In our research and throughout the 50:50 in 2020 blog series, we emphasize the importance of recognizing academic parents. In this piece, we are hoping to highlight the obstacles and considerations that are unique to the parents who are actively in the process of growing their families. We strongly assert that the academy should recognize scholars as whole people, similar to the standards set by certain industries. Family formation has long been a women’s issue subject to strong cultural taboos around women’s bodies. While it is not considered untoward to talk about one’s diabetes, cancer, or hip replacement, women are much less willing to share — and colleagues are generally much less comfortable hearing — about medical issues like miscarriages, pregnancy experiences and post-partum problems.
However, the women facing these are not nameless, faceless, anonymous women. They are women you know. They are the women in your department, and the women you mentor and supervise. They are your colleagues and your peers.
You probably do not know about their struggles, because they are largely taboo to talk about. Women you know have experienced miscarriages — during faculty meetings, at conferences and while giving invited talks. They have undergone gruelling fertility treatments, and taught seminars through hyperemesis gravidarum — a severe form of morning sickness (itself a misnomer as it can happen anytime day or night). They have shielded their early pregnancies through job interviews and conferences. They have borne the weight of being primary breadwinners — feeding their families — while also literally feeding their babies. They have pumped milk in bathrooms and hidden their breastfeeding infants for the comfort of others. They have foregone professional opportunities because they were too far along in their pregnancies to travel, or because networking opportunities often involve drinking alcohol. And because academics rarely get to choose where they live, they are often isolated and without social safety nets like friends and family to help them get through these times.
Institutional support over exceptional circumstances
The physical and mental well-being of parents attempting to traverse these complicated situations is in jeopardy when they are not supported by strong institutional protections, and their work inevitably suffers as a result. Based on this, it is unsurprising that job and life satisfaction are overall higher in places where people can work to their capacity and not feel torn between being good, productive employees and being good, involved parents.
The pandemic has foregrounded many of these concerns. In the US, many academics privately whispered about the lack of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accommodations for people with compromised immune systems — including pregnant women — during COVID-19 because physicians were often hesitant to sign off on a diagnosis that bears such weighty legal responsibility. Academics of all genders and identities were forced to contend with sub-optimal in-person or hybrid teaching arrangements rather than being given legal protection and accommodations due to their condition. A situation that pregnant women+ regularly endure, made more dire — and more relatable — by the pandemic.
We contend that these issues should not be treated as exceptional, but rather integrated into institutional accommodations for academic (prospective) parents during the family formation process. For instance, treating pregnancy as the exception has resulted in many US institutions failing to provide basic, official accommodations for family formation. This means that women must often use for sick leave in place of parental leave — an experience less common among men in the profession.
Some colleagues argue that it is a choice to become parents, and that all associated inconveniences should be borne solely by the people party to that decision. This perspective is both myopic and wrong. Moreover, in a country without subsidized child care or single payer health care, it is cruel to expect people to keep calm and carry on with their normal professional responsibilities given the hidden burdens they are expected to shoulder while growing their families. Without proper formal and informal support systems in place, academic mothers are generally left to fend for themselves as they navigate these tumultuous life events.
Creating an equitable and inclusive academia that is truly 50:50 requires making space for scholars as whole people. It requires acknowledging that we are people who have bodies and who may have families, both of which necessitate accommodations from time to time. For those who have relative security in their positions, a good next step is to normalize the notion of being a whole person by being transparent about limitations (leaving the office in time to meet the school bus or rearranging a meeting to care for a sick elder or child) and to expect and respect others’ boundaries.
This need not involve discussing the details of childbirth in a faculty meeting or a classroom, rather it simply involves recognition of ourselves, our colleagues, and our students are individuals who are capable of producing excellent scholarship and having a personal life. It involves institutional reform that will support individuals’ myriad family formation experiences. Research has shown — and our own experiences confirm — that women are often hesitant to ask for accommodations or disclose personal information for fear that they will be viewed as needy or unprofessional. To fix the academic chutes and ladders (formerly known as the leaky pipeline), we need to change the rules of the game. If we can begin this in our own minds, we can then take more concrete steps toward a profession that permits all scholars to flourish.
Leah Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis and runs the Languages Across Cultures lab. She studies linguistic aspects of political communication in international relations, and gender and bias in family formation in academia.
Kerry F. Crawford is an Associate Professor of Political Science at James Madison University in Virginia. Her research and teaching focuses on International Relations, human security, gender in war and peace, and parenthood in the academy.
Together they co-authored the forthcoming book, The PhD Parenthood Trap: Gender, Bias, and the Elusive Work-Family Balance in Academia, published by Georgetown University Press.
This blogpost is part of the ‘Women, Gender and Representation in IR’ series International Affairs is curating as part of the 50:50 in 2020 initiative. If you are interested in engaging with this initiative or want to write a blogpost for this series, please email International Affairs’ Junior Editor Leah de Haan at LdeHaan@chathamhouse.org.
Find out more about the 50:50 in 2020 initiative here.