WSU News

Prof’s book ‘Academic Motherhood’ grabs attention

Kelly Ward, WSU professor and co-author of “Academic Motherhood”

PULLMAN, Wash. – When Kelly Ward was in graduate school, a fellow doctoral student surprised most everyone by showing up on campus with a baby. Her baby. Worried about the impact of motherhood on her career, she’d hidden her pregnancy under ever-larger lab coats.

That’s an extreme case, said Ward, a Washington State University professor and co-author of “Academic Motherhood.” But she contends that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture still prevails in academia when it comes to pregnancy, sometimes keeping women from reaching their professional potential and getting the personal support they need.

 Often, she said, administrators don’t acknowledge a woman’s pregnancy.

“Department chairs don’t say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing,” said Ward. “The pregnant woman ends up not understanding medical leave policy or not being prepared to have someone assume her teaching duties.” 

Ward and her University of Kansas colleague Lisa Wolf-Wendel based “Academic Motherhood” on a decade of interviews with more than 100 women who are both mothers and faculty members, talking with them in both early and midcareer. The book is getting national attention from media and policy makers. It concludes that, despite ample challenges, female academics can indeed have it all.

“A lot of women get tenure, have families and live to tell about it,” said Ward, who chairs WSU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology. “Not only that, they’re healthy, happy human beings.”

Two ticking clocks

Tenure — the attainment of a permanent, top-level faculty position — makes a higher education career especially challenging to women, Ward said. It requires an intense six-year review process in which assistant professors who have already spent years earning a doctorate prove themselves through research, publication, teaching and service.

With tenure comes the title of associate professor and the chance for a higher-paying, high-prestige full professorship. It’s an up-or-out system, Ward noted. Those who don’t make tenure must leave their institution.
“Because the average age for women to earn their doctorate is 34, the tenure clock is ticking simultaneously with their biological clock,” said Ward, a mother of three. “Compared to doctors and lawyers, academic women are the professionals least likely to have children.”

Many universities, including WSU, have a policy that pauses the tenure clock, giving faculty members who are pregnant (or have other compelling personal reasons) an extra year. But faculty members have to understand how and when to request a break, Ward said.

Challenges all along the way

Having tenure hardly eliminates pregnancy-related work issues. Laurie “Lali’ McCubbin is an associate professor and well-established researcher in the field of counseling psychology. But when she learned she was expecting her first child this fall, and that hers was a high-risk pregnancy, she was reluctant to disclose it right away.  

After consulting with WSU human resources staff and with Ward, who is her department chair, McCubbin decided to wait until her second trimester to share the news on campus. She also learned when to file paperwork for medical leave and begin planning for her two-month absence.

“To have my chair and HR be on the same page with the policies and procedures and timeframe helped tremendously,” said McCubbin, whose daughter was born Oct. 13. “Because of Kelly’s support, I was able to be very productive prior to my medical leave—securing research funding, preparing my students, and communicating effectively with fellow faculty about my plans.”

McCubbin, whose mother is a retired professor, doesn’t think there is an ideal time to start a family. 

“My mother pursued her doctorate while raising three children and started her academic career in her 40s,” McCubbin said. “In contrast, many of my colleagues and I delayed motherhood, which comes with its own challenges.”

One challenge can be expensive fertility treatments, McCubbin said. She urges job-hunting colleagues to find out which states mandate insurance companies to cover those, noting that can affect same-sex couples as well as mid-career women. Fertility treatments aren’t covered by any plans that WSU offers, she said.

Policy dilemmas and suggestions

Regular review of benefits such as insurance, leave policies, and child care is important to helping all faculty members with families, Ward and Wolf-Wendel contend that “family friendly” policies are especially important to women. For one thing, the bulk of child care still falls to them.

Every discipline affects academic motherhood differently, Ward said. A humanities professor might have travel-intense research; a computer scientist has to constantly keep up with technical advances; a scientist must oversee round-the-clock experiments.

“And you can’t take a child into a lab where there are toxic chemicals,” Ward said.
Soon after the publication of “Academic Motherhood,” Ward and Wolf-Wendel were asked to comment for a news story about a university instructor who nursed her child during class. Without passing judgment on the woman’s explanation, Ward said she was troubled by the number of people who equated nursing with perversity. The story was also a reminder, Ward said, that academic mothers will always face parenting issues different from those of men.

Reaching the top, doing their part

Ward is delighted by the attention “Academic Motherhood” is receiving, including a long Inside Higher Education article

“I always want my research to inform practice, and people are calling to ask for advice on setting policy,” she said. 

Ward is especially eager to see policies that will help more women reach the pinnacle of their profession.  At WSU, only 24 percent of full professors are women.
“Some people feel really burned out after earning tenure, and they don’t take that final step to full professor,” she said.

Ward and Wolf-Wendel recommend that department chairs and college deans establish sound  policies, then work with faculty to make good use of those policies.

The authors also urge faculty women to ask for what they need to succeed, seek out allies, set priorities, and manage their time efficiently. They suggest faculty members pay it forward by helping the women who are coming up behind them. That is exactly what Ward is doing, according to McCubbin.

 “When I ran into a female colleague across campus and she saw my pregnant belly, the first thing she asked was ‘How’s the planning going at WSU?’ When I replied that Kelly Ward is my chair, she visibly relaxed, smiled and said ‘You are in good hands.’”