Motherhood and Academe

In a letter to the University Affairs magazine, a female academic pointed out that almost half of female academics in their mid to late 30s do not have children under age 12 in their household. In comparison one-third of female physicians in the same age-group have children under age 12 in their homes. The Ivory Towers: Feminist Audits in Canada publishes information focused on female academics in the workforce. Selected indicators are also published. Is the workplace in academe non-conducive to allowing women to have a career and family? Do women in these types of careers have to sacrifice having a family in order to get ahead?

The National Academies in the United States has published similar bleak statistics about women in senior positions in certain areas of academe and the private sector. It is interesting to note that Canadian women fare even worse than American women.

It is also illuminating that so many of the recommendations for change involve suggestions for employers to be more family, relationship and child friendly.

[Universities] should provide uniform policies and central funding for faculty and staff on leave and should visibly and vigorously support campus programs that help faculty with children or other care giving responsibilities to maintain productive careers. These programs should, at a minimum, include provisions for paid parental leave for faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students; facilities and subsidies for on-site and community-based child care; dissertation defense and tenure clock extensions; and family-friendly scheduling of critical meetings. (National Academies report).

Since the United States and Canada are so woefully behind in terms of early childhood education and care provisions, and family friendly work set-ups, for example, it is easy to believe the Catalyst finding that it will take at least 40 more years to achieve parity in the workplace. Forty more years, at a minimum, before we can stop seeing a predominance decisions being made by men in the boardrooms of educational institutions, for example, that are, in fact, run by women at the lower levels.

What can women currently in the workforce do to make their office more women and family friendly? How can we prepare girls, while they are in school, to step into the workforce with confidence.

1. Provide mentorship for other women – in particular those who are younger. Consider that mentorship is not an erudite exercise. It is an activity as simple as encouraging a junior colleague to apply for a position, or listening to a colleague talk about the challenges of working while raising children.

2. Find a way to use your training, knowledge and skill sets in whatever way you can. If, for example, it becomes impossible to stay in academe due to your specific family commitments, think about working in the private sector, or starting your own business and working from home.

3. Look to the future. Encourage young girls to develop skills that will help them survive in a challenging workplace in the future. Become a Girl Guide (Scout) leader! Attend a workshop with your daughter.

4. Try to locate a workplace/educational institution that is family friendly. Does your workplace offer prioritized access to subsidized quality daycare? Is there flexibility in your workplace about how vacation or modified work days are taken? Often individual departments have the ability to approve specialized work plans.

5. If necessary, make sacrifices in the short-term. Over the long term, however, claim your right to shine. Don’t be a slave to a secure job with benefits, even if the job is not right for you. Entertain the possibility of taking a risk.

6. Study the career paths and mannerisms of older women you admire who have raised a family. How have they progressed in their careers? What choices did they make?

7. Get involved in your professional organization or union. This is where you can have a direct impact on the creation of policies in your organization that affect families.

8. Get political. Every vote counts. Support the local politicians and parties (provincial and federal) that promote the best family friendly policies. Help campaign for politicians seeking election or re-election.

9. Get the word out. Write opinion pieces or letters in your local newspapers or association newsletters. Write a piece for a magazine or create a website. Get the message out about your experiences, what works and what needs to change.

10. Network with other women in similar positions. Exchange ideas about what works, what resources are available and how individually and collectively you can effect change. You might find women in similar circumstances within your professional association or in an alumnae group, for example. Increasingly there are opportunities for women to network within women in leadership groups that are part of business organizations and in your local Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade.

What are your thoughts about this topic? Please leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.


Women’s Leadership Circle, Vancouver Board of Trade

Challenges of the Faculty Career for Women: Success and Sacrifice

Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out

Mothers on the Fast Track: How a Generation Can Balance Family and Careers (Workshops for mothers and their daughters living in or near Vancouver)

33 Things Every Girl Should Know: Stories, Songs, poems and Smart Talk by 33 Extraordinary Women

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