Faculty face challenges in balancing career and family

February 09, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- Over half of college faculty, particularly women, make use of workplace strategies to deflect suspicions that family responsibilities are impeding their careers as teachers and researchers, according to a Penn State study.

"Our findings indicate that faculty with spouses and children often experience workplace prejudices that may be either institutional or personal in nature, though rarely explicit," says Robert W. Drago, professor of labor studies and industrial relations and women's studies. "As a result, the majority of the faculty we surveyed use various strategies which all go under the heading `bias avoidance.' The burden of bias avoidance falls heavier on female academicians because child care is still largely the province of women."

Bias avoidance can take on extreme forms such as postponing childbearing or even marriage, at least until the coveted tenure is acquired, he notes. Even tenured faculty members may decide to scotch rumors that family intrudes on their work by not bringing their children into the workplace or even avoiding mention of their spouses and children.

Drago and Carol L. Colbeck, associate professor of education and director of the University's Center for the Study of Higher Education, recently completed their final report of "The Mapping Project: Exploring the Terrain of U.S. Colleges and Universities for Faculty and Families" for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which sponsored the study.

Drago first conducted a nationwide survey of 5,087 chemistry and English faculty in 507 colleges and universities to determine what percentage of those faculty opt for bias avoidance in convincing administrators and colleagues that family care-giving is not interfering with their professional duties. Out of the original sample, Drago selected 9 colleges and universities as a sub-sample and interviewed both administrators and focus groups involving 61 faculty about bias avoidance.

"Chemistry typically involves higher levels of teamwork, fast rates of publication and is disproportionately male," Colbeck says. "English requires substantial time alone for reading and reflection, slow rates of publishing books and is disproportionately female."

In the meantime, Colbeck and two graduate students, Kurt R. Burkum and Lisa D. Weaver, took a closer look at the lives of college faculty by means of a "shadowing" study at two research schools. Clipboards in hand, this team tracked the day-by-day routines of 13 male and female chemistry and English faculty, all with children. In some cases, the faculty logged their own activities by keeping diaries. This unprecedented effort at structured observation of work and family activities among 13 college faculty ALONE resulted in 647.5 waking hours (37 days) of observation and identified 4,975 different work and family activities.

For the entire sample of 5,087 faculty, more than 55 percent of men and more than 70 percent of women reported some form of bias avoidance, the Penn State researchers found. Common among men and especially women faculty was "productive bias avoidance," which entails behaviors that improve work performance at the expense of family commitments. More specifically, it can mean avoiding or postponing marriage, as well as avoiding, postponing or limiting childrearing, for the sake of career advancement.

"Over one-quarter of women and over 10 percent of the men reported having fewer children than they wanted in order to achieve academic success," Colbeck says. "Over one-sixth of women reported delaying their academic career in order to start a family and delaying a second child until after tenure. Over 10 percent of men and over 15 percent of women reported remaining single for the purpose of achieving career success."

An even more common practice among faculty, especially women, was "unproductive bias avoidance," by which faculty seek to hide or minimize family commitments in order to show their dedication to career.

"Almost one-fifth of the men and almost one-fifth of women in the overall survey did not ask for a reduced teaching load when needed due to fears of adverse career repercussions," says Drago. "Almost one-third of both fathers and mothers did not ask for parental leave when needed. Just under one-fifth of both fathers and mothers did not stop the tenure clock for a new child even though it would have helped."

He adds, "Over one-third of fathers and almost half of all mothers reported missing some of their children's important events when they were young in order to appear committed to the job. And over half of all mothers surveyed reported coming back to work too soon after the birth of a new child in order to be taken seriously as an academic. "

The Penn State researchers' findings indicated that institutions and caregivers alike can achieve viable compromises. Apart from temporary stoppages and stretching of the tenure clock, colleges and universities can work with faculty, staff and students in effecting workplace policies that offer more family-friendly class scheduling, greater flexibility in terms of family leave and commuting arrangements, and the availability of quality, affordable child care.

"Our colleges cannot expect to hire and retain the best and the brightest without a recognition of and accommodation for family -- and life -- commitments beyond the workplace," Colbeck says.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017