B.16: Motherhood and Other Ch­­allenges: Joys and Difficulties of Being on the Tenure Track

Reviewed by Cara Kozma, High Point University,High Point, NC (ckozma@highpoint.edu)

Chair: Michele Ninacs, State University of New York, Buffalo State University, Buffalo, NY

Speakers: Robin Gallaher, Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, MO, “On Being an Island: The Risks and Rewards of Being the Only Composition Scholar and WPA.”
Nicole Williams, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA, “Career Suicide: Is Having Children too High a Risk in Academia?”
Krystia Nora, California University of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, PA, “The Mommy Track: The Joys And Difficulties of Choosing Motherhood on the Tenure Track.”

When reviewing the conference program, I decided to attend this panel because I was pregnant with my second child, on the tenure track, and about to go through the pre-tenure review process. I was particularly struck by one of the presenter’s titles, “Career Suicide: Is Having Children too High a Risk in Academia?” As I entered the room, it became apparent that I was not alone in my interest in this session. I took my seat next to another pregnant woman as the rows filled around me. I counted more than 30 audience members in the room—and male attendees were conspicuously absent with only two men in the crowded room. The chair, Michele Ninacs, introduced the panel, invited the audience to tweet during the presentation, and turned over the floor to the first presenter.

Robin Gallaher’s presentation, “On Being an Island: The Risks and Rewards of Being the Only Composition Scholar and WPA,” was also an island on the panel of motherhood-related talks. Gallaher spoke while referring to a PowerPoint presentation, discussing that in the past many junior faculty members have been warned against taking a Writing Program Administrator (WPA) position while on the tenure track, but this warning is now being rethought by many within the field. She described interviews that she conducted with fourteen participants who were WPAs and the only composition faculty members at their institutions. Her analysis of the interviews found that these faculty members felt vulnerable within their positions for four key reasons: the high visibility of the WPA position, that WPA cases for tenure look different from others, that people outside the field decide on tenure, and that scholars are isolated within their institutions. She provided a detailed overview of these four themes using excerpts from interviewees throughout the discussion. She concluded by saying that despite feeling somewhat vulnerable in their positions, the overall tone of her interviews was, “humorous, positive, and purposeful,” and that her participants emphasized that scholars should not be discouraged from taking these positions.

Nicole Williams gave the presentation with the catchy but anxiety-producing title: “Career Suicide: Is Having Children too High a Risk in Academia?” She began by drawing connections between her talk about motherhood on the tenure track and Gallaher’s discussion about being the isolated compositionist within a department. In both of these situations, she suggested that often people surrounding you have trouble understanding your position. She offered some statistics from the book Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Mason, Wolfinger, & Goulden, 2013), and mentioned how these figures had scared her when she first heard them as the mother of a one-year-old and pregnant with her second child. She stated that her goal for the session was to have a good conversation about the topic with the audience, and she showed a word cloud on the topic that included words like “baby,” “tenure,” “clock,” “silence,” “fear,” “penalty,” “scheduling,” and “gap.” She referred to the advice that many women are given that they should have babies in graduate school rather than while on the tenure track, and she pointed out that for many women, this advice is not feasible because of timing or financial issues. Williams also mentioned another common piece of advice: Women should wait until after receiving tenure to have children. She argued that this is often difficult or impossible because of reproductive issues related to a woman’s ability to have children as she gets older. Therefore, many women now choose to have children as junior faculty, which has raised a number of issues that need more discussion, such as the fact that women with young children often have a vita-gap compared to their colleagues, that many university maternity policies are inadequate or nonexistent, and that there has been a culture of silence related to the issues of motherhood and tenure.

The last panelist, Krystia Nora, opened her talk, “The Mommy Track: The Joys and Difficulties of Choosing Motherhood on the Tenure Track,” by asking for a show of hands regarding who in the room was a mother or father. While I couldn’t get an accurate count, it seemed that about two-thirds or more of participants raised their hands. She summarized some existing research findings that have established that for many women their tenure clock overlaps with their biological clock and that statistically men who have children get a career boost while the opposite is often true for women. She then discussed data from a survey that had been distributed over the WPA listserv, which had 204 respondents, of which 146 completed the entire survey. She highlighted that 80 percent of the respondents reported difficulty while raising children in the academy, with many citing work–life balance difficulties. The data suggested that changes are needed to better support women having children within higher education. Nora concluded the discussion by posing the question, “Where do we go from here?”

The Q&A period was highly energetic, and there was not enough time for many people in the audience to make comments or ask questions. Participants wanted to discuss and share experiences with issues such as maternity leave, breast-feeding, stopping the tenure clock, and other university polices. One woman in the audience raised an interesting methodological question about Nora’s survey questions. She wanted to know whether Nora had considered whether the questions were worded in a way that put forth an implicit assumption of struggle related to motherhood. The comment was well received by Nora, who plans to deeply consider issues of wording in her data analysis. Overall, this was a lively and compelling session that did not disappoint, and it is clear that further discussion of this topic is welcome and needed within our field. It was inspiring to see the energy around the discussion among the panelists and participants.


Mason, Mary Ann, Wolfinger, Nicholas H., & Goulden, Marc. (2013). Do babies matter? Gender and family in the ivory tower. Camden, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Created by HollyMcIntyre. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 20:34:32 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.