by Sarah Damaske
As a work-family scholar, academic, and (relatively new) mother, I find that one of the most common questions I field from my women students (undergraduate and graduate alike) is not about my research, but about what it’s like to be a working mom. While I might squirm a little at the thought that my personal experiences make me somehow qualified to answer this question, I understand where the question is coming from. As Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues write, “babies matter” in the lives of academics—appearing to make the path towards a tenure-track job and tenure more difficult for women and for men fully engaged in shared parenting. According to this study, both men and women academics have fewer children than they desire and fewer than other professional colleagues, such as doctors or lawyers. Indeed, in my recent study with colleagues Elaine Howard Ecklund, Anne Lincoln, and Virginia White, we looked at qualitative interview data with 74 men from prestigious biology and physics departments and found that many men scientists felt that having children was not compatible with academic life. One respondent reported, “To be a successful scientist, it just takes so much of my time. I wouldn’t be able to have children also and do that.”
Yet our research also suggests that the majority of men in academic science want to become parents and about a third of our sample acted as equal caregivers to their children. In fact, another study of academic scientists by Ecklund and Lincoln suggests that both men and women academics desire having children and that their overall life satisfaction declines when they find themselves unable to do so because of the demands of their profession.
Must these academics resign themselves to lesser careers if they have children? A recent article in Think Progress, and new research by Matthias Krapf and colleagues on economists’ productivity and childbearing suggests an alternative possibility. The researchers find that, overall, women with children are as productive as their men colleagues with children and more productive than women with no children. Moreover, men with children are also more productive than their colleagues without children. The researchers further find both mothers’ and fathers’ productivity levels drop when they have young children (and mothers experience the greatest dip), but both groups regain higher productivity levels once their children are older. This study echoes findings from a study by Roberta Spalter Roth and Nicole Van Vooren from a few years ago that similarly found women in sociology with children were more likely than childless women to follow their “ideal” career pathway of working towards tenure.
Of course, there are important caveats to this research. This does not necessarily suggest that children may enhance one’s productivity at work—in fact, just the opposite might occur. It could be that only those who already feel secure in their work productivity may decide to have children. And the research from Krapf and colleagues also finds that women who have children at younger ages or have higher numbers of children do find themselves with lower levels of productivity overall. Additionally, research requirements in the STEM fields may be different from those in the social sciences and humanities, suggesting that additional research is needed here.
But it does suggest that having children may not negatively impact one’s productivity levels as is often feared. Indeed, the highly productive economists return to being highly productive scholars after their children get slightly older. This belief that parenthood has a negative impact on workers’ productivity is the crux of the problem for both women with children and men who engage in egalitarian parenting. The stigma of parenthood, particularly motherhood, is well-documented and generally connected to the notion that it is not possible to be both a good worker and an engaged parent (as mothers are assumed to be and egalitarian fathers likely are). These new findings suggest that parenthood may not negatively impact overall productivity (especially in the long-run) and are an exciting piece of positive news for academia and academics who have or want to have children.
Looking forward, we need to continue to consider the questions raised by these findings. It is likely that the productivity level dips after parenthood occur at crucial stages in the academic pipeline—Jerry Jacobs and Sarah Winslow note the lengthening path to tenure makes delaying childbearing until after tenure unlikely for many faculty. Yet the Krapf study of economists suggests that this dip is likely temporary. If we want to stop the leaky pipeline in academia (of women, and as my research suggests of men who anticipate being engaged fathers), it will be important to consider how to mitigate the impact this temporary dip has on hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.
Sarah Damaske is an assistant professor of labor & employment relations and sociology at Pennsylvania State University. Her book, For the Family: How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara Whaley award and was reviewed in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.