McMaster University professor Lorraine York was putting together her tenure package when she became pregnant. She received notice of tenure two days after giving birth. Luckily, the timing of her pregnancy had minimal impact on her tenure bid, as she already had a strong publications record.
Like other women who had a child while preparing for an academic career, though, she has felt the pressure of balancing motherhood with research. While systemic barriers cannot be overcome by individual actions, this article shares advice from mother-mentors like Dr. York on planning to have a child and pursue an academic job.
In the 21 years since Dr. York had her child, she has served on numerous hiring committees. When asked whether candidates should openly address motherhood in their CV’s, she offers an emphatic yes, even though Canadian employers cannot legally ask whether candidates are parents. To best address the publications gap that typically results from parenthood, Dr. York advises candidates to write, “in an unapologetic manner, ‘Between this date and this date, I was a primary caregiver.’” Such statements can reassure hiring committees that candidates’ future research output will exceed their current output.
During pregnancy and early child-rearing years, choose research projects strategically, says Dr. York. Forget about book reviews. They are manageable in terms of time commitment and level of analysis required, but count for little with hiring committees. Delay starting new projects in favour of building on conference papers. Collaborative work may be useful, but make sure your department values it before you commit to projects.
Meanwhile one sessional instructor (who doesn’t want her name used), says that when her first child was three, she received a tenure-track offer but turned it down because of the challenge of handling “two demanding jobs simultaneously,” academia and parenthood.
Even academic interviews can be a challenge for mothers, this instructor points out. For her first academic interview, she chose to disclose her status as mother: she asked for (and received) breaks in the planned 12-hour day, so she could nurse.
Dr. York adds a few more suggestions for academic interviews. Before interviews, a designated person within the department or university could review fair hiring practices with the committee, to make members aware of what they can and can’t ask, and to remind them that publication numbers alone may not accurately predict research potential.
Another academic mother who prefers to remain anonymous focused her suggestions on institutional change, citing the need for more spaces at university daycare centres, and daycare as a standard feature of academic conferences. Her own wait for a university daycare space lasted two years – years in which she could have been more productive in her research.
More radically, universities could introduce more flexible tenure-track positions where new parents might work half or three-quarters time at a reduced rate of pay for a number of years while raising their families, proposes this mother.
If you’re in a department that’s not particularly supportive, Dr. York suggests finding “the one person who is most sympathetic. Say it’s the admin assistant. Go through them to get what you need,” even if it’s minor assistance, such as putting up a cancellation notice on your classroom if you’re home taking care of an ill child.
Whatever steps you take to plan for parenthood, and however family-friendly your department is, York says, “get ready for the guilt that you will inevitably feel. Don’t assume you’ll be the magic person who makes it look easy.”
While research and parenthood are both rewarding, each is challenging in its own right. In concert, the two demand planning, determination and the support of friends and family, if not the institution itself.
Elizabeth Koblyk is assistant director, Centre for Career Action at the University of Waterloo.