Family and the Academy: Part 2

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This is the second of two posts by Kristen Irwin. Part 1: Women, Families, and the Academy can be found here.

by Kristen Irwin

Part 2: Family-Friendly Policies

Benefits and Perceptions

While all workers benefit from family-friendly policies, women in general—and women parents in particular—benefit from family-friendly policies in the following ways:

  • Family leave policies that allow for significant paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child encourage development of parental skills, allow for familial economic stability, promote economic equality between men and women, and strengthen family bonds.
  • A shorter workweek can contribute to a decrease in stress disorders from overwork, a cause often cited by women as a reason for leaving the full-time workforce. As seen in Western Europe, a shorter workweek also decreases absenteeism and turnover, and even increases productivity.
  • Giving part-time workers the same benefits as full-time workers (including, importantly, medical benefits) reduces the exploitation of women in general—and mothers in particular—as “easy part-time” corporate labor.

This is not an exhaustive list of family-friendly policies and their benefits; working hours that track school hours and on-site childcare, for example, are crucial components of many companies’ family-friendly initiatives, and all employees enjoy the benefits of such initiatives. Insofar as companies and institutions are committed to seeing women flourish in the workplace, these measures are concrete steps that will lead to that end.

With respect to women in the academy, the initial impression many have that the academy must be family-friendly because of its flexible work schedule, the ability to work at home, and summers off, is belied by the numbers. The “mommy track” is alive and well in academia: more than 57% of non-tenure-track positions are held by women, and only 26% of full professors are women. Even among full-time faculty women, only 48% are tenured, whereas 68% of full-time men are tenured.

Qualitative research suggests that parents who attempt to become fully involved in the lives of their children face many of the same institutional difficulties—primarily, an academic culture that does not value the institution of family-friendly policies, and the specter of informal professional repercussions for making use of any family-friendly policies that are in place.

Specific repercussions include perceptions of “special treatment,” perceptions of laziness, perceptions that faculty development resources would be better used on more “dedicated” faculty, and perceptions of a lack of scholarly seriousness. The very possibility of these repercussions is enough to prevent faculty from taking advantage of family-friendly policies.

These data indicate that the enacting of family-friendly policies by itself is not enough to create a truly family-friendly atmosphere in the academy. A truly family-friendly environment is one in which there is no informal “family penalty” for anyone who has children, or for women who are considering having children. This requires a cultural change—a shift in the way that academics think and talk about work and family. Enacting family-friendly policies is, however, a first step toward true family-friendliness.

Women faculty members face a significant set of challenges within the academy. While implementing policies that encourage and value extra-institutional work within the institution are important steps toward creating a more family-friendly environment, the deepest challenges that women faculty members face are socio-cultural assumptions. This is primarily why addressing issues affecting women faculty has been so difficult: one cannot change social and cultural attitudes by fiat, and even less so when these attitudes are institutionalized.

Further, even when administrators are motivated to see a shift in the implicit social and cultural assumptions about women faculty, a long-term change typically occurs only incrementally, through the consistent vigilance of key figures in a particular “ecosystem,” whether that ecosystem be a department, a division, a school, or a university as a whole.

In order for an ecosystem to change, there must be several different figures (or one very influential figure—a department chair or a dean, for example) who consistently show respect for and deference to their women colleagues; who laud the academic accomplishments of their women colleagues; who seek to increase the percentage of women colleagues to mirror that of the student population whom they serve; and who create an environment where it is normal to show weakness, to care for others, to talk proudly of one’s time spent with family, to be open about the effect of one’s life outside of work on one’s work, to take advantage of family leave policies, and so forth.

The effect that these behaviors would have on the “ecosystem” of an institution cannot be underestimated. Institutional family-friendly policies such as those mentioned above are a crucial first step toward creating a better environment for women faculty. In particular, full health and dental benefits available to all faculty members (whether full- or part-time) and on-campus childcare are two very obvious practical ways for an institution to prove its commitment to family-friendliness and to women faculty in particular.

The institutional climate will not permanently change, however, until several key figures in an institution’s “ecosystem” concretely instantiate truly family-friendly (and truly women-friendly) values in their daily departmental practices. Until it is unsurprising that a man on the tenure track would take a semester off after his child is born, until it is unsurprising that an engineering department would have women as 50% of its full-time faculty, until it is unsurprising that a woman could reach full professor in the standard period of time and have several children (or until it is surprising that a man could reach full professor in the standard period of time and have several children), the gender climate in higher education will remain, to some extent, “chilly” for women faculty.

Click here for Part 1: Women, Families, and the Academy.

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Kristen Irwin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University. Irwin’s teaching and research interests include conceptions of reason and belief, the nature of faith, skepticism, philosophical theology (particularly the problem of evil), and theories of toleration. Find out more about Irwin here.

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