Do babies matter? A review

I was very excited to find this book by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden: Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. The authors deal with the complex and multi-faceted relationship between families and academia in an organized and data-driven way. They use detailed survey information to present the beliefs and career decisions of academics (especially women) at different points of the academic “pipeline,” from graduate students through tenured faculty members and how these relate to two of the most typical milestones for family formation: marriage and childbearing.

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As a married female graduate student who loves much about academia and also hopes to raise kids eventually, this book’s agenda is important to me. After reading the book, there are a few undeniable takeaway points:

  • Women, especially at the earlier stages of academic careers (PhD students and postdocs), are more likely than men to perceive raising a family and obtaining a tenure-track faculty position as incompatible goals.
  • Academic institutions lack flexibility that exist in other professional fields like law and medicine like alternating between full- and part-time work or taking maternity and paternity leave after a birth. Even when academic institutions do have these policies, people often do not know about them or are hesitant to use them because of their associated stigma.
  • Women (and especially mothers) are underrepresented at the top of the academic career ladder.

There are lots of injustices in the world, and academia is not immune. Whether we want to or not, humans have subconscious biases, and these biases take a ton of work to overcome. Bringing awareness to discrepancies is a crucial step toward eliminating them, and this book does a great job of doing just that. There are a few recurrent underlying assumptions, though, that didn’t sit right with me as I was reading this book.

  • Tenured faculty is the ultimate goal. For many grad students, this is true. In fact it is a waste of a graduate education if the recipient is not going to remain a competitive academic researcher. In a paragraph about how “Many of our best and brightest young people are rejecting careers at research universities,” the authors write that “The United States cannot afford to lose many of its best researchers and thinkers, scholars who will eventually train the next generation. And these talented young scholars should not have to forsake careers for which they have already invested many years of their lives.” If PhDs take jobs outside academia, the United States is not losing them at all. Their training isn’t going to waste, it’s just going to a different use than many people assume it is “supposed” to go to. Not to mention, many people don’t look at getting a PhD to be career training in the sense that getting a Nursing Degree or even a Master’s Degree is. You do a PhD to gain experience, thinking, communicating, innovating, and answering nearly intractable questions. Academics love to say that you don’t get a PhD to get rich (though a job is pretty universally expected at the end).
  • Correlation and causation… There are times when the authors do remind us that statistics don’t allow us to make causal claims, but other times when the authors seem to forget that crucial notion. Comments like “Marriage also leads women to leave the labor force. Compared with an unwed woman, her married counterpart is 28 percent more likely to not work.” It may be true that marriage is the reason these women leave the labor force. Or perhaps women who leave the labor force have more time for dating and get married at higher rates (that’s fairly ridiculous, but technically possible based on the statistic). Or perhaps there’s some underlying personality difference between women who choose to get married and to stop working and those who don’t, a hidden variable responsible for the different work behaviors that isn’t marriage at all, but instead tracks with marriage. What if marriage is so fulfilling and stabilizing that women decide they don’t need to keep working at jobs they’ve hated?
  • Women and men have the same career goals and desires. This follows from the assumption above. Men and women are biologically different. It’s a good thing, too, because that keeps humans on the earth. These biological differences are pronounced in parenting. I don’t doubt that dads and moms can love their kids equally, but women carry the fetus for 9 months, give birth, and often feed the baby milk from their own body. As they’re raising a human being (or multiple humans, as is often the case), women may decide that their former jobs don’t provide the same meaning that parenting does. They may cut back on work or cut it out entirely, and this might be a great thing for many women. It is a luxury to be able to make this choice. And in some families, it may be the father who makes the choice and the mother who continues to work, but I don’t think that biology has set us up for that to be the majority choice. The statistics about women who remain in R1 (top research) faculty positions and those who take less demanding roles or stop working altogether are presented as proof enough that women are underachieving because of families. If it is a genuine choice that a woman makes to prioritize family over work, isn’t that quite an achievement?

Crucially, it needs to be possible for women to be successful researchers, wives, and mothers if that’s what they want. I believe that is the authors’ motivation, and they give suggestions for ensuring this possibility. But women who leave the pipeline shouldn’t be considered failures, and their decision should not necessarily be chalked up to injustice. It’s a really messy issue, but it won’t get better unless we keep talking about it as this book has successfully prompted many to do.

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