Today’s post is a guest post by Anonymous, an Assistant Professor in a Humanities department at a large, public university and (for now) the mother of one child. Here, she tells us the story of her request for a maternity leave for the birth of her second child. Now nearly 8 months pregnant, she still isn’t sure what her university plans to do for her, or what price she might pay for having asked for accommodation:
When I had my first child, I was working at a university with no paid family or maternity leave. The university stipulated that we must use accrued sick leave as salary during that period, but it turned out I had only accrued enough for three paid weeks. On the other hand, my chair dealt with my request for leave promptly and professionally, and there appeared to be no negative consequences in the department or university for being a woman and daring to have a child (untenured no less). But it was a rather young department and many faculty members had young children, so there was an established more-or-less child-friendly culture there.
Now that I am about to have another child, I am at a different institution (though both of my employers were large public universities). As in my previous experience, I went to my chair at the earliest possible moment to “request” leave. I had been told that the university had paid maternity leave, but didn’t know how it worked. The chair listened to my request and then said that he would mention it to the dean during their next meeting. Shortly thereafter the chair came back to me and said: “There’s a problem!” Two problems, actually. The first “problem” was that my child is due in the late spring or early summer, so there was a question about whether or not I qualified for leave in the fall, since (apparently!) I “should” just be taking it in the summer. The second problem was that I had planned to be away in the fall (to be with my partner, who lives and works in another state), but the “leave” provided by the college requires service work. So rather than providing actual “leave” the college gives course-releases, which is actually rather different from paid leave.
I was flabbergasted by both concerns, and particularly that they would be raised in a way to make it sound like my request was dubious, or even unethical. I immediately said that the college could not legally stipulate when I took maternity leave – while I understand that perhaps they might legally be able to refuse to give me the course releases, I could take twelve weeks of maternity leave under the FMLA (the Family Medical Leave Act) any time during the calendar year following a qualifying event – in my case, the birth of a child. He instantly backtracked and claimed not to know the statutes of the FMLA. In addition, I added that I’d never heard of a university denying leave to a woman based on the time of year her child was born. And in fact, this “problem” quickly disappeared the second I unearthed a colleague whose child had been born in early May and who had been given the fall off several years earlier, no questions asked. The second concern about service work surprised me because I was used to an institutional model wherein the chair of the department worked to facilitate faculty issues vis-à-vis administration requirements. I didn’t know what to make of this meeting – I was felt with a feeling of vague foreboding, as if the college were trying to bully me out of my request.
Over the course of the next five (yes, that’s right – FIVE) months, I had a series of meetings with the chair, many of which merely reiterated the issue about service with no real resolution, even after I clearly stated that I would be happy to comply with any service requirement demanded by the department/ university and couldn’t we find something that I could do from abroad? It’s not as though I was going to some exotic foreign location to live the high life and abandon my professional responsibilities; rather being out of town was a structural, emotional, and economic necessity for my family, since we live in two different places. Apparently, I wasn’t going to get any sympathy from anybody on that front, which frankly left me feeling rather sour.
During the course of these conversations, my chair also made sure to tell me not once but twice that he had been not eligible for family leave when his children were born, which left me with the impression that his position was that I was requesting a favor or some kind of special treatment from the department (as a woman), rather than a right, which is naturally how I view maternity leave. (This view in some ways is encouraged by the structure of the leave itself – because the university has no set maternity leave policy other than compliance with the FMLA, the college instituted its own informal way of dealing with maternity leaves.) So rather than a quick and pro forma batch of paperwork, my leave request became an ongoing series of unresolved conversations about the “problem” of my service requirement.
In all honesty, I never understood what the problem was exactly. There are many kinds of departmental service which take place over the course of an academic year. But it’s also very common for a faculty member’s service to largely take place in one semester or the other, rather than to be ongoing. (My previous service had completely wrapped up by January, for example, and nobody seemed concerned that I wasn’t sitting on another “spring” committee.) It seemed simple enough to assign me to service work that got started later in the academic year. (Problem solved!) But it seemed like this wasn’t enough. I couldn’t figure out why, until I had a long conversation with a (tenured) female colleague, who told me some hair-curling stories about the treatment of female faculty in my department, and how strongly some of the full professors come out against “special treatment” for women and faculty of color.
