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"Teetering on the Family Friendly Edge": Discrimination Against Mothers in Academia
Published on Sunday, September 25, 2005 by
"Teetering on the Family Friendly Edge":
Discrimination Against Mothers in Academia

by Charlotte Fishman

Can a woman have a family and a successful academic career? The jury is still out, despite the fact that "family friendly" has become a new academic buzzword. Recently, the venerable University of California launched "The UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge" initiative. At first blush, the initiative appears to be a model for institutions serious about addressing the vexing conflict between the tenure clock and the biological clock -- offering "stop-the-tenure-clock" leave; "active service modified duty"; and central funding to cover the associated cost. But before junior faculty hungering for a family as well as a career pack their bags and head for the Golden State, it would be prudent for them to ask whether UC "walks the walk" as well as it "talks the talk".

Consider the case of Professor Laurie Freeman, who recently received a rare "cause" determination from the EEOC after filing a novel charge of sex discrimination against the University's Santa Barbara campus. A rising star in the Political Science Department and a world-renowned expert on information technology and Japanese politics, Dr. Freeman faced career suicide over her choice to have two children during her years on the tenure track. Before having children she received stellar reviews.; Afterward, her department became increasingly critical of her research and productivity. Despite university rules prohibiting consideration of excluded leave time when evaluating productivity, the department repeatedly evaluated her too early and compared her unfavorably with others who had not taken leaves.

By the time she came up for tenure, Freeman had amassed an impressive portfolio of accomplishment: She had won some of the most prestigious academic prizes available to young scholars in her discipline (e.g. Fulbright, Hoover Institute fellowships); she had published a well-received book with one of the two premier publishers in her field and obtained a contract for a second book with the other (Princeton, Cambridge); she had been invited to present her work at top academic institutions (Harvard, Stanford) and to address international meetings attended by heads of state. Despite this, the Political Science Department found everything about her unsatisfactory, after she had children. Their scathing assessment of her teaching, professional activity and scholarly research culminated in a unanimous recommendation to deny tenure.

Of course, tenure review is a multi-step process. In Professor Freeman's case, the Chancellor rejected her initial bid for tenure, but sent the case back to the department for a new review in 2003-04 to resolve "doubts" about whether Freeman met University standards for tenure. Once again, the department savaged her scholarly work. This time, however, the Chancellor could no longer ignore the contradiction between the department's negative view, the objective record and the glowing assessment of experts in her field. On June 20, 2005, the Chancellor granted her tenure, retroactive to July 1, 2004.

A happy ending? The system worked? What about the emotional trauma, financial burden and career disruption of a three-year battle over fitness for tenure that never should have occurred? And what lesson can supporters of "family friendly" policies learn from Laurie Freeman's case? This one: if you are truly going to have a "family friendly edge," you need to ensure that it is not a tightrope suspended over a chasm..

What causes backlash against mothers who use these policies? Most problems relating to family formation arise at the department level. Tenured faculty, more often than not, consist largely of men whose wives raised their children, and women who either delayed or abstained from childbearing and childrearing. To some among this population, women who need time off to attend to the needs of children are resented as slackers, uncommitted to their careers, or derided as academic hustlers, taking advantage of leave policies to get an edge in the game of competitive scholarship. Either way, they are perceived as "not being team players."

The idea that a woman juggling international research, the pre-school schedules of two young children, and the demands of a tenure-track job at a Class I university is "not committed to her career" would be laughable, if it were not fueled by a powerful prescriptive stereotype that still undermines the careers of capable female scholars. Casual perusal of the web demonstrates that, to some, the monastic origins of academic life continue to hold sway - only those who dedicate themselves 24/7 to the academic calling are worthy; "breeders" should find other employment.

As with any new policy, ignorance about what is required and uncertainty about how it should be implemented create ample opportunity for both mistake and bad behavior. For example, if the rule stops the clock for "tenure" purposes, but the department still gives the "mid career" review on schedule, the resulting negative assessment of productivity may adversely affect the candidate's tenure review. Similarly, if time taken for "active service modified duty" is not supposed to count, but the department comments that the candidate has taught fewer classes than others, without adjusting for excluded periods, the policy goal is undermined.

What is to be done? The good news is that the EEOC determination, issued on September 6, 2005, provides impetus for institutions to put teeth into policy pronouncements. Disparate treatment of women who take advantage of family friendly policies is "sex plus" discrimination, regardless of whether it flows from hostile animus ("breeders who don't belong"), descriptive stereotypes ("mothers aren't as committed") or violation of the institution's own rules. Furthermore, recent federal court decisions scrutinize stereotype-driven evaluations closely, and accept them as evidence of discrimination. Eliminating the culture of bias is rapidly becoming part of the established duty of employers, who must take all steps necessary to prevent discrimination from occurring.

To bridge the gap between a shiny new policy and gritty reality - Chancellors and other administrators must be quick to spot, probe and redress anomalous behavior that signals bias before it undermines a tenure review. This involves educating chairs, deans and other decision-makers about what the policies require -- and holding them accountable when the requirements are undermined. It also involves providing tenure candidates with the means to raise problems as soon as they occur. Real time tracking and remediation of abuse and error is critical to effective enforcement-not everyone has the financial or emotional resources to undergo a three year struggle over baseless "doubts" about her professional competence.

Professor Freeman's victory came at a high price to her, but if the University of California takes its lesson to heart, the result will be of incalculable value to other women teetering on the family friendly razor's edge.

Charlotte Fishman ( is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women's advancement in the workplace. She is an employment attorney specializing in academic tenure discrimination, and she represented Professor Freeman before the EEOC.


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