Family-Friendly Policies May Not Help as Much as They Should, Conference Speaker Says

April 20, 2009

New York — Are family-friendly policies at colleges and universities really in the best interest of women in academe?

That’s the question a Rutgers University administrator — herself the mother of three grown children — raised during a panel at the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education’s annual labor conference here today.

Speaking at a session titled “Under the Table: Race and Gender in Promotion and Tenure,” Karen R. Stubaus, associate vice president for academic affairs at Rutgers University, said that family-friendly policies, like allowing women to take time off the tenure clock to care for young children or creating part-time tenure-track appointments, are meant to help young academics. But she is concerned that such benefits may, in fact, hurt them.

That’s because the policies make it too easy for women — almost always the ones to take advantage of such benefits — to slow down their careers, she said. Such steps can delay salary increases, or keep them from moving into administrative positions, she said.

“I worry about women who go on what’s called the mommy track,” Ms. Stubaus said. “Research universities are fairly conservative and still dominated by white males” who didn’t take any breaks on the road to tenure and often sit on tenure and promotion committees, she said.

When looking at the tenure applications of female academics who have temporarily stepped out of the tenure stream, such committee members may question how to count that time out when it comes to research productivity — even though time out is, well, time out and shouldn’t be counted, she said.

Ms. Stubaus, who finished her dissertation while on an unpaid maternity leave for her first child and later had twins, acknowledged the hardships of being a working mother. And despite her remarks, which she billed upfront as “controversial,” she said she could “appreciate this generation of people saying, Why does it have to be so hard?”

However, the environment isn’t what it needs to be for female academics to seek the relief family-friendly policies offer, she said. “I don’t have the confidence that as a society we are there yet.” —Audrey Williams June