An Academic Working Dad

Bringing fatherhood into the workplace continues to run against the grain in faculty culture

Yevgenia Nayberg for The Chronicle

May 19, 2014

At a recent meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, I spoke on a panel about the challenges and possibilities of being an academic and a parent. I took the panel, organized by the group’s graduate-student council, as a positive sign that next-generation scholars in my field believe that it’s possible to integrate their professional and personal lives. Here’s the problem: Not one male graduate student attended.

I’m sure that some male doctoral students do want to be fathers (or already are), but apparently they don’t see the issues linked to being an academic parent as their problem. They’re wrong.

Men are likely to escape the most overt kinds of sexism experienced by academic mothers, but my experience shows that positioning oneself as a "working dad" can be satisfying personally and necessary for attacking the persistent forms of bias in the academy. It can also be helpful professionally.

In 2006, just as I finished my dissertation and entered the job market, my wife and I found out she was pregnant. Our son, Nicholas, was born a few days after my first-round interviews and was diagnosed with Down syndrome a few minutes later. As I went for my on-campus interviews, I wondered whether I should talk about this event that was radically transforming my life, or play it safe and stay silent.

I spoke up. I’ve kept speaking up as I’ve gone from being a new father to a public working dad.

We don’t talk much about men as working dads. A recent Google search found more than a million hits for "working mom," but only 99,000 for "working dad." Internet searches are a crude measure of cultural discourse, but the difference there seems significant. The fact of being a dad apparently doesn’t have to enter into the workplace.

My experience, however, suggests that it should. Fatherhood is a major part of my identity as a teacher, a colleague, a member of my community, and even of how I present myself to readers in mainstream publications.

A conversation about working dads must begin with a few simple facts. Parenting while being an academic is much harder on women than on men. Do Babies Matter?, a 2013 book by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden, makes that clear. The authors conducted a meta-study of multiple large surveys of academic parents and found that, for men in higher education, having kids often provides a slight career boost. For academic women, it does the opposite.

In my experience, men take advantage of gender norms that enable them to work and be a father without being a "working dad." They can choose to leave the "dad" behind at will. "Working moms," on the other hand, even in the theoretically enlightened world of academe, are constantly viewed through the lens of mother. Their seriousness is questioned, expectations of them are lowered, and their careers suffer as a result. Patriarchs, holding all the power, have no incentive to undermine patriarchy.

None of that was on my mind when I arrived on campus as a faculty member for the first time. Down syndrome was going to transform my life, and I wanted it on the table right away. In fact, I coped with my son Nico’s diagnosis by applying the tools of the academic to my family’s new situation: I read, I analyzed data, and I articulated my findings. I talked about Nico at my job interviews. When I started my job, I kept talking about him. I had a lot to learn about this whole new world of disability, and I decided to make it an exterior process. I decided to risk being open.

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It paid off. When Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president, I wrote an opinion essay on the national discourse about abortion and Down syndrome. My dean saw it with his daily search for news about the institution; he forwarded it to the provost, and she emailed me. Among other things, the provost wrote, "David, be certain to ask for what you and your family need from us."

And I have asked. They haven’t always said yes—I’m still fighting to change our parental-
leave policy, for example—but their support has helped me to be a whole person in my relationships with my colleagues, students, and administrators. Their internal support also gave me the confidence to take other kinds of positions in public and to write for national publications on such charged issues as disability, police brutality, sexual assault, and gender discrimination.

Here is the good news: Bringing fatherhood into the workplace can make a real difference. The bad news is that it runs against the grain of even academic culture. Academic fathers may well be more engaged in parenting than some dads outside of academe, but I don’t think we’re especially more prepared to talk about caregiving. The normal discourse of the academic dad lies in kvelling about accomplishments, grades, music, sports, college acceptances—not diapers or child-care policies, let alone advocating for safe spaces in which women can breastfeed or pump at conferences.

Men seem to have no reason to speak up. I know case after case of women who have encountered discrimination (actionable or not) after becoming pregnant in graduate school, on the tenure track, or even after tenure (and I am looking for adjuncts to share their stories about this). But the discrimination in those cases rarely involved the physical or medical issues of pregnancy and birth. Rather, people raised questions of "fit" and "seriousness." Those words are codes for the notion that a caregiver couldn’t possibly be a real scholar, and they are codes that associate caregiving solely with maternity.

I haven’t heard such stories from men who had children while trying to build careers (though if you have, let me know, please). No one has ever questioned my work ethic to my face because I’m a father. In fact, one day I was so tired from caring for my two children—at the time a 2-year-old boy and a 3-month-old baby girl with colic—that I simply lost my ability to speak coherently in front of my colleagues. I stood up to talk at a very important meeting and nothing came out. I invoked my exhausted state, apologized, and went home. There were no consequences. If anything, my role as a working dad raised my profile within my institution, even before I started writing about those issues for CNN.

Academic dads operate with the privilege of separating their home life from their work life in ways unavailable to women. We get to be silent if we want to. We feel no need to attend sessions on the challenges of parenting—even though surely we encounter those same challenges—because they are perceived as "mommy issues." That perception is untrue yet remains a root cause of persistent gender discrimination. Female faculty members have been advocating for change for a long time; they still need more allies.

The discussion of caregiving must move beyond the discussion of motherhood. Fathers, too, need to advocate for paid parental leave, child-care assistance, flexible tenure clocks, and a culture that accepts the notion of male caregiving as normal. And they need to advocate loudly, using their privileged position as a lever to move the structures of our profession and lead the way in the broader culture.

I suggest we start by embracing the term "working dad."

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University, in Illinois. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? and he writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.