Baby matters: Gender politics beyond COVID-19 and the “Aunts” of academia

The enduring “baby penalty”

Having children is exciting but challenging. Economic uncertainty, environmental anxiety, and lower fertility rates are among the contributing factors that lead many to opt out of parenthood. Babies have also been damaging to women’s careers from time immemorial, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields. One of them is academia: a recent plethora of studies and reports have demonstrated the harsh reality of the gender gap in the number of men and women holding senior academic positions. Women are a minority among senior academics globally, holding an average of 24 per cent full professorships in Europe, 28 per cent in Canada, and 34 per cent in the United States.

One of the assumptions is that motherhood and household responsibilities take up a considerable amount of time during the best part of women’s early careers, substantially impacting their ability to produce published research or applications for research funding.

Data from a 2013 survey conducted in the UK suggests that parenthood has a negative impact on the rank of women academics, unless babies are carefully timed with career considerations in mind. In addition, a 2013 study of a large sample of PhD students, tracked from 1973 onward via the National Science Foundation survey and other data gathered at the University of California Berkeley, reveals the full impact of the “baby penalty”paid by women in academic institutions across all disciplines. For example, mothers of children under 6 years of age are 16 per cent less likely than fathers with similarly aged children, and 21 per cent less likely than women with no children, to achieve a tenure-stream post. Only one out of three women who enter the tenure stream before having children will become a mother. In fact, the study shows that while 70 per cent of tenured academic men have a family, this is only true for approximately 40 per cent of tenured academic women.

Further investigation is now being conducted on new sets of data in an attempt to capture the impact that intersecting vulnerabilities, including the combination of race and gender, have on the career advancement for academic mothers.

In Ireland, the 2016 report Higher Education Staff Profile by Gender clearly emphasizes the gender gap in senior positions, but does not provide any clear data on the demographics of women academics who are also mothers. This should not really matter, we are told, as long as female academics are allowed to progress up the ranks.

This disadvantage has recently been highlighted in the media, as the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have shown a steep decrease in research papers submitted by women, while the number of research papers produced by men has increased.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is lay bare the fact that systemic inequality still dominates universities. The lockdown has helped debunk the myth that liberal society is succeeding in tackling the issue of gender inequality.

The dehumanizing legacy of the patriarchy

In a sector riddled by dehumanizing casualization, in which between 50 per cent and 75 per cent of the teaching load is held by staff on fixed-term contracts and off the tenure track, female academics continue to be overrepresented in the ranks of those precariously employed. Challenges are even greater for women of colour, who find themselves at the intersection of two groups overrepresented in this bracket in countries like Canada and the United States.

The recent attempt to regularize some of these casual jobs by creating permanent teaching-only posts, instead of providing access to tenure-stream positions that allow these staff to engage in research, has exacerbated the feeling of exploitation. These workers, predominantly women and people of colour, will suddenly be parked in dead-end jobs without a proper career path, despite the fact they hold similar qualifications and research portfolios to more fortunate, mostly white male, colleagues.

It may be argued that the situation is improving, and this is true, but we are still very far from closing the gap. A traditionally male-dominated environment, academia has been shaped by a patriarchal culture that aimed to control social institutions and the workplace through a gendered division of labour. Its organizational practices are fraught by discrimination, gender bias, misogyny, and racism. Among the powerful patriarchal practices that oppress and prevent women from accessing tenured posts in academia are a lack of maternity support, childcare accommodation, teaching load reduction options, and administrative relief for new mothers. Even when policies are implemented to address inequality, those responsible for enforcing them sometimes end up being caught in underlying systems that actually reinforce and protect the patriarchy rather than confronting and dismantling it.

This is partly due to the fact that some female policy-makers are senior academics who have managed to climb the ladder by emulating the lifestyle and productivity of their male counterparts. For many, this has meant giving up or putting off plans to have children. For instance, a 41-year old woman academic recently confessed to me that she was considering having her eggs frozen until she achieved tenure. She had been waiting for the right time in her career to start a family, a time that had not materialized. Now she felt that the best way to ensure her dream could still be realized was to freeze her eggs.

Reproductive politics in academia are very complex and so are the levels of support that women provide to other women. To be successful in the academic sector, even as a PhD or a postdoc, scholars must demonstrate enormous dedication and spirit of sacrifice. This means devoting an average of 60 hours per week to the profession. No time for sterilizing bottles, changing nappies, or other housework. Mothers don’t have that kind of time, even in corona-free circumstances, and this is why academia is such a misogynistic playground.

Now, one would expect that those female academics who made it to the top would be supportive of others who are still lagging behind. Sadly, this is wishful thinking when looking at reports and anecdotal evidence about line managers in other business sectors. In most cases, women are not kind to other women—especially mothers. Why would academia be different?

