Fewer women professors who have children earlier in their careers obtain tenure than their male counterparts do, a recent study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education said. Yale professors said they have had mixed experiences with policies that can affect women’s decisions about whether and when to have children.
While 77 percent of male professors nationwide who have children earlier in their careers obtain tenure, only 56 percent of female professors do, the study, conducted by University of California at Berkeley Graduate School Dean Mary Ann Mason, reported. Maternity leave and tenure track policies have improved in some of Yale’s schools, but are still lacking, women professors said.
The professors agreed tenure clock flexibility, better and less expensive childcare and improved maternity/paternity leave are all issues that need uniformity and further improvement. Maternity leave policies vary among the different schools and departments at Yale, and in some cases the policies can be unaccommodating for having and raising children, they said.
“When I first came here twelve years ago, it was up to the dean of our school whether or not a woman got maternity leave, making it a personal privilege, rather than an entitlement,” tenured School of Architecture professor Dolores Hayden said. “I think policies are better now, but they still need work.”
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said Yale has considered the subject of women on the faculty at length, and there is some question as to whether the figures in the Chronicle study reflect Yale’s numbers.
“The subject … has been one of very close and continued interest. It’s a source of concern,” Brodhead said.
Many American universities’ tenure policies allow faculty to be appointed as junior or associate professors until they are re-evaluated a specific number of years later for senior, tenured positions. This often rigorous evaluation process requires that professors have accomplished a significant amount of work in their departments, and it can make choosing to have a family a difficult decision.
“The problem is that when people are looking to make a tenured appointment, especially at a demanding university like Yale, they expect that someone has been extremely productive and extremely productive rapidly,” history and religious studies professor Paula Hyman said.
Hyman said she thinks the tenure system was not designed with women’s needs in mind.
Unlike many other universities, Yale’s tenure policy is flexible for individual situations and departments; professors can extend their teaching time at Yale to up to ten years without holding tenure while others are hired as tenured senior faculty members.
Paula Kavathas, a tenured professor at the School of Medicine, had her second child shortly after being hired as an assistant professor at Yale. She said her previous parenting experience — in conjunction with the longer tenure clock — made it possible for her to devote time to her family while still accomplishing sufficient work to obtain tenure.
“I like the 10-year clock at Yale, because it is more conducive to women achieving tenure,” she said. “There are women who feel like they can’t balance a family and an academic career, but the extended period of time gives more time to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Kavathas said the medical school has made strides toward addressing the subject: junior faculty members are now paired with senior faculty mentors and there has been an effort to discuss the issues, including a current lecture series focused on balancing work and family, and to recruit more female faculty members.
Despite these gains, several professors agreed that the University could do more to improve its parenting policies to make a career in academics compatible with raising a family. Hayden and Hyman both said they thought the University could improve its maternity policies for parents — both men and women — by incorporating a standardized maternity/paternity leave policy that also acknowledges adoptions, extending the tenure clock when faculty decide to have children and incorporating more affordable childcare programs.
Priyamvada Natarajan, an associate professor in the Physics Department, also said she thinks the tenure clock should be more flexible. But she said she thinks allowing professors to be considered for tenure in a shorter period of time would be more amenable to the extremely tracked nature of academic careers in the hard sciences.
“This could allow for women who don’t have families to obtain tenure first, without having to wait for the ten year tenure clock,” she said.
Natarajan said she has decided to wait until she has tenure before starting a family.
All four women are members of the Women Faculty Forum at Yale, which was established to provide a supportive community for women faculty at Yale and to work on administrative policies to address issues such as the conflict between family and academia. According to a study published by the forum last year, women now comprise 17 percent of Yale’s tenured faculty, but comprised only 5 percent twenty years ago.
“It’s not easy, but unless we have more women trying, we won’t be able to start changing the climate,” Kavathas said.