KU News Release

September 25, 2012
Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860

KU professor writes book about balancing professorship, motherhood

Lisa Wolf-Wendel

More Information

LAWRENCE — Conventional wisdom once held that motherhood and academia didn’t always mix on the tenure track. A University of Kansas professor has co-authored a book that tells the story of more than 100 women who have shown that achieving as both a mom and a professor is entirely possible.

Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at KU, and Kelly Ward, chair of the department of educational leadership and counseling psychology at Washington State University, have written “Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family.” The book shares stories of more than 100 women at various types of colleges and universities and numerous disciplines. The data were gathered over a 10-year period, following the same women from when they were initially on the tenure track with young children to mid-career when they were further along in their career and their children were older. Following the same women allowed the researchers to see how the subjects balanced life and work at different points in their lives.

“The biggest finding is that women do it,” Wolf-Wendel said. “Is it always easy? No, but it can be done. A lot of things we found are true of every profession. If time is finite, you have to figure out what is going to give. Motherhood adds to the challenges of managing time.”

The difference in academia, however, is tenure. Faculty members only have a certain amount of time in their career to attain tenure, often the same time they are starting families.

“The problem is the tenure clock and biological clock tick simultaneously,” Wolf-Wendel said. “People can run out of time on both clocks.”

The idea for the book came when Wolf-Wendel and Ward attended a higher education conference and heard a presentation about the difficulties and near impossibility of being an academic and a mother. Both professors and mothers, they knew there were stories of women who had made it work.

“We were looking at each other and thinking ‘is your life really that awful?’” Wolf-Wendel said. “We thought it would be interesting if we interviewed women on the tenure track with young children and asked them what they do to make this work.”

The authors interviewed women at research universities, comprehensive colleges, liberal arts colleges and community colleges. They also reviewed institutional policies across schools regarding maternity leave, tenure clocks and more. They found challenges unique to the type of college, such as greater teaching loads at community colleges and higher expectations for grants and publications at research universities. In each case, time away from the office to tend to children can cause professional strain. Several of the interviewed faculty members reported choosing the level of institution they work at based on their family goals.

Wolf-Wendel and Ward followed up with all of the women, including the few that did not receive tenure. Most had earned tenure although some left academia completely while others took non-tenure track jobs. Dual career couple issues also often loomed large.

“I think it was a matter of their priorities shifting,” Wolf-Wendel said of those who did not gain tenure. “There weren’t regrets.”

Academic institutions could often do more to ameliorate the problems faced by these academic mothers. There is a broad range of policies available on campus with some not particularly friendly to expecting and new mothers. The authors found many women did not take advantage of the policies and resources even if they were available to them.

“Institutions weren’t progressive in terms of helping people. They were well-intentioned in many cases,” Wolf-Wendel said. “Women often just didn’t know about the policies or didn’t take advantage of them out of fear.” Cultural changes need to happen alongside policy implementation so people can feel free to use policies.

The book offers suggestions for institutional policymakers and advice to women to counteract the longtime disparity in number of young mothers who pursue tenure track jobs — several interviewed for the book were the first in their department to attempt tenure and a family. Institutions can implement policies such as providing affordable and accessible day care, tenure stop clock policies, avoiding “deals” with faculty regarding leave to create fairness, not assuming one policy fits all campuses and frequently reviewing their policies with faculty, department chairs and deans. Women, for their part, should find the right fit for themselves and their interests, ask for what they need, find allies, support others in similar situations, set reasonable priorities and “satisfice,” or do what is necessary to make things satisfactory both personally and professionally instead of expecting things to be perfect.

“These women are driven to do things perfectly,” Wolf-Wendel said. “Realizing you might not be the perfect parent or the perfect professor can be a psychological blow. But it is possible to be successful as a parent and professor at the same time.”

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