Academic Life and Children: Fitting it All In

I have finally got around to finishing a book I started months ago called Opting Out – Why women really quit careers and head home. Written by Pamela Stone in 2007 it analyses the response of her interviews with 50+ high flying women who opted out of their careers in order to stay at home with the kids. Or, as she concluded, women who were in essence shut out because of the inflexibility of their working environment and (in some cases) the blindness of their partners as to what was going on. It is not a book about academic women but about women in business, law and management.  It is a book that probably should be read in tandem with Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping talented women on the road to success, which similarly discusses the women who end up staying at home, but also in this case the subsequent challenges they face when eventually they try to find their way back into the workforce.  Both books, written about the US job-market, highlight the hurdles people (almost invariably women, but in principle it need not be) face if they want to keep a high-flying career going with small kids at home, or kick-start it again after an absence.  They both make well-argued cases which make for sombre reading.

These books tie in with remarks made by Sylvia McLain (Girl, Interrupting) in response to a previous posting of mine, referring to the way the media report on female scientists and the ‘impossibility’ of combining a successful science career with a family. Sylvia said of her mother

But what I saw was her being a ‘super-woman’ meaning she worked, did most of the child care, housework and cooking ON TOP OF working more than full time – she has a lot of energy and now she is 76 she would say she wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think a lot of people don’t want to necessarily work like this, I am not saying this is how it has to be (as in many cases it definitely is not!) but I think there is maybe a general impression that you have to do about 10 times as much work in order to achieve family and a good career. and equally I think there is still an impression that women like you ‘aren’t normal’

I said at the time she made these comments I would come back to them, and linking them with these books seems a good moment to do this. Whatever the business world is like, however much the evidence suggests you would be hard-pressed to be a hot-shot financial wizard with small children in the US, I actually think academic science – indeed academia more generally – offers a reasonably friendly environment for combining career and family.  Why do I say this? Because academic life offers some scope for informal flexibility, whatever the working norms may be thought to be. We don’t have to clock in or out; we don’t have to travel week in, week out, to see clients or to do the court circuit, and we can usually write papers and lectures from home and access email at times of our choosing (which may be 11pm if that is what one wants, so as to be able to get to the school play in the afternoon).  I think that gives us an enormous advantage over our colleagues in other professional spheres.

This, you will note, implies I am not really talking about bench scientists. Here, for the postdoc or PhD student who is still primarily carrying out their own experiments full time, the challenges will be greater. Reactions don’t stop because you need to pick up the children from school, and the timing of some critical analysis can’t necessarily be fitted around child minder’s hours, but for those who have made it to the point that paperwork/ overseeing students/lecturing (and writing lectures) are the main tasks, there is more flexibility.  This flexibility should be embraced to facilitate whatever working pattern works for the family, consistent with the need to be present at certain key times e.g when actually delivering a lecture, running a practical class or attending a departmental meeting. But for the rest, it seems to me that people (probably this means women, but I want to be as inclusive as possible) can be creative in what works, as long as the necessary gets done. The main problem is working out what is, in practice, ‘necessary’ because the devil of academic life is it never needs to stop: it isn’t finite but as all-consuming, certainly as time-consuming, as one allows it to be.

Within my own university I know of two women – there may be others I don’t know about – who have been promoted to professor whilst still formally working part-time (I believe 4 days a week). Declaring that you work part-time most certainly should not be a bar to promotion. But I am also talking about the situation where someone is working full time but at times of their choosing rather than a regular pattern of 9-5 (or indeed 8-6 or whatever). For lecturers it should be perfectly possible to find a schedule that works but that may not be conventional. People have done this for a generation or two informally, without drawing attention to it, and we should use it to our advantage.

This doesn’t solve all of Sylvia’s concerns about needing to be a ‘super-woman’ and do, as she puts it, all the childcare, housework and cooking on top of a full time job, but it does offer something of a solution. What I am describing should apply equally well to the academic husband as well as wife, so it offers the couple a chance to fit in what is important to them at home around the demands of their jobs. It does mean that fathers, as well as mothers, can choose to take the children to school some mornings and arrive a bit late, as long as it’s not the day they have a 9am lecture to give to 300 first years.  It should mean that either partner can stay at home one day to deal with the plumber (and simultaneously they should be able to clear that backlog of email so it is hardly wasted time).  The problem is likely to be much more acute when one partner is not an academic, who does have to work a 9-5 job, or is frequently required to be in the US without the luxury of saying ‘I’ll give that conference a miss this year’.

