That Dratted Tenure Clock

Almost exactly a year ago I posted a blogpost on the back of wading through papers for a promotion panel. I’m buried in the paperwork again this year, but I’d like to put a very different emphasis on what I have learned from the experience this time around. First of all, hallelujah, the documentation is on a USB stick and NOT delivered to me in 3 large cardboard boxes. It actually feels like less work when it is so tidily packaged into something occupying a volume of approximately 1.5 cc as opposed to tens of litres of ‘stuff’’.  The information content is of course identical.  Last year I bemoaned the inability of applicants to provide the information requested. This year I’d like to salute the fairness and intrinsic sense of equality about the process, particularly in comparison with everything I hear about the US system (I hope, although I don’t know, that other UK universities may be equally far-sighted in their approach). There is still much that can be done to ensure fairness; indeed, there will – I believe – locally be further changes in the coming year regarding the weights with which different aspects are valued.

The instructions for the various panels involved in the exercise are given in a thick (virtual) tome about the process; the applicants get exactly the same information. I want to concentrate on the question about how an individual’s circumstances are taken into account, and contrast that with what goes on in the US, as far as I understand it. Let me start with pointing out the legal differences about maternity leave in the US and here. I find it incredible that in the US there is still no legal entitlement to paid leave.  I wanted to check I really did have my facts straight on this, so I did a bit of searching on the web. On the BabyCenter website I found the following unequivocal statement:

Maternity leave, now often called parental or family leave, is the time a mother (or father) takes off from work for the birth or adoption of a child. Actual paid “maternity leave” — while the norm in almost all countries — is unusual in the United States, although some enlightened companies do offer new parents paid time off, up to six weeks in some cases.

Goodness, enlightened companies offer a whole 6 weeks of paid leave! Even when I had my own children 25 years ago I was entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave in the UK, although I think (if I recall correctly) I had to have been in employment with the same employer for 2 years in order to qualify for this.  Seeing this, it makes much more sense of why ‘stopping the tenure clock’ is such an important issue for women in the US who have a child (or more than one) during their tenure track years. They may come back to work very fast, while still recovering from childbirth, breastfeeding and generally feeling under the weather. And yet they are expected to be working at the same rate as those individuals who are doing none of the above and, unless they put their hands up explicitly to ask for that dratted clock to be stopped, they need to get equivalent numbers of grants, write the same number of papers and deliver the same number of contact teaching hours. And they are probably doing this on very little sleep. It sounds horrendous. So their alternative is to sound like Oliver and say ‘please committee can I have some more (time)?. Compare that with even the much-disliked REF, with its revised requirements that each woman can (if she and her department want) automatically reduce the number of outputs submitted by one for each period of maternity leave, no questions asked; revised, it has to be said, in the face of strong voice of criticism, but at least they did do so, and quickly.

Turning now to the guidance about promotion within my University, I find the following – covering much more than just maternity leave.

Consideration should be given to any personal circumstances which may have had a negative impact on an applicant’s or group of applicants’ teaching, research or general contribution e.g. disability and time away from work because of family responsibilities for bringing up children or caring for relatives or for illness. The quality and impact of an applicant’s performance should be assessed objectively and on the same basis as other applicants but promotions committees should take into account any reduction in working time of the candidate due to additional considerations when judging the quality of their work or output; for example, by assessing the volume of output pro-rata. Advice should be sought at the earliest opportunity from the relevant HR Business Manager.

In the case of a member of staff who has taken leave from their usual duties, e.g. maternity or sick leave, assessment of their contribution should focus on the period when they were at work, with allowance made for quantity of work/output, as appropriate, as set out in paragraph XX.

So, as a member of one of the relevant committees I am told to factor in any reduction of hours worked at any point during the preceding years since appointment or last promotion as long as I’m told about it. Specifically, there is a form about Additional Circumstances where applicants can write down any relevant facts. Individuals should be being encouraged to say things like:

  • I was invited to give a plenary in the US but I’m restricting my travel due to my family commitments and so declined;
  • I am only working 4 days a week (hence by implication the publications record can be expected to be accordingly reduced);
  • I was on maternity leave for the whole of one academic year, during which time I applied for no grants and paper-writing stalled;
  • I was involved in a car-crash and my recuperation knocked me back over a period of 6 months (in this case a statement from Occupational Health is likely to be required, so that the magnitude of the health issues can be objectively assessed).

Hence what matters is the quality of what is submitted, not simply the volume. This seems to me an altogether more humane way of handling the realities of life and, as you can see, is likely to benefit men as well as women. Indeed, it is frequently the men we see declaring these sort of circumstances (other than, obviously, maternity leave; as paternity leave is more commonly adopted this will be increasingly likely to appear too).  But it does mean, for instance, we have women promoted to professor who are working part-time. I am not sure how many universities can boast that, or how many people would expect that to be true of Cambridge.