Then it became clearer to me: the service requirement of maternity leave could actually be used as a punishment. Because this leave is viewed by some as giving women some kind of advantage or privilege (who doesn’t want a semester off with pay!? What a lark! Think of all the productive work she’ll get done! Which will put her “ahead” of white male colleagues without that luxury!), the service requirement acts as a punishment. Therefore it was less of a basic question of which committee to assign me to (an easy task) but rather how to make sure I was given a heavy enough service load to justify my time “off.” And ironically, in this scenario, nothing makes those white men angrier than a female faculty member who does in fact wish to do some modest amount of research during this period. Research cannot be exchanged for service! Because research benefits her (and therefore “disadvantages” her peers), whereas we all know service work is just a black hole of time and energy.
I understand that in smaller departments service work can be onerous indeed, as people can have multiple committees they are required to sit on – therefore every time someone is on leave it can cause a upset in the balance of work to the detriment of those left behind. But this is simply not the situation where I am. I’ve heard several other stories of female faculty throughout the university being given especially heavy service loads during their maternity leaves. As for me, theoretically I’m on leave for the fall term. My chair says that he wrote the dean and considers it a done deal, but I don’t have the letter from the dean confirming this, nor do I know what will be expected of me in terms of service. They’re already threatening that I will definitely have to “come back” at least once or twice to fulfill my service responsibilities. (Hilarious – toting a small baby 350 miles to stay a couple of days just to attend a stupid meeting!)
This experience can be safely filed under the heading “How to Alienate/Get Rid of Your Female Faculty.”
Historiann here again: thanks, Anonymous, for sharing your tale of woe with us. This story has it all, doesn’t it? The department chair and dean who act like they’ve never seen or heard of a request for maternity leave before, the defensive and hostile chair, the presumption that maternity leave is a “favor” someone might be granted or denied rather than a “fact of life” any competent administrator should plan to handle, the unseemly judgment of Anonymous’s plans for her leave, the fact that “leave” actually means “do service work” in the minds of colleagues and administrators. (And when Anonymous resigns to move to another university because this one pi$$ed her off one too many times, the story this chair will tell about her departure will be one in which Anonymous was allllllwayyys asking for “special favors,” and besides, her husband lived out of town, she was never going to stay, so what did you want him to do about it, anyway?) WTF, dude? You called FIVE MONTHS’ worth of meetings and no decisions were ever made! Rank incompetence.
I’ve heard similar stories, and I’m sure you have too, of institutions that dragged their feet and only grudgingly made accommodations, and Assistant Professors forced to make their own arrangements to get their classes covered. Even departments that accomodate parents with a one-quarter maternity leave, no questions asked, I’ve heard were punitive when the new parent didn’t continue to publish one article a year while also making progress on a book manuscript in the year of her leave.
Lest we forget–and of course, our institutions count on us forgetting, all of the time, even those of us who are historians!–it was forty years ago (1970) that the Rose Report of the American Historical Association suggested maternity policies to accommodate the needs of more faculty women. It was thirty years ago (1980) in which this call was reiterated in the Committee on Women Historians’ summary report, and it was five years ago (2005) in which the Lunbeck reportmade the same suggestion again. I don’t have any illusions that Anonymous’s story is going to be the thing that rouses us from our institutional torpor, but throwing up my hands and saying “well, that’s just the way it goes!” is not my style, and I’m really glad it’s not Anonymous’s style, either. It’s clear that after decades of inaction, universities would prefer that women return to being administrative staff and secretaries. The idea that university faculty have uteri and that some might want to use them is clearly beyond the geniuses in the deans’, provosts’, and presidents’ offices in America’s great universities.
Most faculty women will give birth or adopt only once or twice ever, let alone at one particular university, so we’re not talking a huge drain on the system. In my department in the past decade exactly TWO women on the tenure-track have had ONE child each. If their courses were covered by adjuncts at $4,000 per course, that’s a total of $16,000 to cover two one-semester maternity leaves. Big deal! If I include contingent faculty, that brings us to a total of four women and five children in 10 years. Contingent faculty teach 4 courses a semester, so that brings the total bill for 5 pregnancies over ten years to $64,000. Why don’t deans and department chairs keep small (very small!) pots of money to cover maternity leaves? I can only assume it’s because they’re hoping most women vanish from the faculty, stop having children, or just stop asking.
What will happen, I wonder, when Anonymous’s department chair gets stricken by cancer, or felled by a heart attack or a stroke? Will it take five months for the dean and his colleagues to work something out? Will they require that he attend meetings and do “service” while on medical leave? Will someone else remind him that she didn’t get course releases when her back went out, and someone else complain that he didn’t take any leave after blowing out his knee? Will he be expected to use his time in the hospital or in rehab or a nursing home polishing his next tome?
I’d better stop, because I’m about to write only invective and profanity. You all take it away!