In the cover story of this month’s The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, tries to explain Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, while her accompanying video asks the question Have Feminists Sold Young Women a Fiction? Some dismiss this thoughtful essay as another example of what Jessica Valenti describes as Sad White Babies With Mean Feminist Mommies.

In a previous post, I described the impact of having children on women’s lifetime career accomplishments and lifetime earnings. Since Dr. Slaughter’s career was primarily in academia (she is a full professor at Princeton), I will provide some sobering facts for young academics, particularly scientists.

The most crucial fact is that the American university system is undergoing substantial change, with most of that change impacting young female professionals.

The Brave New American University

According the American Association of University Professors, contingent faculty--faculty who are not tenure track or tenured--now comprise 68% of faculty appointments. These are usually temporary positions, and those who hold them can be fired at will. The lion's share of this growth since 2000 (73%) has fallen on women's shoulders. The ever-growing ranks of contingent faculty constitute what I call the mommy track. Here is how Dr. Mary Ann Mason, Dean of the Graduate School at UC-Berkeley put it: “Virtually every four-year institution is supported in part by a cadre of mothers in non-ladder-rank positions. Yet, for the most part, they are treated as if they are invisible.”

Why so many women in this academic underclass? Because of the tenure push that rests on a 19th century workplace model, a model that is rooted in a division of labor: Men worked 80+ hours climbing the corporate (or academic) ladder while their wives worked 80+ hours tending to their families. Men spent more waking hours in the workplace than they did with their families. This was considered necessary and normal. This workplace model spawned the tenure push—the rule that you have exactly six years to make your mark in your discipline or you are simply fired. If you make that milestone, you must keep up the breakneck pace of productivity for another 5-8 years (on average) to make full professor. While teaching, serving on committees, presenting your work at conferences, writing successful grant proposals, overseeing your lab, and…oh, yeah…starting a family.

As is apparent, the problem with this model is that the decade spent rising to tenure and full professor overlaps EXACTLY with a young professional's prime reproductive years. This is true of both men and women. And while the workplace has begrudgingly offered some relief in terms of stopping the tenure clock or family leave, the plain fact of the matter is that most tenure committees frown on those who take those options, interpreting this as evidence that they are not really serious about their careers.

Early feminists mindlessly accepted these 19th century rules of the workplace, and many older female academics are childless. But letter day feminists are chafing at having to make such a draconian choice. And so they are jumping out of the tenure stream and into contingent faculty positions so they have more time to spend with their children during their preschool years. Here is how Michelle Obama put it when describing the reasons underlying a dearth of female scientists in her 2011 speech to the National Science Foundation: "Women account for 47% of new PhDs in the sciences, but only 28% of tenured positions…Family formation, notably marriage and childbirth or adoption of children accounts for the major loss of female talent from the job pool between receipt of PhD and achievement of a tenured position in the sciences."

Once their children are older and they have more time and more desire to dive headlong into their careers, young professionals who made this choice are subjected to a rude awakening: They discover that employers treat people who have made this choice the way some men treat women they’ve deflowered: When it comes to hiring (or marrying), they want virgins—fresh-faced, untried, rising stars. They do not want to consider the “woman they’ve already had”--the worker who has done a good job for years in a temporary or part-time position. The grass is always greener, it seems, on the other side of the applicant pool.

The Bleak Future of Science

And here is the real irony: The level of productivity that is demanded of young professionals today is practically an order of magnitude greater than what was required thirty years ago. Early in my career, tenured professors freely admitted that had they been held to the same standards to which young academics were being held, they would never had made tenure. So just when women entered the workplace, they raised the bar ridiculously high and insisted that we jump over it anyway.

It is considerably worse today. The number of scientific journals have skyrocketed to accommodate the vast number of papers submitted for publication every year. And so the inevitable is happening: A deplorable increase in the incidence of scientific misconduct. To put it baldly, young scientists are simply fudging their data in a desperate attempt to remain competitive. According to a recent scientific survey, about 2% of scientists admitted to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once, and up to 34% admitted other questionable research practices. Fed up with the threat of questionable scientific practices, one research group has taken it upon itself to replicate every single research study reported in three scientific journals during the year 2008. There are a number of very nervous young scientists with fingers crossed right now—honest and dishonest alike—hoping that their work can be replicated.

Five Demands for a More Realistic Workplace

Why force this draconian choice on young families? As Slaughter points out, parenting involves as much effort, organization skills, and diligence as any job in the workplace. And the fruits of all that labor is a well-adjusted, psychological healthy citizenry. So here are some suggestions for taking the workplace out of the 19th century and putting it squarely in the 21st century.

1. Give up the idea that the answer is more day care. There is a reason why children were not considered ready to leave the nest until they were 4 years of age, and it can’t be legislated away: They simply are not developmentally ready to enter an institutional setting until then.

2. Give up the idea that asking which partner is going to stay home with the kids is the answer. That wastes precious talent, and creates divisiveness and discontent in marriages between professionals.

3. Give up the idea that parents who haven’t made tenure or full partner by the time they are 35 are slackers or inferior. They may have just shifted priorities during their prime reproductive years. Employers are overlooking a considerably large talent pool if they dismiss such applicants out of hand. Take a look at the TV show The Good Wife, where fortysomething Alicia Florrick re-enters the workforce as an attorney following a 13 hear hiatus to raise her children and assist her husband’s bid for political power.

4. Don’t apply the same metric to evaluate workers with children as those without. The hours required for raising our citizens have to come from somewhere. It is a good investment.

5. In academia, slow down the tenure clock for those who are starting families—yes, regardless of whether they are men and women. And when looking to hire ladder faculty, don’t overlook those contingent faculty, especially those who have proven they’ve got what it takes to academic excellence.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, PhD, is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge), and The Other Side of Psychology: How Experimental Psychologists Find Out About the Way We Think and Act (1995; St. Martin’s). She is also co-editor of Minds, Brains, and Computers: The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science (2000, Blackwell), and Evolution of Mind (1998, Oxford).

About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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