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Hey Alexa, how do you change the default settings for the “Teacher, Scholar, Mother” in Academia?

Dr. Angela Colistra and Alexanderia Smith Changing the default settings for motherscholars

Another day in the office 

Do women still face the dilemma of “can I have it all”? Anne-Marie Slaughter who was the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department recently exclaimed that women cannot have it all and neither can men! Whether it is at home or at work, the roles that women play and how they play them depends on their access to these roles, belief that they can effectively carry them out, and support from their institutions and partners to do so. These factors contribute to whether one decides to “Lean In” to these domestic and/or academic duties or abandon ship. 

According to the American Association of University Professors, women hold more lower-ranking academic positions than men. With 32.5 % of women compared to 19.6% of men faculty assuming non-tenure track positions, women held the majority (56.8%) of the lowest ranking positions in academia, instructor positions. Research shows that having a family seems to negatively impact women’s academic careers and fertility decisions; of tenured faculty, 44% of women were married with children compared to 70% of men.

 Birthing motherscholars to have successful track records in academia requires that we recognize and challenge all of these default settings.

Working and being a caretaker is nothing new, many women have done this before and so can motherscholars. Management of the home and the gendered and heterosexist standards are additional duties to consider. One afternoon, after seeing clients all day, the staff was required to attend a meeting at an off-site location.  We proceeded to leave the office and we were advised to not forget to put on our lipstick. Or the time I was pumping breastmilk in my office, while having a conference call, and my director was banging on my door and sending me a chat requesting my help on something immediate, to find out he wanted me to help him order his Thanksgiving day pots and pans. 

For some women “having it all” has also meant doing it all. Single mothers, women of low socioeconomic status, women of color, women who are immigrants, and women who are undereducated have always been a part of the workforce. How do gender, race, and socioeconomic status mediate what “having it all” means for women? Sometimes we ultimately forget to take a step back to truly assess our contribution and remember that things can be less than “perfect” and still be “accept”tional. In fact, all women are simply badass. 

Even in the academy women are still seen in traditional womanly roles and given less access to powerful positions. A new day is on the horizon for so many women movements, including our roles in the world of work!

Whether or not we can have access depends on whether we can break the default setting of merely being seen through the lens of “womanly” “caregiving” “motherly” duties or providing “emotional labor”. Observing the gender, race, and age break down of our institution’s leadership and faculty positions can reveal these settings and thus provide us insight into where the default settings exist.

The gaps between male and female faculty positions, tenure, and pay do not illustrate a picture of equity. The thing we focus most on is that men out-earn women at all levels (Full, Associate, Assistant, Instructor) within the institution, but with lack of access to these higher-level positions and by being consumed with extra “womanly” and non-essential duties, we risk prolonging the closing of these gender gaps. The amount of service hours I have clocked for my institutions has ultimately taken me away from the important scholarly work, but I am getting pretty comfortable with the word NO.  We have to put those non-essential duties down if we want to disrupt the default.

The intersect between race and gender of the motherscholar requires more attention. We have to dialogue more about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The intersect of race and gender create more disadvantage for holding tenure-track positions and tenured positions: Asian/Pacific Islander women held 4.8%, black women held 3.7%, and Hispanic women held 2.5% of these tenure-track positions. Likewise, for tenured positions: Asian women 2.6%, Black women 2.2% and Hispanic women 2.3% held these positions. Do diversity, equity, and inclusion for women of color exist at our own institutions?

It seems that some institutions believe diversity is important and have come to understand the need to appear as if they are diverse and equity is available to these motherscholars, but are they able to maintain these mother-scholars? Universities must recognize that diversity is an action word that far exceeds the confines of a sentence in their mission statements as well as senior faculty members’ viewpoints that may be skewed by privilege. This begs the question of if we have created diverse and equitable systems, which until we do so, makes inclusion impossible.

These authors acknowledge that some motherscholars might treat this argument as too reductionist or grounded in some form of privilege. Also, there has been little recognition of challenges that non-heterosexual or single parents encounter while in academia. Sure, the “having it all” debate may be counterproductive to the empowerment of women. However, these scholars believe the daily challenges as scholars with children are paramount and worthy of continued discussions so that we can continue our common crusade as motherscholars.

Be your best advocate: Be the voice at home and at your academic institution where you define your role and how you prefer others to engage with you. The age-old adage: “You teach people how to treat you” applies here. Agreeing to do nonessential duties, like ordering pots and pans, can maintain the default settings of not acknowledging the true value of a motherscholar.

Identify your allies within your family, department, college, and university. People who understand and get your home/work motherscholar goals and who are helping to pave the way by reducing barriers to your success, supporting your work, and being an empathic listening ear. If you cannot find these allies this motherscholar has found support from social media groups focused on academic mothers.

Be an advocate for equity within your institutions, which involves unveiling the inequity, while we lean toward achieving these higher-ranking positions. These authors recommend you be the storm, whether silent or loud, that changes the academic landscape for female professors across their intersections of identity. All the motherscholars on search, tenure, and promotion committees are charged with the responsibility of changing the conversation and recognizing the systemic oppression that prevents other diverse women from advancing or gaining entry. We recognize this is not easy but necessary if we are to birth successful motherscholar results across academia.

Written by: Drs. Angela Colistra and Alexanderia Smith 

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