Thursday, November 22, 2012

Career slowdown due to childcare is a human rights issue for academics and other professionals

This morning,the Globe and Mail has an article about a report from the Canadian Council of Academies discussing the difficulties female faculty members have advancing their careers.

In general, the process of academic advancement does not mesh well with raising families, whether you are a female or a male.

In order to achieve tenure and promotion, professors are supposed to continually build a publication track record. Taking a break, or 'slowing down', just doesn't work.

One can't properly take maternity or parental care and expect to advance. Indeed female colleagues of mine routinely work during their maternity leave. One even has had her nanny with her in her office looking after her young babies, just a few weeks after each child is born. Why is such leave often impractical: 1) You have to maintain supervision of graduate students; you can't just abandon PhD's in process; 2) You can't just abandon research programs you have carefully negotiated since you often have deliverables or expectations from research clients. 3) It often takes 12-30 months to get papers published in top conferences and journals; you have to keep that process moving, and attend the conferences when papers are accepted. 4) The process of hiring and getting new PhD students going can take 1-3 years; if you wait until you get back from a maternity or parental leave, you have a long gap again before you have a productive research team (and heaven-forbid that you might have another child on the way).

After any statutory or negotiated leaves in a baby's first year, you have a fixed number of courses to teach, so any slowdown while children are young inevitably is deducted from your time to do research and write publications. Slowing down 33% (e.g. from 60 hours a week to 40 hours a week) due to  family responsibilities, might mean reducing the research time from 30 hours a week to 10, a 75% cut. Hardly anyone realizes this consequence.

Interestingly, the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario), which had a progressive policy towards enabling female lawyers to take time of for childcare by helping cover their office expenses during their absence, is poised to drop that policy.

This problem, however, is not exclusively a female problem. It affects men too. It contributes to divorce when male academics (and lawyers or other professionals) are unable to take their share of the childcare and family workload. It leads to family-oriented men getting left behind in the career ladder, or simply deciding not to take opportunities that otherwise they would have done.

I have personally found that I have not been nearly as successful in research since having my three children. The sleepless nights and other family tasks have slowed me down very considerably. I know this is the case for other male colleagues. PhD students can be particularly badly affected. I was lucky to have made it to full professor just at the time my first child was born. I believe I might never have made tenure even if I had had children earlier. It must be so much harder for women who have a greater biological imperative to slow down their career.

Institutions and society must recognize this issue, especially now that women make up the majority of students in most academic disciplines. I have seen too many women professors just leave because of this issue, or decide not to take on higher-level responsibilities. And my graduate students both male and female, that have had children, inevitably have huge drop-offs in research performance.

It must become a violation of human rights to not consider childcare and family in promotion, and to not as an institution or profession have active programs in place to accommodate employees and members while their children are young.

Universities and granting agencies, for example, should explicitly have policies that expect and account for 60%+ drops in research productivity when people have young children. Co-supervision of graduate students should be the norm for essentially all graduate students. And when I talk about young children, I don't just mean babies and toddlers; the productivity effect of caring for family may slowly drop off, but it doesn't really ever drop to zero, and should continue to be accounted for until children are capable of travelling by themselves to activities and looking after themselves at home when required.

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