Time Crunch

Sonia Dalmia was teaching economics courses just two weeks after giving birth to her daughter. Carolyn Shapiro-Shapin learned to prepare history lectures around her daughters' naps and work well into the early morning hours.

Like many other young faculty members, Jolanda Westerhof-Shultz, associate professor of education, found it at times tricky to balance family and work. Some universities stop the tenure clock for faculty members who request it during maternity leaves or other family issues.

The two Grand Valley professors entered a world familiar to working women with children: a world in which schedules are adjusted, sleep is lost and accommodations are made. Millions of women worldwide successfully balance home and work lives. There is, however, a caveat for young faculty members with new babies or young children at home: continue on pace to qualify for tenure promotions.

At Grand Valley, like many other universities, new faculty members hired for tenure-track positions have a six-year provisional period before they are considered eligible for tenure. During that time, a faculty member must publish articles related to their field, give presentations and continue or begin research studies -- in addition to teaching classes and advising students.

The "rub," as Gayle R. Davis, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, called it, occurs when the tenure clock and the biological clock tick at the same time.

"The rigid tenure clock often doesn't allow for flexibility," she said. "But the day of thinking that everyone's work is the only thing in life has hopefully passed."

Ellen Shupe, associate professor of psychology, said many universities remain steadfast and old-fashioned when it comes to tenure and families. "The thinking is that having kids and coming up for tenure is not a good idea. It detracts from performance," she said. "That's really unfortunate because many faculty are in their 20s and early 30s when they finish their doctorates. Then it's six years to tenure, so it can be constraining."

Family-friendly workplaces

As family-friendly policies become more prevalent in American workplaces, universities have made or are considering modifications to tenure policies. And there's a call for more institutions to take up the issue. The American Council on Education's Office of Women in Higher Education convened a panel of university presidents and chancellors in 2004 to recommend reforms and enhance the career path for tenured and tenure-track faculty. Among their recommendations, released in a 2005 report, were the following:

  • Abolish penalties in the hiring process for documented dependent care-related resume gaps;
  • Provide quality, affordable childcare to tenured and tenure-track faculty;
  • Examine and proactively address work-life issues and professional climate of faculty members throughout the entire career cycle.

Grand Valley does not have a formal policy that stops the tenure clock for maternity leaves, illnesses or dependent-care issues; fewer than 30 percent of similar institutions do, according to the Center for the Education of Woman at the University of Michigan. Such a policy would allow faculty members a period of time that would not be counted as part of their tenure-probationary period. Dalmia, Shapiro-Shapin and other Grand Valley faculty members typically make arrangements to take a semester off from teaching in exchange for teaching at another time or starting a project, like organizing a conference. The six-year tenure clock, however, keeps ticking.

In her first year at Grand Valley, Sonia Dalmia, associate professor of economics was teaching classes, finishing her doctoral dissertation and caring for a new baby.

Dalmia likes to say her biological clock and tenure clock were ticking at the same time. She was five months pregnant with daughter Maansi when she interviewed at Grand Valley in 1999. She considered not telling search committee members that she was pregnant but wanted to "start out with an honest slate." The only female member of her dissertation committee at the University of Iowa had advised Dalmia to refuse Grand Valley's job offer because working and caring for a new baby "wouldn't be fair to the university."

People who favor that line of thought typically oppose offering tenure-clock extensions. "But if you want diversity in the workforce, you have to make it possible," said Dalmia, associate professor of economics.

Newly hired, Dalmia was then teaching classes at Grand Valley, finishing her doctoral dissertation at Iowa, and breastfeeding and caring for a new baby. She lightly referred to it as "a very tough" year, and said she was grateful for support from her husband and parents, who flew from India to help for the first few months.

"Women still bear the majority of responsibility when it comes to raising children," said Dalmia, who teaches a course on the economics of gender. Dalmia had another child -- son Nav was born in 2002 -- and earned tenure in 2005; she said she would support a tenure-clock extension policy.

Shapiro-Shapin has two daughters, the first was born in 1999, the same year she was granted tenure. She recalled her methods of multitasking with Rachel: "I was rocking her in her car seat under my desk with my foot and typing on the computer." Shapiro-Shapin said she believes Grand Valley should offer tenure-clock extensions on a case-by-case basis.

"Having kids is my business. The university's business is educating college students; it's not in the business of raising families," she said. "The university is willing to help you arrange flex time and, in my case, has been very supportive."

"Pulled at both ends"

Grand Valley does have a daycare center for children 3 and older on the Allendale Campus; other family-friendly initiatives include creating baby-changing stations in restrooms and locations for nursing mothers to breastfeed, and establishing a Work Life Connections program.

Davis, who has a research and teaching background in women's studies, said there are gender issues in most jobs and workplaces and as more women gain leadership positions at universities, family-friendly policies in higher education will necessarily become common.

"I get mad when people focus on there being a glass ceiling for women because that indicates that you don't feel gender distinctions until you are at the top of your field," she said. "In fact, most women need to work to make a living, so society's advice to stay home if you want to have a family is impractical."

To advance careers of women faculty members in the science and engineering fields, Grand Valley has received a $500,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Program, in partnership with The University of Michigan.

The grant was co-authored by Shaily Menon, associate professor of biology, and Kathleen Underwood, associate professor of history and coordinator of Women and Gender Studies. They said the grant will address aspects of recruitment, retention, professional development and climate.

While the grant is targeted at professors, students will also see benefits. Menon chairs the biology department and teaches some technical courses using geographic information systems and computer modeling. "I know it makes a difference for women students to see a woman teaching a class that deals with technology," she said. "It shows them a role model and opens up career possibilities in fields that they might not have considered before."

The NSF grant will also allow UM graduate and post-doctoral students to teach at Grand Valley. "It's a collaborative pipeline," Menon said. "They will gain valuable experience at a university committed to undergraduate teaching and a liberal arts and science education."

Underwood said that portion of the grant will be key to some women, as the sciences remain a male-dominated field. According to NSF, women constitute less than 21 percent of the science and engineering faculty at four-year universities.

"For women PhDs at risk of giving up on an academic career, it offers an alternative model of a primarily undergraduate university, which might be more attractive," Underwood said.

Like many of her colleagues, Shupe, mother of two sons ages 4 and 8, made an early decision not to apply for teaching jobs at research institutions. "You learn to stay away from research institutions if you want to plan a family," she said. "Grand Valley is more family-friendly relative to other universities. It's been pretty accommodating."

While pregnant with her oldest son, Lucas, Shupe said she was naïve to university procedures and "didn't think about asking for time off." Another colleague encouraged her to do so. "When I was new, I was learning the culture of the university," she said. "It's the same case for most working women with families, you feel like you're pulled at both ends."

Jolanda Westerhof-Shultz, associate professor of education, learned to adjust her teaching schedule to allow for the most time at home with her daughter Emma. She said it cost her lost networking time with colleagues, a common struggle for faculty eager to get work done during work hours.

"I live in Grand Haven and was taking courses where Iwould be teaching in Muskegon or Holland," she said. "I would never see people, had little opportunity to get to know my colleagues. But that was the price I was willing to pay. It's not been until recently that I've been more involved with my department."

Each of these faculty members conceded to skipping lunches with colleagues, not attending campus events or closing office doors to concentrate on work; and they acknowledged that it comes with the dual jobs of being a mother and a professor. There is another thing they have in common: striving to be successful role models for their students and their children.

"I've explained to my daughter that I enjoy my work," Shapiro-Shapin said. "It's important for her to know that mom's a person, in addition to being a mother."

Page last modified March 17, 2014