Family and the Academy

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This is the first of two posts by Kristen Irwin.  Her second post, on Family-Friendly Policies, is here.

by Kristen Irwin

Part 1: Women, Families, and the Academy

Why Focus on Women Faculty and the Family?

The aim of this two-part post is to outline a broad sociological perspective for addressing recurring family issues that arise for women faculty in the American academy in general. From a practical perspective, the number of women in faculty positions across academia is increasing, and thus there is a greater likelihood that issues related to mothers in the academy will arise with greater frequency. (This is not to say that fathers do not also face such issues, but rather to acknowledge that the socialization of American women often has the effect of shifting the burden of caregiving to the mother.)

Dealing with these issues on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis may allow for more flexibility, but it also allows for the possibility of vast inequities across similar situations and relies on the continued good will of particular individuals in administrative positions to remain open to flexible arrangements. For these very practical reasons, it is preferable to develop the foundations for a more principled approach to recurring family issues, for faculty in general, and for women faculty in particular.

From a theoretical perspective, a condition on the possibility of the success of higher education is the continued development and support of its women faculty. Faculty members carry a heavy burden: they must excel in teaching, research, and service. Higher education must provide models of women faculty who are incarnating the scholarly life to expand the imaginative possibilities of our students’ futures.

In order for these imaginative possibilities to become concrete and within reach, our students must see women faculty being empowered to pursue their vocations to the fullest extent possible. An important condition on providing adequate models is that these women faculty are fully supported in every vocation of their lives that contributes to their “professing.” Since every student we encounter is, was, or will be part of a family unit, it is essential for them to have a variety of models for adult vocation that do not treat family issues as a secondary or tertiary concern; it is unrealistic at best, and misleading at worst.

A Sociological Perspective: The “Mommy Track”

The broader sociological context for family issues pertaining to women faculty is the increasing number of women in the full-time workforce over the last several decades. This trend of growing numbers of women in the full-time workforce has not gone unnoticed: for several decades, social scientists—and, increasingly, the popular press—have been describing and analyzing changes in women’s behaviors as a result of working full-time, and changes in the workplace as a whole as a result of the increasing presence of women.

While most popular treatments of this trend have focused on women in the corporate world, much of the analysis of women in the corporate world, and of resultant changes, is also relevant to the experiences of women in academia. The increasing number of women in the full-time workforce has prompted a renewed emphasis on “family-friendly policies,” but the concrete steps that fall under the rubric of family-friendly policies vary widely from industry to industry, and even widely among companies within the same industry.

Because the majority of companies have not enacted significant family-friendly policies, many women “choose” to reduce their hours (which usually equates to a reduction in status at work), change careers, or become full-time caregivers to their children. The language of “choice” in this scenario is deceptive, however: women often “choose” to stay at home with their children because they fear that they will not be able to adequately fulfill their maternal role if they do not.

This inability is not, contrary to the “work-family conflict” meme, an inevitable result of work and motherhood being incompatible. It is a combination of several factors: the historical American family structure,* the simultaneous social idealization of motherhood and the economic devaluing of actual mothering work, and the idealization of full-time paid work.  For a fuller discussion of the idealization of motherhood and work, see Mary Blair-Loy’s Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives and Patricia DiQuinzio’s The Impossibility of Motherhood:  Feminism, Individualism and the Problem of Mothering.

Women who reduce their hours are often relegated to “the mommy track,” with more flexible work arrangements, but also with fewer opportunities for career advancement. Some women desire the flexibility more than the opportunities for advancement and are satisfied with working in “the mommy track.” Women who seek career advancement, however, often feel as though they are being forced to choose between having children and having a career. It is notable that men often do not experience being “forced” to choose in this way, even though they too would benefit from family-friendly policies.

*By “historical American family structure,” I refer to the family structure predominant in the American cultural imagination from the Industrial Revolution until the 1960s (with the exception of World War II): the full-time “breadwinner” husband, and the full-time “homemaker” wife. All domestic responsibilities—including, importantly, virtually all the childcare—were delegated to the wife, while the husband was the “public” face of the family, and was responsible for their economic welfare.

Click here for Part 2: Family-Friendly Policies.  

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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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