Great, but who's taking my daughter to soccer practice
In this week's issue of Science, there is an article discussing the advancement of women in academia [requires subscription to read]. The article details how the number of women receiving PhD's in science and engineering fields has risen to ~ 25-50% depending on the discipline in question. The percentage of women faculty at the assistant and associate professor levels are only slightly off of the number of PhD's, but the number of senior faculty is between 5-10%. There are several possible reasons for this disparity, not the least of which is that it takes several years (10-15) to achieve senior faculty status, and therefore improvements are slow to filter through the system.
However, the rest of the article examines the commonly cited reasons for women not entering academia: low enrollment in PhD programs, lack of mentors and role models, overemphasis of commitments not valued in tenure decisions (i.e., community service, mentoring, teaching), unconscious bias, and difficulty balancing work and family. The standard list of solutions was presented: workshops to improve hiring and the work environment, extension of the tenure clock upon birth of a child, on campus childcare, and lactation rooms, etc.
Workshops to improve hiring and a hostile work environment are great ideas and will likely go a long way to improving unconscious bias, but these suggestions are unlikely to make an impact at the senior level, and the improvements suggested to improve work-life balance are completely insufficient. Extending the tenure clock, childcare, and lactation rooms are really only important when your child is under 3. Both of my children were born before I will start an academic position, so the tenure clock extension won't apply to me. My kids will be heading off to preschool and elementary school so childcare and lactation are not really issues. The question that I have is who is taking my daughter to soccer practice?
Although the first year is probably the most difficult in childrearing, once the kids get past the cradle, these improvements do little to help women faculty become engaged in family life. A far better solution would be extending the tenure clock altogether or reducing the emphasis on research and fund-raising in favor of service, mentoring, and teaching, activities that women are usually more involved in. What about offering part-time tenure track appointments? Say 75% with an equivalent reduction in workload and extension of the tenure clock. These are the improvements that will have the most impact on my ability to balance family and work. I want to be available for my children when they are younger, and need me the most. As they get older, more time will become available to channel into my work. Unfortunately, tenure decisions are entirely based on time in the here and now.
Although the article doesn't discuss it, I wonder how many female faculty leave the tenure track to pursue more flexible lecturer or instructor positions. Given the paucity of pay and respect in these positions, the numbers may be small. However, these positions, which are often defined by the number of classes taught, offer the kind of flexibility that would help many women. As the children get older and enter school, these women might transition into tenure track positions. They would have the benefit of knowing the bureaucratic ropes of the universities where they have been employed, and the departments would have a sense of their potential.
Tenure clock extensions and lactation rooms pay lip service to work-life balance initiatives, I on the other hand look forward to real change.