Working family allowances

Being an academic and a parent is harder than it should be, but not all want children while others make it work regardless

September 4, 2014

No one expects parenting to be easy, but it is not meant to be nigh on impossible, either. Yet in academia, the challenges of juggling family life and a career too often prove insurmountable.

The infamous leaky pipeline that is behind the shortage of women in senior positions is caused largely by the inescapable overlap between the years in which an academic career is born, weaned and nurtured, and the period in which many women are doing the same with young families. And there’s a lack of support to make doing both manageable.

The result is clear enough: across the 130 or so publicly funded institutions in England, 49 per cent of lecturers are women, falling to 38 per cent of senior lecturers and 23 per cent of professors. As for those running our universities, women account for 37 per cent of all senior managers, 33 per cent of those classed as “institutional strategic leaders” and 18 per cent of vice-chancellors.

Being an academic and a parent is harder than it should be, but not all want children while others make it work regardless

That this is a particular problem in academia is illustrated by the corresponding figures for professional and support staff: 57 per cent of those in professional occupations in higher education are female, as are 55 per cent of managers and directors. It seems as though you have a much better chance of “making it” in the university workplace if you are a female lawyer or HR director.

But although it is women whose careers are hit hardest as they juggle parenthood with the move from PhD to postdoc and on up the ladder, men are not necessarily immune.

This week we hear the stories of half a dozen academics – three men and three women – whose tales of parenthood past, present and impending suggest that the qualities required to survive include an ability to work late nights and early mornings, and ruthlessly militaristic planning (of childcare in particular). Having a car big enough to leave your kids in also helps – but obviously not as a long-term arrangement. And while the first two may be true of parenthood in general, it’s not much of an endorsement for a profession.

One of our contributors, a female early career researcher without children, describes the “spectre of the stalled careers of so many female lecturers with children” hovering over her. But she admits that although the practicalities of combining motherhood and an academic career are manifold, perhaps the biggest block for her is internal: the perfectionism that is inherent in many academics, for whom being “good enough” is “unappealing – even offensive”.

Two fathers, meanwhile, confess to being absent more than they would like. But Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, takes the attitude that what was good for the gander is good for the goslings, pointing out that his own childhood, traipsing around laboratories at the weekend while his academic father chased the next breakthrough, hadn’t done him any harm.

Philip Larkin’s famous This be the Verse has it that: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” Oswald’s take on parenting as an ambitious academic has a little more faith in the robust constitution of the next generation: “Even if you largely ignore your children, they will probably survive,” he writes. It’s not a blueprint for parenting in academia, perhaps, but it’s good to know.

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