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Academic Careers and Children: Lifelong Commitments

by Kelly Ward & Lisa Wolf-Wendel - September 29, 2009

Given the simultaneous ticking of biological and tenure clocks, research topics related to work and family for faculty have captured the attention of faculty and administrators in higher education. A primary emphasis of this research is early career faculty. The goal of this commentary is to broaden the conversation by including the perspectives of mid career faculty based on longitudinal data.

Why the ongoing concern for work and family in academic settings?

In May 2007 we wrote a TCR commentary about the concerns of early career women faculty with young children and how and why institutions of higher education ought to address their needs. The topic of work and family continues to attract the attention of those living the life (i.e., mothers and fathers who are faculty members) as well as faculty and administrators who work with them. The topic has also attracted the attention of policy makers. Today, the concerns and issues related to work and family in the academic context are clearer, but there is still work to be done to find solutions to guide faculty and to quell fears of faculty members seeking to have children and meaningful careers.  

Given the simultaneous ticking of biological and tenure clocks, a primary focus of existing research related to work and family in academe is on pre-tenure faculty. The intent of this commentary is to broaden this conversation and add new information by offering a longitudinal perspective. The comments offered here are based on a research project that began ten years ago when we interviewed 120 pre-tenured women faculty from different institutional types and different disciplines. Recently we re-interviewed 87 of the same women to see how their careers and family had evolved.  

A longitudinal look is important because of the laddered nature of the academic profession, which calls for understanding the issues that surface in different career stages. The focus on work and family research in the academic setting has tended toward early career faculty, the tenure track, and policies to support faculty through tenure while taking care of infants and toddlers. These are all important areas of study and were of primary importance to the first phase of our research. Given the long term commitment of childrearing and academic life, however, it is important to have longitudinal perspectives to see how family and careers progress.  

Examining work and family for mid career faculty is particularly important because higher education often assumes a “pipeline perspective” with regard to attaining gender equity. Conventional wisdom suggests that as more women earn their Ph.D., more women will become assistant professors, then tenured professors, then full professors, and then potentially assume leadership positions. We thought it was important to more fully understand the pipeline and to understand the role that children play in female faculty career advancement.  

What did we find?

The focus here is on how careers and family shift for female faculty at mid career. Four main themes emerge from our work: having a child offers perspective, faculty experience shifts in their concerns and priorities; women aren’t advancing like they could be; there is an intense need for more mentoring and support of faculty in the mid career.    

Having a child offers perspective.  In the face of the often stressful tenure process, the early career faculty in this study maintained a sense of perspective and equanimity that they attributed to their dual roles of mother and professor. Work helped to buffer the challenges of family life, and family helped to buffer the realities of work life. This perspective was maintained for women later in their careers as well. Having children translated into very deliberate awareness about prioritization and career advancement.  General findings from research about faculty suggest that the faculty job is a consuming one that does not offer much time or energy to think about anything other than work associated with the faculty career. This was clearly not the case for the women in the study.    

Parent concerns shift. Another finding from the research was how parenting concerns changed from early to mid career. In the first set of interviews the emphasis was on how to manage work and family and the tenure clock as well as the policy environment on campus. Faculty expressed concerns about parental leave, availability and quality of day care, stopping the tenure clock, and what implications having a child would have on tenure. Early career concerns were fairly primal—getting sleep, changing diapers, coping with sick children, and getting tenure. Later in their careers, the focus was more on juggling and managing daily family and work responsibilities. There was little or no mention of institutional policies for faculty at this stage. The focus shifted from changing diapers to arranging car pools. The mid career faculty were more settled in their positions and more established as parents. The juggling act was still required, but at the mid career stage there was more experience to manage the demands of the family and the demands and opportunities of the career.   

Faculty aren’t advancing like they could be. We were dismayed at the limited number of women among our sample who were preparing for promotion to full professor even though they were eligible (or near eligible) for promotion and also the limited administrative aspirations. The administrative profession and the promotion process were both viewed as political processes that had to intentionally be maneuvered and in many instances avoided. Family was a consideration in thinking about next steps in the career and so was dealing with (or avoiding) campus and departmental politics. Burnout was also a factor affecting advancement for these women. Increasing pressure to do more with less and to more fully prove oneself professionally as part of the tenure process and faculty life was a reality for women in the study. Once tenure was achieved it was not uncommon for those in the study to shift their priorities from what it took to get tenure to other elements of the career like advising, departmental and institutional service, curricular change, and teaching. There was variation in how participants viewed burnout. Some faculty felt their post tenure “breather” meant having to essentially “start over” with research; whereas others mentioned that to be considered for full professor was just a matter of preparation and pulling their materials together.     

Mentoring and support. Mentoring and the different programs available to support junior faculty during the tenure process was a theme that emerged from early career interviews. While there was a general sentiment that faculty succeeded “in spite of lack of support and not because of support” at the institutional level, there was also recognition that institutions attempted to help junior faculty succeed. It was common practice for campuses to have some combination of organized mentoring programs, new faculty workshops and orientations, and professional development activities focused on earning tenure. Graduate school mentors also continued to help as part of the tenure process. Once tenure was awarded, however, mentoring and support systems faded. Mentoring about mid career issues was generally unavailable. There were a limited number of women in the second interviews who had met with any senior faculty and/or administrators, including their department chairs, about going up for full professor or moving into administration. Mentoring and support was the purview of the early career faculty and not so much for those more established.  

What suggestions emerge from the findings?