Women’s betrayal

To understand this betrayal, I believe that everyone should read The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which was awarded the Booker prize in 2019.

In the second part of this dystopian tale, Atwood reveals the net of power discourses holding together the totalitarian regime of Gilead. In particular, Atwood focuses on the reproductive politics that keep women apart and allow the surveillance and exploitation of those women made to embrace motherhood by those who are not. Amongst the latter are the so-called Aunts who are the real blood and nerves of the patriarchy. In fact, the patriarchal regime of Gilead and the celibate world of the Aunts proceed hand-in-hand. One could not exist without the other. The Aunts are instrumental to the regime because they have a better sense than the ruling men of how women think and emote, what they need and what they fear. This knowledge is transformed into power that keeps the system alive and perpetuates further abuse.

Interestingly enough, the Aunts are also devoted clerics. They spend most of their lives educating themselves, reading books that are kept locked away, as Gilead’s power—let us never forget—is rooted in female illiteracy, in women’s inability to access a proper education.

Atwood’s description of the Aunts’ power dynamics, and of the abuse they administer to subjugated and commodified Handmaids, reminds me of the way academia operates. True, Atwood’s allegory is vaster and cannot be confined to the academic world; however, the similarities and correlations are too big to be ignored.

Academia: A handmaid’s tale

In academia, the problem is systemic and difficult to overcome because, despite the new Athena Swan chartersintroduced in the UK and Ireland to measure equality, and despite the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committees that have sprung up in academic institutions around the world, many women involved in policy-making seem like the Aunts of The Testaments. They pretend to look after the weakest, to protect underrepresented minorities, but are often agents perpetuating inequality.

I know one female colleague who would have been the perfect candidate to instill some wisdom into new EDI policies that her college was putting together. Let’s call her the Handmaid.

The Handmaid has been on precarious contracts all her life, despite being an incredibly well-achieved researcher and mother of three children. The Handmaid should have been granted a tenured professorship many years ago, but every time a job came up, she was passed for promotion. Male or childless female colleagues had spent endless evenings networking with the right people, promising and returning favours, and going abroad to conferences. Meanwhile, the Handmaid was at home changing nappies.

When the Handmaid responded to a call for volunteers to participate in the new Athena Swan committee, she received no reply for a few days. Then, the head of the committee, let’s call her the Aunt, knocked at the Handmaid’s door and told her that due to her precarious position—she was on a two-year contract—the Athena Swan administrative role was probably not the best use of her time. Surely, the Handmaid would be better off enhancing her already lengthy publication record and applying for yet another research grant. My friend nodded and said, “fine, if you say so,” and wondered how the other woman had managed to get tenure.

Later that day, the Handmaid bumped into the Aunt in the staff room, where they sat awkwardly drinking coffee together. The Handmaid asked the Aunt if she had any children. To this the Aunt replied, frustrated, that her job was too demanding, but that she admired those women who chose to have children, even though it was likely to curtail their careers. She envied them—she admitted—but had decided to have her tubes tied because she loved her job too much.

This is where reproductive politics in academia become very complex and why it is crucial to implement the right practices and procedures to support women who decide to become mothers, ensuring that equal opportunities are available to them at every stage of their careers.

Promoting real equality

When I read articles, such as those published about the impact that COVID-19 has had on the productivity of female academics, I feel both relief and despair. Relief, because the articles correctly highlight how the pandemic differentially affects women, especially women of colour, due to an unmanageable burden of homeschooling, caring responsibilities, administrative, and teaching duties. Despair, because articles like these often fail to address some important questions: How many of those women publishing research before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic have children? How many have tenured jobs in academia? How many have both? How many are involved in policy-making at their institution?

Current data on the gender of academics by age, ethnicity, publications, rank, and number of children must be gathered and made public. Until these questions are asked and this data is collected, a full picture of the impact that having children has on women (and men) within the academy cannot be realized.

Additionally, universities need to substantively improve their employment equity hiring, tenure, and promotion policies. For example, Ireland established twenty women-only professorships in 2020, taking a significant leap towards the attainment of gender equality. However, this is not enough. There should be further concerted efforts to assign these posts to those who are more vulnerable, including mothers, disabled women, and women of colour.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that systemic inequality is alive and well within our postsecondary institutions. More than words are needed to move us forward, and everyone in the academy has a responsibility to step up and play a role building more fair, more compassionate, and more accommodating institutions. While emergency funding is needed to address these contingent challenges, we should use this as an opportunity to revise and re-think the market-driven fiscal policy of the neoliberal university, promote equity, and advance the goals of postsecondary education right around the world.

Enrica Maria Ferrara is a Lecturer and Assistant Professor in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at the University College Dublin.


This article first appeared in Academic Matters, the Journal of Higher Education, OCUFA