Balancing Personal and Professional Lives: Experiences of Female Faculty across the Career Span

Article excerpt

It has been called "suddenly one of the hottest questions everywhere in higher education" (1): How can female academics have successful careers and have children too? One might add, how might women successfully combine an academic career and a rich life outside the academy? These questions are not only hot and curiously understudied, they are also largely unaddressed by policy. Female faculty continue to dominate the lower-paying, less prestigious, non-tenure-track jobs while being underrepresented in the higher-paying, prestigious, tenure-track positions and higher tenure-track ranks. (2) The premise of the study reported here is that the persisting gender gap has much to do with the relationship between women's professional and personal lives.

Although many women in higher education have long struggled to combine the pursuit of an academic career with parenthood, it was not until recently that the topic began to attract national attention. A 2003 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported results of what is believed to be the first study based on national data showing what women in academic life have known for a long time: having children can have a devastating impact on the careers of academic women without having the same effect on academic men. (3) Recent publications such as Mama PhD (4) reflect the significance of the topic, and research has begun to address related issues such as the bias against caregiving in the academy, (5) the (mis)use of work/family policies, (6) and others. I have extended this line of research, but broadened it in two ways. First, I included women's experiences across their professional life spans rather than narrowly focusing on those early formative years when tenure decisions and child-bearing tend to collide. Second, I did not limit the study to women with children but incorporated various living arrangements and family constellations.

Gender-based reform in higher education in general is well documented. There has long been a trend to achieve equity by providing women with the same conditions, advancement opportunities, salaries, and so forth, as enjoyed by their male counterparts--equality in the sense of providing the same opportunities, that is. Another trend encompasses efforts to initiate change in the very fabric of the academy and mold it to embrace female ways of doing, knowing, and being--in other words, providing equal opportunities for women without the expectation that they become like men. Literature exists accordingly, addressing how to survive in the academic world, (7) level the playing field, assume leadership positions, and generally be successful in a male-dominated environment. (8) Models have been proposed for how to evaluate gender equity in Academe, (9) how to help women become transformative leaders in higher education administration, (10) and how to address institutional barriers for female scientists and engineers." Papers have been published on cross-cultural comparisons of issues pertaining to women and power, how to overcome discrimination in and outside of the academy, and the role of universities in molding different societies' attitudes toward women in general. (12) The list continues. What these studies do not include, however, are first-hand accounts of female academics at different career stages on how their work-life balance may impede their roads to success, and how life-balancing acts play out differently for early-, mid-, and late-career women. This study set out to fill this void and capture the powerful stories of diverse women who told of challenges, failure, and regret, of costs and sacrifices; but who also shared their coping strategies and advice on how the academy needs to change in order not to lose half of its highest potential. Ultimately, my intent was to capture the challenges and responses of female academics across their professional life spans and thus bring to light one of the dark sides of Academia, one that inhibits true equal opportunities of all its members, regardless of gender. …