So this is the message I think we should be putting out to young women thinking about an academic career in science. Don’t simply read the depressing books I mention above and assume that the challenges are as bad in academic life as in the law or business. If/when you can get your foot on the permanent-staff ladder, the flexibility that academia offers to work the hours you want, not the hours some faceless boss requires of you, is actually a benefit. You can work at home much of the time and still accomplish a great deal; the weekend is just as amenable to lecture writing as Monday-Friday, so use it to free up time during the week if that is to your advantage. Don’t think you have to be ‘not normal’ so much as imaginative – and as scientists you’re bound to be that.

(I appreciate this message may be cold comfort to those who are languishing in that frustrating land of post-doc insecurity where what I am describing may be seen as an impossible luxury.)

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23 Responses to Academic Life and Children: Fitting it All In

  1. cromercrox says:

    I’m not criticizing your arguments but I’m just curious. Did Ms Stone also interview ’50+ women’ who stayed at work regardless? How many women did she interview to get her sample of ’50+’ who had stopped work? Or did she select them on the basis that they had already stopped work, in which case the sample might be said to have been biased in favour of the conclusions? Did Ms Stone also interview men, some of whom would dearly love to be more active in family upbringing but are prevented from doing so by the norms expected of men at work? I don’t doubt for a minute that your observations about gender differences in work/life balance are correct, but I have seen (admittedly rare) interviews with high-flying female scientists who say that they can’t see what the problem is.

  2. rpg says:

    Actually Henry, aren’t you kind of agreeing with Athene in her last couple of paragraphs?

    Don’t simply read the depressing books I mention above and assume that the challenges are as bad in academic life as in the law or business.

  3. rpg says:

    And yes, there are probably methodological problems. There always are.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I think Athene’s view is entirely correct. However, I am wary, as a scientist, of approaching data in ways that support a desired outcome.

    • Several points@cromercrox. Of course the book is simply anecdotal not a rigourous study. It has, as written, zero statistical significance! But it nevertheless does reflect the grim reality certain women have faced. I read one review – I think in the Times Higher Education supplement, but their website currently seems to be down so I can’t check – which made exactly the same point about lack of statistical rigour. And of course there will be men who feel constrained by social norms as well as men who fail to see what the fuss is about. I would guess this book was written by someone who wanted to stress one point of view, and you are right we should be wary. Nevertheless, it is clear there are a sizeable number of women – though it’s impossible to tell from the book what percentage – who have felt they had no choice but to quit whatever high flying career they had before women.

      However, none of that is particularly relevant to my post: my point was very much that if people read books like this they may think this the invariable outcome. As you say some women say they can’t see what the problem is; others see the problems and find ways around. I wanted to stress that academia can offer flexibility and possibly, as Steve says below, is rather better than many professions in this respect.

  5. rpg says:

    Indeedy. And it’s a good point.

  6. Jenny says:

    Great post, Athene. And thank goodness academia is so wonderfully flexible – even though I don’t have kids, I do a lot of extra activities that substitute for them, and my life changed completely (not for the better) when I was in the inflexible 9-5 M-F environment of non-research office jobs in publishing. It should also be noted that in some fields, like mine, experiments can also be designed intelligently so that you can work around other commitments. I am particularly fond of mammalian RNA interference, which takes exactly three days: I always set these up on a Friday to come down on Monday. In cell and molecular biology there are also numerous stopping points or procedures that can be allowed to proceed overnight: fixation, staining, precipitation and the like.

    By the time you are an experienced post-doc, you should be able to finagle the experimental protocols to your advantage. It’s true you’ll always go faster if you set up things on the weekends too, but at what cost to your mental equanimity, which I find is essential for the creative thinking I need to do as a scientist?

  7. Steve Caplan says:


    Thank you for the elegant blog; all I can say is that I agree with you completely (so I won’t even try to add much about women and careers in science). An academic career in science is definitely extremely flexible, and especially so as one moves “up the ladder”. My spouse and I are both scientists, and our first child was born as my wife was winding up her PhD thesis. During our postdoctoral studies, we took turns staying home with our children when they were sick, and often worked in “shifts’- I would stay home in the day, and go off to work when my wife would return. Even as postdoctoral fellows, as long as the work is progressing, there is a lot of leeway. (However, I have seen many examples where couples in science were in the very same positions, yet the wife would typically end up staying home with the sick children).