Longitudinal perspectives on the topic of work and family are important because time and experience change dynamics in families and careers. For early career faculty there was considerable stress about finding balance between work and family and the desire to succeed with the tenure process. Institutions, in general, have been responsive to these concerns and have created policies and regularized practices to make the combination of work and family less tenuous and more manageable (although the use of these policies needs to be regularized). What we found from the follow-up interviews was that there is little if any attention paid to ongoing career development for faculty once they are tenured. With this in mind we offer the following suggestions to help maintain and develop the pipeline of women faculty as they move through their careers.

Offer mentoring and support for faculty throughout the career. Mentors offer guidance and feedback about the promotion and tenure process and, when available, play a key role in professional preparedness for tenure. Mentoring and related support systems, however, tend to solely focus on junior faculty. Mentoring should continue post-tenure to help faculty be mindful of how they are spending their time and thinking about their career advancement. Many campuses have clear goals around the advancement of women to the senior faculty and administrative ranks. Formalized mentoring should be available to help faculty prepare for these senior roles as a way to help faculty continue to move through the faculty and administrative pipeline.    

Provide clarity about promotion to full professorship.  The tenure process is known for its ambiguity. Many campuses have developed mentoring programs, handbooks, and other materials to help guide faculty through the ambiguities of the process. Promotion to full professor is also fraught with ambiguity yet there is little information available to help faculty decode this ambiguity. It is not unusual for faculty handbooks to provide detailed information about when and how to prepare for tenure yet little information about the timing or requirements for promotion to full professor. Campuses wanting to provide guidance for faculty at all stages of their careers would do well to help decipher the promotion process through more detailed information about when faculty are eligible for full professorship and what’s required. This information should be part of the annual review process, and be the subject of professional development workshops so tenured faculty can be prompted to think about career advancement in similar ways as early career faculty.    

Adopt holistic perspectives about the faculty career. Findings from both phases of the study suggest a strong emphasis on productivity during the tenure track years, leaving faculty burned out and sometimes disenchanted with what it takes to be successful as a faculty member throughout their career. Campus leaders should think about the tenure process as a time for faculty to show their potential and their productivity and to take a long-term view of the faculty career. The goal is for faculty to be productive throughout their careers, and hyper-productivity to prove mettle during the tenure process has the potential to burn out faculty and limit ongoing productivity, which can foil ongoing attempts to maintain a quality and diverse faculty.

Offer professional development for administration. Many campuses have specified goals to diversify their administrative ranks in terms of race and gender. We found that the mid career female faculty in the study have fairly limited administrative aspirations beyond their particular programs. In part, this is because of their family responsibilities, but also because of concerns about dealing with campus politics, conflict, and difficult personalities. Professional development programs could help provide greater understanding of administrative roles and the tools necessary to carry them out. These programs could also provide part time opportunities for faculty to try out administration under the guidance of an administrative mentor. Many campuses have developed such programs to “grow their own” administrators and have found these to be a helpful way to expose people to administration.    

Offer modified duty policies. One way campuses have helped early career faculty who are new parents is through modified duties (e.g., less teaching, more research; less service, more teaching). The modification of duties to help junior faculty manage the rigors of tenure and/or the birth of the child have become fairly common on campuses developing work and family policies. For campuses wanting to encourage mid career faculty to consider promotion to full professorship, a modified duty policy could also be helpful. This could mean limited teaching for a semester or a year to re-establish a research program, or limited service commitments for a year as a way to encourage research or teaching productivity.  Sabbaticals serve this renewal process and are available on many campuses, but we found that many faculty in the study took their sabbaticals closer to receiving tenure and thus were not eligible for another leave yet were eligible to be considered for promotion. A modified duty policy for mid career faculty would keep faculty on campus and intentionally focused on activities that would help them with their promotion to full professor. Modified duties could also be a way for faculty to obtain some reprieve from their teaching duties while they explore administrative options.  

Conduct ongoing evaluation of policies. We suggest that campuses continually revisit their policies to monitor their use and to monitor how the policies are communicated to faculty. As campuses strive to be more “family friendly” they need to not just adopt policies but also be attentive to who uses the policies and how they are communicated to faculty. The faculty culture and lore about which policies and practices are “okay” to use and which should be avoided also needs some attention.

Concluding thoughts

Traditional thinking on college campuses has assumed that more women in the faculty pipeline would automatically mean more female senior professors and more female administrators. However, the greater entrance into the pipeline does not automatically lead to advancement. While the majority of the women in the study did achieve tenure, it is important to recognize that this milestone does not necessarily pave the way for ongoing career advancement as a faculty member or administrator. Longitudinal perspectives help shed light on the pipeline and potential leaky points. Longitudinal data are necessary to examine topics related to career and family given the ever-changing dynamics of both domains. To more fully understand the faculty career and gender equity in the academic profession requires on-going examination of the nuances of the career at different stages and equal emphasis on recruitment, retention, and career development. Gender equity in the academic profession and in academic administration is not going to happen by solely focusing on hiring more female faculty. Career advancement must be intentional and take into account the role of family, institutional policy environments, and career development.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 29, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15780, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:56:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Kelly Ward
    Washington State University
    KELLY WARD is an associate professor of higher education at the Washington State University. She has published extensively on higher education faculty, focusing on work-family concerns.
  • Lisa Wolf-Wendel
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    LISA WOLF-WENDEL is a professor of higher education at the University of Kansas. She has published extensively on higher education faculty, focusing on work-family concerns.
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