This was not the post that I meant to write today.
If you’ve read my blog at all, you probably know that I’m not one for emotional confessionals.
However, I read about a study today that had me questioning my identity, my self-worth, career choices, and reproductive timeline.
Is this a little overdramatic?
When I was in my twenties, here was my plan: 1) Win a fellowship to a phD program 2) Get phd in sociology 3) Get married 4) Get tenure 5) Become a published writer 6) Have children.
Here’s what actually happened: 1) I won a fellowship to a phD program 2) I dropped out because I was still going into debt and missed my friends in New England and just wanted a simple break from school 3) I finished my master’s and became a teacher 4) I went back to graduate school after a successful career in teaching 5) I got married and began my dissertation research 6) I had a baby 7) next steps: unclear.
I wouldn’t recommend going to grad school, especially a phD program as I did, straight out of college. You need time out of school, to be a young adult outside of an academic setting, make some money, get real world work experience, figure out who you are.
But what happens when women “take a break” from academia and then return?
Nothing good, it turns out, for women. Your timeline doesn’t align with the schedule of developing an academic career. You meet the dreaded biological clock. You are not viewed as a serious researcher, a serious scholar, if you’re navigating between the worlds of diapers and data. You are told that pregnancy doesn’t mix with academic conferences, job interviews for academic positions, and even data collection.
Today in Slate a researcher named Mary Ann Mason wrote about her study of female academics, whose experiences were so similar to mine that it shocked me, despite all that I thought I knew about “leaning in” and planning for informed decisions about career and family. Her article, “Female Academics Pay a Heavy Baby Penalty” discusses why women — not men — are penalized in academic careers for having a baby during their graduate school or early professional careers. It turns out that academia isn’t quite the “family friendly” atmosphere that many would believe. It turns out that women or fellows who have babies (as I was) are twice as likely as new dads or women without children to give up academic careers. They receive discouraging advice from advisers and mentors. (As I was… when I told my adviser that I was pregnant and my due date was the same weekend as a national conference in which I planned to present my research, she was not happy or impressed and made that very clear to me. In fact, she was visibly annoyed.)
So what do female academics do? They drop out entirely, as I did.
Did I destroy my options by waiting too long to have a baby? Should I have just stayed in a doctoral program as a twenty something, despite not being sure about it?
Ultimately, I don’t really regret my choices. I’m probably happier and better suited to writing and to life outside of academia. But I’m angry that my experience was not some weird fluke.
New parents — women and men — need so much more support. They need, as Mason concludes, flexibility in being able to re-enter their careers. They need policies that provide a flexible workplace, flexible leave policies, and assistance for day care.
Because ultimately it’s not just about personal choices; we all make choices in the context of so many other factors. We need a world where our personal family choices are supported by our workplaces, whether they are a factory, a university, a corporate board room, a hospital, or our home computer.
How could your workplace have supported you better during new parenthood?