    In any case, you are absolutely correct that the greatest flexibility comes as independent investigators. Your example of “staying home to wait for the plumber and dealing with e-mails”–why I did that just a couple of weeks ago.

    I’ve often compared our line of work with my father’s work (he’s a pediatrician in private practice). He physically works longer hours, but when the work day is done, he can shut down work and not think of it until showing up the next day at the office (for the most part). On the other hand, as you note, science as an academic is an all-consuming task–so while we may go home early to watch our children perform, play sports, or simply be with them, our science is never far from our thoughts. I know that my own best ideas usually come on weekend walks or while exercising. So we have the freedom time-wise, but we are “science slaves”. I think that for women or men to whom this lifestyle (and yes, I would call it a lifestyle) is appealing, science in academia can be a wonderful career.

    • Yes Steve, you are right to highlight the swings and roundabouts of flexibility versus being a slave. But I for one have chosen to work long hours because I’m hooked on what I do, and that in itself is a precious thing. How many people slave away at stuff they hate! So, I feel the double benefit of flexibility plus doing a job that’s engrossing. But it certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

  8. Hello Prof Donald,
    Been meaning to comment on your postings for a while (just plucked up courage!), but I’ve been enjoying your writing for a while now. I especially like your objective approach to these complex (and sometimes quite emotive issues).
    On this issue I do agree, and the flexibility that academia potentially offers is attracting me further into it’s depths! However, I’m afraid my observations of academia so far, in the world of the post-doc things are not as progressive as Steve has experienced and my perception is that in order to obtain this position of flexibility (ie a permanent position) require you to hold off many other life choices (such as having children). And with the uncertainty of this, it does leave me a little anxious for the future as well as a little resentful (though I admit this is similar across a number of careers other than academia).
    Sylvia’s observations on her mother are also very familiar to me – I still aspire to achieve and work as hard as my mother has. But among my school friends such an approach would seem abnormal, many of whom are now stay-at-home-mums who see my life choices as almost selfish.

    • Helen – glad you ‘plucked up courage’ and hope you’ll be back with more comments in the future!

      You are right, the timing, particularly of children, can be an issue. It is a well-recognized fact that the average age of appointment to permanent positions has risen quite markedly over the past 20 or so years and this is clearly an issue for women who want to have the job security before the family. I would have pointed you to Ottoline Leyser’s wonderful book Mothers in Science , if Frank in his comment hadn’t beaten me to it (downloadable from the web address he gives). What it shows is that there are as many different ways of trying to combine work and family as there are families, in other words there is no ‘right’ way, only the way that works for you. I should also draw your attention to the fact that most fellowships (certainly Royal Society and Research Council ones) these days are pretty flexible in themselves, so if you can even get your foot on the fellowship ladder things can usually be worked around. Jenny has pointed out there is quite a lot of time flexibility even at the postdoc stage, but less security to go with it.

      I am interested in what you say about your friends who, as stay-at-home-mums regard your wishes to be ‘almost selfish’. Is this because they actually feel short-changed themselves, and resent the fact you are trying to ‘have it all’? As it happens this week I had rather the opposite experience. I wrote a piece for the Times Eureka supplement on issues regarding the lack of women getting to the top in science this week A Woman’s Life in Science , but behind the paywall). I was necessarily at a sad family gathering this week (the reason for the tardy responses to the comments above), when this article appeared. My two sisters-in-law, both of whom had stayed at home to raise their familes after getting professionally qualified, plus two of my nieces (trained as lawyers and now mothers of small children) all said how much they agreed with what I wrote in the Times despite the fact that they had chosen differently. It was very encouraging as I had feared they might take the opposite view just as your friends seem to! Indeed, one of my nieces said she too was very bothered about equality issues amongst the 5 year olds, having seen a girl wearing a Tshirt saying ‘future footballer’s wife’ on it. What a depressing message to saddle a 5 year old with and what lack of real aspiration implied by that child’s mother.

      By the way, while I’m plugging Eureka – this month’s issue is largely devoted to issues around Women in Science – I should mention the article by fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Jenny Rohn Manifesto for Change, as well as the excellent main article by self-styled dropout physicist Hannah Devlin, who is now on the Eureka staff. Lots of food for thought in the issue.

