Friday, March 1, 2013

Mommies in academia

I'm working on a presentation for the NAEA Women's Caucus at our 2013 annual convention. My presentation topic is Advice to Mothers in Academia. Our session is intended to be interactive. We have stories to tell. 

Sandwiched in as I am between an aging father and two teenage children, and with the benefit of hindsight, today's post shares my insights about being a female academic in a major public research university, a position I both cherished and walked away from in the peak of my career in 2012 after achieving the rank of full professor. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, nobody seemed to noticed that I was the only female faculty member in the then 50 year-old art education program at this university to have ever attained full rank.

Soon after entering my university position as an assistant professor, I read Women of Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove by Nadya Aisenberg and Mona Harrington (1988). My take-away from that depressing book was that women didn't fit in the hallowed halls of the elite university. Aisenberg and Harrington explained why: women are their own worst enemies. We labor over our research way too long and end up with far fewer grants and publications than our male peers; and we neglect (refuse?) to network with individuals with connections and who can advance our careers. Clay Shirkey's more recent rant about women in 2010 pretty much summed it up: women aren't tough enough or clever enough. Other more formal observations about the behaviors of women in the workplace aren't particularly complimentary either. When I see this kind of material, I can't help but wonder, are the women described in these characterizations just naive insecure mean girls? Or is there something else in play?

Women do make terrific educators, despite data that might suggest otherwise. But as Madeline Grumet poignantly observes through the stories and reflections shared in Bitter Milk: Women and Teaching, doing that job well exacts a price on women's personal and family lives. With due diligence women also perform all those helpful behind-the-scenes time-consuming mommy-like things when asked by our employers (gathering information and preparing reports for colleagues and superiors, committee work, tidying up and organizing our shared facilities, advising students, building up programs of study, developing new courses, professional and public service, etc.). Women think these duties to be important and needed, only to be surprised to find out afterward that it was work that didn't really count in questions of merit for salary and promotion. How can such work matter enough to be asked to do it, but not count?

So it's no surprise that women don't make it to the top in large numbers outside of those typically female professions. Working women, many of whom are also mothers, perform their professional responsibilities dutifully, without fanfare, knowing that they are neglecting those that matter most, their families. Not a great feeling, but a common one amongst those few high achieving working moms who've made it, as Rebecca Meisenbach finds. I wrote a paper about some of my own institutionally sanctioned "service" work, and the lack of institutional value placed on such work in salary and promotion considerations. I concluded that despite such considerations I would have done things at my university pretty much the same, regardless. By doing things my own way, have I been my own worst enemy in the academic hierarchy?

These are some of the things I've been thinking about...about women in academia not being tough or clever enough, about being both too nice and too mean at the same time, about doing work that is requested but not valued by superiors, about being a member of the sandwich generation, and about feeling guilty for devoting so much to the institution at the expense of family life. For me, being a mommy in academia has also included having to downplay, defend, and protect my legitimacy as someone's mother in the face of condescending comments like "oh, you must be busy with your kids" that really meant "you are not doing enough for the institution". Or challenging departmental requests to attend meetings at odd times outside of the typical workweek because colleagues (without children) wanted to leave town for the weekend on Friday mornings. Or being given bad advice by administrators about family leaves. Just after receiving tenure I became a mother. I was advised by a superior not to take advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act. He informed me that if I did it would negatively impact my retirement income because it would deplete my sick days allowable to count for service credit when I retired. I followed his advice. His claim has since proved to be completely wrong, and in retrospect, I should have taken the leave as intended by the law and as it was my right to do. What would I say in these situations today (condescending comments, unthoughtful scheduling of meetings, poor administrative advice)? Would I be more assertive, more knowing, more clever?

I'll close with some tips for moms and other women in academia.
  1. Salaries. Salaries matter greatly both during ones work life and in retirement years. From the onset of one's career we need to be proactive about knowing how initial salary decisions are made, and thereafter how increases are granted. Universities are nebulous, subjective, and opaque in revealing these decision-making processes. Asking for annual merit salary increases includes providing empirical evidence of ones merit and productivity, along with institutional and marketplace salary comparisons. Those comparisons guide specific amounts one should seek and requests need clarity and specificity. 

  2. Terms of appointment. Appointments to university posts typically include teaching, conducting and publishing research, securing grants, service, and in some cases, administrative work (like chairing departments or programs). When negotiating for or complying with terms of appointments year by year, we need to know beforehand exactly how mandated work will be evaluated and how it will be counted toward salary and promotion considerations. Once the value and weight of these duties are clarified, we have a formula for balancing our time devoted to each of our duties. I can't stress how important it is to find out how and how much the work counts, and to stick to the formula in allocating our precious time.  Again, clarity

  3. Focus. Clarity counts here as well. Have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. Become the expert in an area that is clearly valued by both your disciplinary area and the institution. Merge teaching, research, and service/public engagement as much as possible. Disseminate your work into both the academic knowledge commons and the public arena. 

  4. Network. Developing professional friendships both within and across disciplinary departments provides both inspiration and support for ones work. Networking can be as simple as attending presentations, reading colleagues' papers, inviting colleagues to your presentations, initiating or participating with colleagues in joint projects of mutual interest, and sending acknowledgements or congratulatory messages to colleagues for their accomplishments. These strategies are not only productive in terms of facilitating your current work, they facilitate the development of professional friendships that may become a foundation for future work. 

  5. Share your successes. Modesty doesn't pay in academia, and rightly so.  The institution wants to know about employees' successes, and in some cases those successes are aggregated into data that is disseminated to policy makers or the public at large.  We need to share our successes widely with administrators and colleagues. 
In summary, my tips are to have clarity, focus, and friends in the institution, and be our own public relations agents. My paper about entrepreneurial strategies for university workers who value public and community engagement elaborates on some of these tips. There, I talk about networking, leveraging resources, and maintaining a vision amidst setbacks. I'm also curating a collection of research and readings on the topic of women in the workplace, with a particular (but not exclusive) interest in working moms. I'll post the link here when I have it better organized.

No comments:

Post a Comment