Support Caregiving Scientists
A DISCUSSION OFFixing Academia’s Childcare Problem
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In “Fixing Academia’s Childcare Problem” (Issues, Winter 2023), Zeeshan Habeeb makes what social scientists call the “business case” for providing subsidized childcare to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The author notes that the poorly paid, protracted training period for establishing an independent faculty career overlaps with women’s fertility. Habeeb argues that this life course pattern plus the lack of affordable childcare on campus pushes out talented academics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—and decreases the innovation, competitiveness, and profitability of the United States. Losing these highly trained early-career scientists is a poor return on the nation’s investment in education and academic research.
However, the business case for work-family accommodations mostly persuades those who are already sympathetic. Others are likely to critique the statistics and to maintain that their institution is different from those held up as case studies.
Let’s ask why the current arrangements—that require academics to work for low wages and without adequate family accommodations until their thirties or forties—are still so taken for granted in American universities. To understand this, we need to address four moral and emotional dimensions of academic STEM culture, as Erin A. Cech and I find in our book, Misconceiving Merit (University of Chicago Press, 2022).
First, academic science is not seen by STEM faculty as a business. Rather, it is understood to be a vocation devoted to fundamental research and largely unpolluted by profit or politics.
Second, our research shows that across genders and family statuses, STEM faculty largely embrace the “schema of work devotion,” which mandates undivided allegiance to the scientific calling. Research faculty love their work; it is a big part of their identity. STEM faculty celebrate their independence and inspiration, charting their own course to intellectual discovery.
Third, seen through a work devotion lens, the lengthy training period is an appropriate novitiate, in which novices prove their dedication and their worthiness to be appointed as professors.
Fourth, the underbelly of work devotion is the stigma faced by caregivers, who are seen as violating their vocation. This translates into a devaluation of women and of non-gender-normative men, who often take on more of the household’s caregiving responsibilities.
I encourage disciplinary and multidisciplinary associations and federal funders to address this stigma head-on. They should demand a moral reckoning, which would redefine STEM academics as deserving of the time and resources to have or adopt children, if they choose, while maintaining their respected status in the vocation. At a later life course stage, STEM academics also deserve the time to care for elderly or fragile parents and other loved ones, while still maintaining full respect for their scientific contributions.
Academic science is understood to be a vocation. To preserve the inclusion of early-career scientists who are creative and procreative in all senses of these words, let’s stop expecting it to be a monastic one.
Professor, Department of Sociology
University of California, San Diego
Zeeshan Habeeb offers compelling reasons and concrete solutions. The solutions are evidence-based for workforce productivity in research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—but US academic institutions already know how changes in policy across the board can make a huge difference for caregivers, especially women.
Academic institutions are not lacking models and solutions for equitable childcare; rather, the institutions function because of the exploitative invisible labor of caregiving that is at the root of all US workplaces. To address the childcare crisis in academia requires a reflection on our value system as a society and where we place our priorities. In 2021, women took on an extra 173 hours of childcare, and men took on an average of 59 extra hours. The United States spends the least of any “developed” country on early childhood care, and families are left to fill this gap in infrastructure. This gap is particularly glaring within academia because the system is traditionally set up for a man of means who has someone at home full time to cook, clean, and raise their children. The academic structure was never intended for a faculty member to do research, teaching, and service at the university and then go home to do cooking, cleaning, and bath time. We need to examine our cultural values around what childcare is worth and why it is not considered a valid expense for something like federal grants.
These are the questions we should be asking institutional program officers because the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that “it’s the policy” can be changed when necessary. If we can create budget lines for the travel required to do research, why do we dismiss the additional labor of caregiving required for parents to be in the field doing said research? The childcare crisis is particularly insidious given how academia as an industry requires graduate students, researchers, and faculty to move around to wherever we can find jobs—most times separated from family and other networks of support and making us heavily reliant on paid care. Even if you have managed to secure regular childcare, university events and conferences do not line up with typical childcare arrangements. Weekend conferences and evening lectures require scrambling for additional care, and missing out on networking and the unsaid necessities between the lines of your CV can be detrimental to promotion and tenure evaluations.
As the poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” US policies on caregiving, parental leave, and bodily autonomy continue to show us repeatedly where our value systems reside. Yet there are still reasons for hope and possibility for better working conditions in US academic institutions. If we were able to reconfigure the entirety of academic life during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be able to utilize pandemic workarounds and re-evaluate cultural norms around carework, especially childcare. Academic institutions should not be left to fix the problems of US working culture alone, though we should consider how our industry-specific norms such as evening talks and weekend conferences are managed to produce family-friendly practices and child-friendly cultures.
Assistant Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society
Arizona State University
Zeeshan Habeeb discusses the urgent need for better childcare in academia, where there currently are few options and high costs. I wholeheartedly agree, and can think of no more significant life event than parenting—but it also certainly tips the balance of work-life. As a faculty member, I believe that this balance or imbalance should be acknowledged when faculty are up for merit and promotion.
There is a precedent for it. During the first years of the coronavirus pandemic, across institutions many faculty up for evaluation were allowed to submit a supplementary COVID-19 impact statement along with their files for consideration. The purpose was to illustrate for reviewers the impact of the pandemic on their academic productivity. While this was a step in the right direction, a system that wholly measures and values individuals by academic productivity, and evaluates everyone on the same playing field, in COVID times or otherwise, is flawed.
While many institutions discuss, and highlight their support for, work-life balance, it is often not the reality that faculty experience. As many faculty who have gone through the review process know, the area that often matters most is research, and the unrealistic expectation of applying for grants each cycle has led to the current situation of overwork, burnout, and productivity trumping all to move up the academic ladder. The most privileged move up the academic ladder easiest and are least likely to be criticized by similar members of privileged committees (e.g., white, male, straight, cisgender, and healthy, with educated parents, adult children, ability to travel for talks and to conferences, fewer significant disabilities, and basic needs met). This reality does not support building a diverse academic community and is inherently exclusive.
In this light, I offer a modest proposal. Similarly to reporting on accomplishments in research, teaching, and service to achieve merit and promotion, faculty should also be allowed to report on their efforts in self-care activities and significant life experiences outside academia. This additional reporting would help address faculty retention, promote positive mental health, and acknowledge reality. Instead of having one-offs such as the COVID-19 impact statement or the next future emergency, work-life balance must be part of the norm in review.
My vision is not to deny tenure for those who don’t achieve their goals of self-care or for people who prefer to overwork. But just having such a work-life balance section will bring attention to its importance, provide a venue for people to reflect on their complete journey (which includes academia), and allow those who make decisions on merit and promotion files to understand context and to value work-life balance rather than the unhealthy academic norms with life taking a back seat to academic productivity. So maybe a particular assistant professor didn’t reach the established departmental productivity norms in one scholastic area, but look at that person’s experience outside academia and all they are doing for self-care. Having taken time for self may make them a better researcher, teacher, collaborator, and human being who will stick around academia. Shouldn’t that be the goal?
Professor of Medicine
Department of Social Medicine, Population, and Public Health
University of California, Riverside School of Medicine