Women tackle ivory tower trade-off...

July 4, 2003

Women often find an academic career incompatible with the rest of their life, according to a group of professors, students and retired academics who, in a collection of essays and poems, regret how motherhood and other areas of women's lives have become professional liabilities.

Editors Deborah Keahey and Deborah Schnitzer conceived of the book seven years ago after receiving an enthusiastic response to a departmental presentation on the conflicts between the personal and the professional in academia.

Colleagues offered similar stories that included issues such as the need to conceal the news of pregnancy from graduate chairs and the difficulty of bringing children to an academic conference.

Many of the book's contributors tackle their frustration with humour.

University of Calgary professor Aritha van Herk's "Guide to academic sainthood" offers a glossary of terms for the female academic. Under "balance", she writes that it is the most difficult of all academic illusions to maintain and should be practised at home.

Professor Keahey, who now teaches at the University of Winnipeg, says in the book that many female academics are too busy to acknowledge the difficulties they experience. She said: "They've got so good at playing the game that they get into a disconnect and don't realise what it is doing to them."

The early career of Professor Schnitzer, who teaches at the University of Calgary, seemed to illustrate the difficulty of separating work from the rest of life.

She writes of how she was in the middle of finishing a chapter for her thesis when her waters broke for her first child. She wrapped towels around herself and continued to work at her kitchen table until she was coaxed to the hospital with the promise that she could take her work with her.

Other contributions offer some solutions to squaring family life with institutional expectations.

"Adequate childcare, flexible career paths, longer tenure tracks and job-sharing need to be part of the institution's way of life," writes C. Celeste Sulliman, a professor at the University College of Cape Breton.

The editors said they had to encourage some of the authors to surrender their academic reserve, and persuade ten of them to discard pseudonyms.

The Madwoman in the Academy: 43 Women Boldly Take on the Ivory Tower, University of Calgary Press, C$24.95.

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