Structures of Support:
Women Negotiating the Corporate Academy

A Faculty Workshop at Villanova University
Sponsored by the
Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies Consortium
May 21, 2004

Summary of Seminar Discussion
(Prepared by Anne Dalke)

The morning opened with an evocation of the life of Mine Ener, whose tragic early death, and that of her disabled child, was a reminder to all of us of the need for structures of support for young mothers in the academy. It was in Mine Ener's memory that this working session was first envisaged.

Marissa Golden began her presentation with a description of her recent "reinvention of herself," after the birth of her daughter, as a "work and family" scholar. Although all workers have to juggle to balance work and family, there are a particular set of challenges arising from the close relationship of the tenure clock to the biological clock. The gender imbalance among senior faculty is in large part the result of the steady attrition of women with children; there are a number of places where the "leak in the academic pipeline" is particularly acute.

Women leaving academia means, first, an absence of their voices in our scholarly and goverance debates; a serious gender inequity is involved in this loss of human talent. Contrari-wise, "sticking it out" takes a tremendous toll on both self and family. The difficulty of succeeding simultaneously at work and parenting is not seen, however, as a public problem. What can institutions do to be more family friendly?

There are two generations of policies. The AAUP has set "gold standards" for the former. Best practices for a family-friendly workplace include, for ladder-rank faculty,

Other needs (="second generation policies") include At most schools, such matters are informally negotiated, rather than being established, well-known and easily accessible. The obstacles to having such needs met, once such policies are in place, include The main challenges, accordingly, are three:

Miriam Peskowitz began her presentation by expressing her gladness that there had been a "child in the room" when we began our session--how appropriate, given our topic--and then introduced herself as someone who "liked to tell stories." She began with her own: a description of the level of exhaustion to which universities press young faculty en route to tenure, and the experience of being suddenly "surprised by biology" in the midst of the process. Once her daughter was born, she realized that her long-time scholarly work on domesticity in the ancient world did not help her much in understanding what it meant to look @ the world as a mother. Her decision, like that of many women who leave the academy, was the best decision for her, to keep her life sane. But in the aggregate, such decisions mean a great loss for the academy, and for the women who, given support, could flourish there. What can we DO, then, with all these stories?

Ironically, if the university were corporatized, we might be better off; for-profit corporations understand that employees who are happy will be more productive. (Mention was made, for instance, of C&N's highly qualified, 24-hour on-site day care, of "Fridays Off" being normalized in the publishing world, and of multiple telecommuting options in many fields). Other options include job sharing (not with a spouse), and re-thinking the structure of tenure, beginning with longer-term contracts (a ten-year scheme, for instance, would allow women many more options for publishing and childrearing enroute to tenure). We are still working in old-fashioned masculinist universities, where the professional body is "not reproductive," and where the "ideal worker is one without outside responsibilities" (or one whose outside responsibilities are taken care of by another).

What do unapologetic feminist work values look like? (Are they be first-wave, enabling us to succeed in the traditional masculinist mode? Second-wave, valorizing the traditional work of women? Third-wave, refusing any such gender distinctions, but allowing for a wide diversity of "what counts" as success?) How radical is the desire--and how radical must the social changes be--to make the acceptance of family life a legitimate concern of employers? What steps might be taken to make a "Family and Life Balancing Act" policy, not patchwork? What of the larger issues involved in cultural change? How do we reduce the stigma of requesting the support we need for meeting family obligations? How might we get altogether beyond the ancient matter of separate spheres of masculinized/feminized (class-inflected) activity? How to avoid the ghetto-ization of "women's work," of the "mommy track"? There are important issues here both of prestige and of economics: we do not want to become "piece workers." Yet another important question: do we need to address the psychological complexities of looking for affirmation from those who do not share our values? What might we have to give up, in order to do so?

During discussion, we began to address how can we "pull it all together." We made it clear, first, that the issues surrounding working mothers are not the only ones that concern us; they are an index to a wide range of concerns that, if we value our lives outside of work, we do not feel that we are complete members of our academic community. Who is allowed to have a life of the mind, to be intellectually active? Are we conflicted about what we really want? Should we persist in looking for affirmation from those who don't support our values? Might we participate in redefining what a "successful" career looks like?

Marissa had begun our session by posing work and family in opposition, and then calling for institutional structures to support our need to balance the two. Might the relationship between them productively be reconceptualized (as inside and outside? as mutually interactive and supportive? ) Is the substrata of our conversation really about "the productive agenda"? How much of our "self-actualization" can we expect (or require) our workplaces to support? Might we re-think the fetishization of tenure? What would the advantages be of getting rid of tenure altogether? (This would look very different in different contexts.)

After break-out sessions for lunch and small-group discussion, we re-gathered to list concrete ways in which each of us mght take back to our campuses what we learned here. Possibilities include

We ended the meeting quite heartened both by what we had learned about the challenges and possibilities for action around our need for institutional support; there are multiple steps available to us for addressing this wide range of issues.

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