      • Many thanks for the reply.

        It may be the difference that my friends who a little resentful are not strictly professionally qualified – and I wonder if it is their unwillingness to attempt to understand my lifestyle that doesn’t help (they are perplexed when I can’t attend weekend event because I am working!) I’ve also had an interesting experience the last few months as I have been temporarily living with my grandparents. My grandmother has often insisted that I should give up work should I have children, as this is what my she and my mother did (my grandmother never returned to work, my mother to returned once her youngest left for school). I suppose believe that what people expect of working while having children in some way dependent on what their own parents had done, which then may sit within what their profession allows?

        I agree with you on the lack of aspiration for some young girls. My husband and I were only the other day discussing the strangeness of giving young girls prams, cots, clothing etc for their dolls (and indeed dolls that need their nappy’s changed!). The majority of my toys were like this, and although it perhaps did me no harm, it does seem a little strange to have young girls ‘preparing for motherhood’.

        Annoyingly I missed this month’s Eureka (I’d written the ‘Do try this at home’ for the RI and I wanted to cut it out!) but I may invest to get behind the paywall to search out your and Jenny’s articles.

        • Helen,
          I’ve just come across a report, published last week by the Centre for Policy Studies, by Catherine Hakim of LSE entitled Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine , which is relevant to your comments about your friends and alleged selfishness. I haven’t had time to read the whole report yet, but its summary implies that

          “most women have different career aspirations and priorities. Men and women have different life-goals and policy makers should therefore not expect the same job outcomes. ” and
          “calls to smash the glass ceiling….rest on faulty assumptions and outdated or partial evidence.”

          I am nervous about this because it seems to me it is exactly those women who do aspire to smash the glass ceiling who are those who are not the ‘most women’ her evidence discusses. That a large number of women are happy to stay at home – as you identify amongst your friends – should not be reason not to facilitate those who want do do otherwise.

          Clearly I need to read the full report and maybe post something more substantial about it (which also discusses the drawbacks of quotas) when I’ve done so.

  9. cromercrox says:

    I have been thinking about this recently though from a different perspective. Those of us who are in careers attained through years of disciplined study – the professions, loosely called – do enjoy more flexibility (I suspect) than those who do perhaps more menial (and yet necessary) jobs. A you know I live in a small seaside town, which suffers a degree of deprivation that sometimes comes as a surprise, in which salaries (for those actually in jobs) are astonishingly low, and mothers are often very young (I am 48 and in school playground terms I’m a grandparent). For these people childcare is often supplied by close family and, if available, neighbours (one can often find stray children, schoolfriends of the younger Croxi, parked at the Maison des Girrafes
    while their parents are at work).

    I yhink my point is that informal ‘support networks’ fulfil an important role in helping parents of all genders manage life and work. Such support is often lacking for academics who are of course nomadic and have to go where the jobs are.

    • I quite agree. Extended families have traditionally been a very valuable childcare resource, but are often not available to well travelled academics. Additionally, if both parents are working it is often hard to build up a network of neighbours since you can’t return the favour of child sitting. I actually found – certainly for evening hours – my PhD students were often very valuable babysitters (they were happy to get paid for sitting around in a house probably more comfortable than their own accommodation), but you can’t really ask them during the day or on a regular basis.

      • cromercrox says:

        I do know husband-and-wife palaeontologists who take their small children with them on field trips. At a conference I met the baby son of one such couple who’d been to eight different African countries while still in utero. (His mother accompanied him as he was too young to go on his own).

  10. Frank says:

    The Royal Society book Mothers in Science provides some examples of women who have combined scientific careers and family life. Apologies if this has been mentioned previously.

  11. Steve’s comment above goes back to a point Athene alluded to in the original piece, and often relevant in science, which is the number of academics one finds partnered with other academics. This of course offers a kind of “double flexibility.”

    I would guess the (varied?) flexibility of male partners, and the amount of child and house stuff they take on, is relevant. I remember years ago reading an interview with Ursula K LeGuin, a favourite author of my childhood, who had written many of her early books while raising three children with her husband, an academic historian. The interviewer asked about how LeGuin had managed and she responded that, while she thought one person couldn’t easily do two full time jobs at the same time (i.e. writing the books and raising the family):

    “There [was] no doubt that two people between them could manage three jobs”.

