The US boasts some unlikely champions of family-friendly policies, say Stephen Phillips and Mandy Garner
Last week, Lawrence Summers resigned as Harvard University president days before a second vote of no confidence was to be considered.
His position had been in danger since his controversial statement last year about women's supposedly inferior aptitude for advanced science.
Nevertheless, since that statement, Summers has put Harvard at the forefront of efforts to overcome the so-called maternal wall that stops many female academics' careers in their tracks. The new measures are something that many British female academics can only dream of.
In the US, women outnumber men 58 to 42 among US undergraduates and they comprise 59 per cent of masters students. They also account for about 50 per cent of PhD students in healthcare and education. Despite this, men make up 61 per cent of faculty at US degree-granting institutions and half of them have tenure. Only 36 per cent of women faculty have tenure.
A 2002 study by the University of California, Berkeley, Do Babies Matter , found that 12 to 14 years after gaining a science PhD, 53 per cent of women giving birth within five years of earning their doctorate had tenure versus 77 per cent of men who became parents in the same period and 65 per cent of women who deferred childbirth or did not have children. In the social sciences and humanities, 58 per cent of earlier mothers had tenure, versus 78 per cent of men starting families around the same time and 71 per cent of older mothers or childless women.
Joan Williams, distinguished law professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, says many previously aspirant tenure-track mothers are instead swelling adjunct lecturer ranks, in which women are disproportionately represented. In fact, this career path is sometimes referred to as the "mommy track". With lower pay, less security and fewer prospects, such positions "offer flexibility at the cost of exploitation", she says. "Women are being pushed into marginalisation."
She adds: "The ideal academic worker is someone who starts to work long hours at 23 and continues until 65 without break," she says. "That doesn't describe the traditional work pattern of women, but it does of a high-status man who needs no time off for childcare."
Harvard and other US universities are trying to deal with the problem. Last May, Princeton became the first US campus to make "tenure clock extension" utomatic for tenure-track men and women. Under the scheme, new parents are granted extra time in which to rack up the publishing credits they need to build their case for tenure. It was previously available only on request.
In the same month, Summers announced a $50 million (£28.5 million) initiative designed to make Harvard's science faculties more female-friendly. A cornerstone of the plan is enhanced childcare.
Last summer, Summers was one of nine presidents from elite US campuses to attend a summit to pool "best practice and specific initiatives addressing faculty with family responsibilities".
In September, the American Council on Education convened a 26-campus conference on "creating flexibility in tenure-track faculty careers", prompted in part by "current data (showing) that women tend to be less likely to pursue tenure-track positions... after earning doctorates". It recently announced that it was putting up $1.3 million to fund individual initiatives.
Such moves tackle widespread reticence over existing parent policies.
Starting in the late-1980s, US campuses passed a raft of family-friendly measures. According to a recent University of Michigan survey, 86 per cent of research institutions count some form of tenure clock extension (typically one year per child, up to a maximum of two years). More than half offer unpaid leave beyond the 12 weeks required, while 32 per cent have enacted so-called "active service modified duty policies", which includes temporary relief from teaching duties.
But arrangements can be highly variable, the survey notes. Some institutions automatically offer tenure clock extension to parents who apply, at others it is discretionary and parents need to make a special case.
More fundamentally, experts identify the stigma attached to many of these policies, driven by a perception that signing up to initiatives such as stopping the tenure clock invite questions about dedication that can count against staff.
Between 1992 and 1999, for example, Pennsylvania State University had just four takers for its family leave policy out of 257 eligible staff.
This is also the case in the UK. A Higher Education Funding Council for England report on equal opportunities, published last year, says women are afraid to complain about lack of equal opportunities for fear of prejudicing their prospects. Rosemary Deem, professor of education at Bristol University who co-authored the report, says things have not improved since the report came out. In fact, she describes cultural change in British universities as "glacial in respect of gender in academic posts, particularly in departments where few women work". While there are a few more female vice-chancellors, there are still very few women in key managerial academic posts at senior level, she states. This is partly because women are often appointed to a chair internally and therefore are not in a position to bargain over pay. They tend to "remain at a low level for the rest of their career because of a low starting base".
But another problem is attitudes towards childcare. She cites a recent case where a temporary female lecturer who had just given birth was interviewed for a post in the department she had been working in. She was the sole applicant considered worthy of interview. The interview took place only a few weeks after the birth because it could not be delayed, Deem says. The woman was interviewed by an all-male panel, which was told that it could not take her circumstances into account as this was personal information. She was informed at the end that she didn't get the job.
Anna Wilson, on sabbatical from Birmingham University where she teaches American studies, believes the US's approach to female academics is way ahead of Britain's. She taught in America for 12 years and is a single parent with a five-year-old adopted daughter. She describes British universities' attitudes to parents as ad hoc and inconsistent. "I have seen absolutely no sign of an equivalent kind of thrust or legal movements in England as in the US," she says.
"Your entire landscape changes profoundly when you have children. Universities pay lip service to the notion that equality is possible. It's parity in front of the firing squad. You have the hopeless belief that if you try a little harder, you can get there. Maybe it's best to know that you can't. Despite our generally benign microclimate in universities, there is a clash between the expectations that things have to happen at certain times, for instance, during half-term, and institutional incomprehension at this. There's a disconnect between universities' intentions to be liberal and their rigid adherence to what they expect from staff. It all comes back to the fact that no one has really thought through what kind of difference having single-parent academics means."
She says that policies such as tenure clock extension and or giving women some leeway after they have children "allows some wriggle room", but ultimately "university management is set in a different world when people had wives".
In the US, the pressure on women has forced many to sacrifice family for career. Robert Drago, professor of labour studies and women's studies at Pennsylvania State, says that 25 per cent of female faculty members, versus 12.6 per cent of men, report having fewer children than they wanted for the sake of their career.
A 2004 Berkeley study found that just 38 per cent of tenured female social sciences and humanities professors have children, versus 61 per cent of their male peers.
But young women are being more assertive, says Joan Williams, bringing generational discord with "child-free women trying to invent a new cultural role of a full female life without children, who see mommy academics as reinforcing old stereotypes, or who may be bereft at having to sacrifice (having) children, and don't see why they should be inconvenienced by women (wanting) it all."
"More and more women are going in with the idea that they can have work and family, and they're putting pressure on the system to make it possible," says Charlotte Fishman, a California lawyer, representing Laurie Freeman, a University of California, Santa Barbara, political scientist, who was turned down for tenure in 2003 and took her case to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She contended that she was discriminated against for taking time out in accordance with university policy to have two children.
In September, the tribunal found "reasonable cause" that Freeman had suffered sex discrimination. It may take similar action in the UK to force change here.