I am sometimes told that the culture for women in the US is better than here. I find it hard to believe that this can be true on these sort of objective grounds, even if in some places the inherent culture may appear to be more friendly. A recent article in the American Scientist has highlighted just how much motherhood impacts on career progression and the leaky pipeline in the sciences in the US. The reality is, any system which implicitly penalises women for daring to disappear from their place of work to have a baby, let alone takes time off to bond with it during the early months; or that penalises anyone for being involved in an accident or suffering from long-term ill health without due allowance being made when it comes to promotion/tenure decisions seems to me to be a pretty inimical place to work. I am so pleased my own University has adopted some pretty people-friendly policies; I doubt they yet match some Scandinavian policies, but they do at least mean that one’s brilliance may be temporarily dimmed by being human, with a consequent hiccough in publications, grants or invited talks but, assuming the brilliance is nevertheless present, it can still be evaluated fairly and objectively.

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12 Responses to That Dratted Tenure Clock

  1. This is a great post, Athene. The policy sounds heartening. Does the “consideration” that the panel is supposed to give to people get documented somewhere, or is each panel member just invited to “keep it in mind”? I only ask because I could imagine an unenlightened panel member glossing over maternity leave in his/her mind and allowing a candidate with more papers impress them more regardless. Would other panel members notice or “catch” this happening? Is there a concrete way to enforce it?

    • Owen says:

      The procedure itself is available to all and sundry to read, should anyone wish to.

    • Jenny I can assure from my own experience everyone keeps a very careful eye on making sure the consideration is just and, although everyone has their own relative values (as I discussed here) simply ignoring the additional circumstances would immediately be spotted.

  2. Martin Humphries (@MJ_Humphries) says:

    Athene: Both my kids were born in the US. My wife, a teacher, had no option for paid maternity leave. Luckily (or was it good planning?), both birthdays were at the end of June, just after term ended, and my wife struggled back to school in September! A barbaric system.

    • Martin Once at a Gordon Conference I heard 2 female faculty discussing how they had to get pregnant during a short window in Fall Semester – so they gave birth during the summer break – or wait another year. Barbaric indeed, particularly as our bodies don’t always perform to fit in with university terms.

  3. Very good post Athene.
    Makes me very glad to live in the UK.
    I would also encourage people to include this “additional” information on research grants where reviewers are often weighing up relative publication records over time. Gaps in that record can be for very good reasons such as maternity leave but this is not always apparent on reading the documentation.

    • Kate Jeffery says:

      I strongly endorse this comment, not just for research grants but also in job applications. I discovered the other day that even now, young faculty are wary of disclosing information about maternity etc because they feel it might diminish them in the eyes of would-be employers or reviewers. I was shocked that we haven’t managed to get the message across yet that reviewing panels are very positive these days about allowing for personal circumstances (at least in my experience). Not sure how to make this more clear to the upcoming generation – perhaps an explicit invitation to disclosure on application forms would be useful.

      • I think the fact that the REF is now dealing with this in such a matter of fact way will help. No longer can a department (consciously or otherwise) pillory a woman, claiming she hasn’t been pulling her weight with outputs because she had a period of maternity leave; the finalised set of rules removes that excuse. I think this will help senior management relax and transmit the message that it’s OK to be upfront about taking time out. Furthermore, in STEM departments – which ought to be feeling the heat of Athena Swan pressure (see also here) – there is another motivation too.

  4. Yes, we have the same consideration of special circs at UCL, although not such a detailed form as yours sounds (it’s part of the main form). I used this myself when applying for a chair, to make clear the impact of caring responsibilities on my output. But, apparently, a lot of people choose not to use this, which I think is a great pity. I think it’s vital to have blogs such as yours and the one by @profserious about promotion because it’s so helpful to hear it from the side of those doing the assessment, in all sorts of ways. It demystifies the whole thing. I wonder if people feel nervous of declaring special circs because they feel, in some odd way that it counts against them. My then line-manager advised me not to, because my case was good enough anyway, and he thought I should not appear to be making excuses for myself, which is hardly the point. Just as well I did anyway. So the more applicants understand what this is for, the better.

  5. Amanda Bamford says:

    I had my first child in US during 2nd post- doc. No maternity leave, no medical costs, no childcare help! Decided to take a career break. After 2 more kids, 5 years, some part-time teaching, returned to academia in UK. Not sure ever recovered!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think it is fascinating and heartening to read that extenuating circumstances are considered in relation to promotion decisions, although I have seen little evidence in my own career. The question I would have relates to moral equivalence or in other words, whether all extenuating circumstances are considered equally important by promotion panels and if not how on earth can we judge which to prioritise and when?

    Also, how do we provide equality alongside difference? I am a junior academic who currently works four days a week and I do not regularly work at weekends as I prefer to spend time with my young children. I have also had two periods of maternity leave since my Phd. My publications record is reasonably high quality but in terms of quantity nowhere close to what it might have been had I made different choices in relation to my working patterns. I have a close peer who has also had two children since completing her Phd but chose to continue working full-time and took very short maternity leaves. She has a similar quality of output to me but almost double the quantity. If I was up against her at an appointment panel, would it be fair that my choices are taken into account and we are judged equally? I am not suggesting that we would be judged solely on outputs and of course two candidates are never entirely equivalent but I am still just not sure how you square that circle.

  7. Ali R says:


    I just wanted to share this petition I created to raise awareness for the need for universal, paid, maternity leave in the US. If you agree please sign the petition and share as widely as possible with like-minded people. Nothing will change if we continue to do nothing. If you do not agree with me I apologize for sharing this on your blog and feel free to delete the comment. The petition can be found here:

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