling that if you use these policies, you’ll be viewed as not as serious.”

What needs to change, Valantine believes, is the mindset and structure of academia.

“[The] lack of flexibility is not due to lack of policies but more due to the fact of what we internalize as the path for success– the core values of what it takes to be a successful researcher or physician,” she said. “These core values involve one path to success, and any deviation we fear runs the risk of being not successful… We need to reframe work-life policies so they are viewed as career-advancing and not career-pausing.”

Valantine’s pilot program at the School of Medicine encourages faculty and researchers to individualize their career paths through a credit system that integrates their work and home lives. In exchange for taking on extra hours of teaching, for example, a faculty member in the program can receive credits that can be exchanged for cleaning the house or assistance with grant proposal writing.

For Valantine, the question of “having it all” is not a gender-centric issue but rather a way of improving work-life balance for all academics, not least of all working parents of both genders.

“The new generation of men wants to spend more time with their families as well,” she noted. “This program will allow us to continue to recruit the brightest and the best.”

Nevertheless, for working mothers bearing the brunt of the domestic workload, Valantine’s initiative could have particularly transformative benefits.

Shelley Correll M.A. ’96, Ph.D. ’01, professor of sociology and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, praised the pilot program as “highly innovative.” Correll described Stanford faculty members– both male and female– as generally very content with their experiences on the Farm, but acknowledged a persistent gender divide in faculty satisfaction.

“We do find that women faculty feel that they have less support from their colleagues and less support from their academic department and that they are more likely to consider leaving Stanford than their male counterparts,” she said. “Women faculty report more… stress about balancing work and family.”

Correll emphasized, however, the presence of a similar divide at many other universities and cited increased female representation at senior faculty levels and the implementation of Stanford’s tenure clock extension policy– whereby new parents are given an extra year on the tenure clock– as signs of a positive culture change.

“This program has been really successful,” she said. “If you looked at Stanford before they had these programs, [male] faculty had children, while [female] faculty were far less likely to. Now, if you look at the assistant professors, the men and women faculty are about equally likely to have children.’”


Structural difficulties

Asked if she believed there to be concrete benefits to pursuing an academic career as a working mother, Fishkin demurred, describing the academic work cycle as potentially both friendly and unfriendly to family life.

“The unfriendly part is that we are always working,” she said. “Our heads are always engaged in our research, even if we are doing something totally unrelated, like driving [the] carpool… But on the other hand, the number of hours that you have to physically be away from home [has fallen]– it’s work that you can do at home, and computers make it even easier to do work from home.”

Even so, balancing work and family can still be complicated.

“It doesn’t mean that working from home makes you able to take care of your kids at home, so you have to find out a way of balancing them,” Fishkin emphasized. “But… I think that with plans like Dr. Valantine’s in place, [working in academia] would be a huge advantage.”

Asked what advice they would give young women hoping to pursue careers in academia while simultaneously raising families, both Barnes and Gordon noted that planning their careers and families only goes so far.

“You can’t actually plan everything,” Barnes said. “To some extent, you have to just make things work for you, for your life.”

“It’s misleading to feel that being strategic will make it any easier,” Gordon said. “That’s unfair. This focus on timing puts the burden back on the individual. The reason it’s so difficult is because the support systems are not in place. I feel concerned that some people feel that if they did it differently, timed it differently, it would be any easier.”

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