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women in political science keeping quiet about family

10 April 2013

Yesterday a couple of friends shared a story from Inside Higher Ed titled “Keeping Quiet on Family.” The article is a summary of a recently published study in PS: Political Science & Politics, “Expectant and Nursing Academics: The Interview Experience of Moms in Political Science” (gated), written by Angela Lewis at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Lewis’s article is the first to document the experiences of pregnant or nursing moms during interviews for academic positions in political science. Using data from 349 female political scientists who responded to an online survey, Lewis found very few women who reported to have been pregnant or nursing when interviewing for positions (14.9% and 11.8%, respectively). More interesting were the anecdotes respondents shared in open-ended responses to the survey. For example:

When I interviewed the first time, pregnant, the worries that had led me to keep it a secret were confirmed. I was asked about my family life by three different faculty members. I was deeply uncomfortable with the entire interview. Further, I doubted my own abilities — I was exhausted throughout the interview, given the stage of the pregnancy; uncomfortable because I could not enjoy a glass of wine at dinner, and could not tell anyone why I would not drink. I could not imagine telling them why I was so tired, and why I could not drink. The entire situation was miserable.

And here’s a tidbit from a woman who was a nursing mom at the time she was interviewing for positions:

I did not ask for accommodations because I did not want to bring up the fact that I had a new baby and needed accommodations. In retrospect this was a mistake because I did not have time to pump, which was distracting, uncomfortable,a nd also I ended up leaking during my job talk (but fortunately only I knew this). It was very difficult.

“Keeping quiet” sums it up about right.

I thought I’d share my own recent experience. I had a baby in October, and he is breastfed. In December, I was invited for on-campus interviews, to be scheduled some time in January or February. Before I got on the phone with anyone about the details of my visits, I had to make a decision about whether I was going to bring up the fact that I was a nursing mom and would like to be accommodated. Both places I was invited to were great departments, and I wanted these jobs badly; I definitely wanted to put my best foot forward. However, after a little more than two years in the profession (and five years as a mom), I knew that no matter how great a job was, if I had to “keep quiet” about my family, I was going to be miserable. Thus, I let both places know that I had a breastfed infant at home and so I could not go for an extended period and I would need breaks to express milk. And BOTH places were accommodating. In fact, one of the people coordinating a visit didn’t skip a beat when I asked and said that they had a few options to choose from (including flying the baby with me to the interview), and would be accommodating for whichever was best for me. At both interviews, sufficient time was set aside for me to pump, in a private office. (The real challenge in my experience was making sure there would be enough breastmilk for my son during my absence. The second biggest challenge was transporting the breastmilk pumped during the interview and all the equipment used to express it and keep it at a certain temperature.)

If I had to advise someone else in a similar situation, I would say it depends. In my case, I already had a job (many people interviewing for positions are not so fortunate), so I had less to lose. My interview experiences also may not be the norm — the two places I interviewed struck me as being very family-friendly. I know there are places that are not. I want to tell everyone to just do what I did because it’s better for your mental state and every department should be accommodating and if they’re not, they’re jerks and you don’t want to work there. But you might need to work there.

One last thought — when interviewed for the Inside Higher Ed piece, Lewis said:

We need to tell more of the success stories … of women who have successfully navigated the tenure track as a mother. We need to hear more about women who do it well — or at least try to do it — and don’t have that expectation that we have to wait.

The problem with our ability to tell these success stories, is that doing so requires that we have them first. I have met a few tenured women who have been able to do start a family pre-tenure, but there aren’t many. We need more women to be successful and I’m sure we’ll tell their stories. Until then, we might find a lot of women keeping quiet.

P.S. The same issue of PS: Political Science and Politics has another article that may also be of interest: Women Don’t Ask? Women Don’t Say No? Bargaining and Service in the Political Science Profession. In a future post, I’ll talk about negotiations, drawing from my recent experience on the job market.

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