Bias against Caregiving

By Drago, Robert; Colbeck, Carol et al. | Academe, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

Bias against Caregiving


Drago, Robert, Colbeck, Carol, Stauffer, Kai Dawn, Pirretti, Amy, et al., Academe


Faculty members rarely take advantage of family-friendly workplace policies. What are we so afraid of?

Few eligible faculty members take formal leaves for childbearing or caregiving. The Faculty and Families Project at our university, for example, found that between 1992 and 1999, only four of 257 tenure-track faculty parents at Pennsylvania State University took any formal family leave.1 Perhaps faculty parents were unaware of leave policies, or maybe department heads discouraged them from taking leave. We suspect, however, that biases against caregiving in the academy caused them to avoid taking time off.

As a result of such biases, faculty members suffer career penalties for using policies designed to help them balance work and family commitments. To escape these penalties, faculty members rarely use the policies, engaging in what we label "bias avoidance" strategies. Because the biases are often hidden, faculty who even inquire about relevant policies risk damaging their academic reputation. Many choose to avoid doing so, fearing that if they so much as ask about the rules, they will not be considered serious players in the academic game.

In 2002, we set out to study the extent and nature of bias avoidance in the academy, and how it might be alleviated, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.2 The research included a national survey administered to 4,188 faculty members in English and chemistry at 507 colleges and universities in the United States. We also prepared case studies of eleven institutions and documented the experiences of thirteen faculty parents in English and chemistry for three days each.

Bias Avoidance

Some bias avoidance strategies can improve work performance. Minimizing or reducing family commitments, for example, can free up time and energy for paid work. University of California, Berkeley, researchers Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden reported in the November-December 2004 issue of Academe that women who take fast-track academic jobs are more likely to remain single or childless or get divorced than either their male peers or their female counterparts in secondtier jobs. Major life decisions, such as remaining childless, may reflect what we call productive bias avoidance.

When careers are structured so that only workers with few family responsibilities can succeed, there is indeed a bias against caregiving. That bias is gendered in that women face more demands than men on the home front when a spouse or children are present. Combining any family commitments with the extreme demands of a fast-track career makes simultaneous career and family success difficult to achieve.

In our national survey of faculty, 10.2 percent of men, but 16 percent of women, reported that they remained single because they did not have time for a family and a successful academic career. Among parents, 9.1 percent of men and 17.2 percent of women "had one child, but delayed considering another until after tenure." In total, 12.6 percent of men and 25.6 percent of women had fewer children than they wanted to have "to achieve academic success."

These examples reflect productive bias avoidance-minimizing family commitments to meet extreme job demands-and they all affect women more than men. One woman acknowledged the burden of these demands in explaining why she delayed childbearing until after tenure: "I could not have done it while the tenure clock was ticking . . . [it] would have just sent me over the edge."

Although the reasons for productive bias avoidance may be comprehensible, the phenomenon contributes to continued and largely hidden gender inequality in the academy. It is also inefficient to the extent that talented individuals choose not to enter the academy to escape biases against caregiving.

In her 2000 work Unbending Gender, law professor Joan Williams suggests that norms about ideal workers and motherhood shape women's choices, not simply their work and family responsibilities. …

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