    Of course, what this suggests to me is that it would likely be especially tough to be a female academic (or in any other profession, of course) and a single parent family. I actually can’t think of any among my own acquaintances, though they must exist.

    Another alternative I have seen is for people to be fortunate enough to have sufficient money to afford full-time child care. I remember one of my female academic colleagues telling me last year about a meeting of her Faculty’s Women Academics’ Group she had been to. She told me:

    “When we were talking, it emerged that every single woman that had made full Professor had had a full-time live-in nanny when her kids were young. They all said they were lucky they had had partners who were in well-paid jobs (i.e. not academics!) so that they could afford the live-in child care”

    Which is not to say that this is necessary – as Athene says, there are all kinds of solutions to the [children + job] equation – but it does suggest that difficulties do remain.

    • A full time nanny was indeed the ‘traditional’ way. I think this was how Dorothy Hodgkin managed, for instance. A quite old but fascinating book on this subject is Valerie Grove’s The Compleat Woman: Marriage, Motherhood Career Can She Have it All? (1988). It covers interviews with a range of women who combined large families (4 or more children) with careers of various sorts and my memory is that most of those interviewed went this route. But it does imply a lot of money in the family since not only do you have to pay the nanny, you have to have a large enough house to accommodate them. Two academic salaries probably wouldn’t go far enough, so it isn’t a way of coping many couples can probably manage, but is more accessible to high flying lawyers or financial people.

  12. Just a few thoughts re Helen Maynard-Casely’s experience of friends thinking she is ‘almost selfish’ for being a working mum.
    1. Woman really can’t win. A relative of mine gave up a professional career to stay home and have children. It’s what she wanted and she is happy, except for having (working) friends continually harping on at her for ‘not using her brain’.
    2. My own mother hated being a housewife. She took a job, and also studied for O- and A-levels and then a degree at Birkbeck when my siblings and I were at school. All this in the 1960s when this was pretty unusual. These days she’d no doubt be prosecuted: a primary-school teacher of mine was horrified to find I had a key hanging round my neck so I could let myself in after school. But I did not feel neglected: I think it made me self-sufficient, and when I got older I was proud of my mother, who seemed much more interesting than other people’s mums. Don’t know if anyone has done any formal studies of children’s attitudes, but in my personal experience there can be an up-side for children whose mothers work, especially if they are working on something they love because they want to.
    3. Women who don’t want kids should resist pressure to do so. I don’t and I love being able to go off in obsessive fugue states for days at a time when I am thinking about a problem. I’d have found it very hard to mix children and work, not least because I need 8-9 hr sleep a night to function properly.
    So the bottom line is that no option is right for everyone, and you need to trust your instincts about what is right for you.

    • Absolutely! That is why I think it is important that young women starting out know there is
      a) no single right way of doing this and
      b) what works for one couple may seen anathema to another.

      This is all just another version of freedom to choose: to choose to stay at home, work part-time, full time (or more than full time), to have children or not to have children. I think it was William Waldegrave who, as Science Minister in the Thatcher Government produced the report about funding Science back in the 1990’s called Realising Our Potential, but that phrase really covers what is important about keeping women in science today.

  13. Maggi says:

    Hi Athene, good post. I’m reading this as a single mother, and my experience is that while the flexibility of academic life certainly is invaluable in being able to move the daily schedule around, there are other essentials to academic success – like being able to go away on conferences – that proved practically impossible for me.

    I’ve allowed necessity to be the mother of invention and carved out a slightly different path, which I’m not sorry about, but which was a direct response to the impossibility of some of those issues. I’m full of admiration for those who manage to juggle both roles adeptly, but I think it’s worth saying that without extraordinary stamina, excellent health, and a degree of help from family, friends etc., it is very tough not to get left behind. For me the key was to remain determined to do my thing anyway, and I was lucky (or made my luck maybe?) to find a parallel path outside the conventional academic route.

    One other thing I noticed in was that when, from time to time, a man arrived in my department with a toddler in tow, they were treated as heroes for being a hands on father and a high flying academic, but when I did the same the assumption was that my brain had addled and my attention was divided. It seems that even the image of motherhood can count against us.

  14. I fear you are right Maggi, as Austin also said (though not from first hand experience). Being a single parent is difficult under any circumstances, and flexibility in academia can only extend so far. I’m glad you’ve found other options to satisfy you, and clearly you have been hugely successful in what you’ve done in that other sphere.

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