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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Academic Flexibility 

There’s a flexibility myth in academia. It goes like this: Academic mothers have it much better than other professional mothers because of their flexible schedule—a luxury women in business, journalism, law, and medicine don’t enjoy—which allows them to set their own hours, and chart their individual paths to success.

It’s not a myth; it’s the truth. I just talked to a woman who is a lawyer at a big firm. She has a 4-year-old and she’s 6 months pregnant. And she has to fly out of state for work yet again next week. This is on top of having to be at the office 10 hours a day no matter what. 

Compared to this, my schedule that only requires me to be on campus 2 non-negotiable days a week and only between September and May is a miracle. Yes, I get paid 5 times less than the lawyer. But for me that doesn’t matter. I can spend tons of time with Klara, and it’s very important at times like right now when she’s going through a vulnerable period. It isn’t easy but if I had took be out of the house every day for any job, I’d be a wreck. 

I have no idea why academics so love to pity themselves and can’t recognize obvious advantages. Or at least not try to deny them.

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26 thoughts on “Academic Flexibility 

  1. Anon on said:

    Completely agree with you here. We academic parents really have it much easier than anyone else.

    For a while, I had noticed that many of my non-academic women friends did not want to go back to work after motherhood, while my academic friends went back quite happily. Once I became a mother myself, I realized why! I feel very lucky every day to have such a flexible job that allows me to spend time with my child and be available for her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anon on said:

    There’s a certain subset of academic commentators who are constantly writing about how the reason 18 year-old women choose not to major in science is that it’s hard to combine motherhood with a professorship. It would be interesting to hear their response to your observation.

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    • “There’s a certain subset of academic commentators who are constantly writing about how the reason 18 year-old women choose not to major in science is that it’s hard to combine motherhood with a professorship.”

      -I think the thought here is of “publish or perish,” which means long hours in the lab versus at home.

      The reality, I’ve found, tends more toward sexism in the classroom (usually perpetuated by students–I’ve never had a teacher say any of these things), especially where it concerns math, physics, and computer science. There seems to be a prevailing attitude that “there’s a reason they say girls are bad at X subject,” even among college students. Add to that the huge discrepancies in the male:female ratio in college (particularly in physics programs), and the student beliefs that all other sciences are “soft” (again, most particularly in physics, though I’ve also heard it from biology and chemistry students), and it just creates a sense of needless competition that turns off a lot of students who might otherwise go into science. For boys, “science is hard,” turns into a challenge; for girls, “science is hard” tends to be taken as an acceptable reason to lose interest.

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      • For boys, “science is hard,” turns into a challenge; for girls, “science is hard” tends to be taken as an acceptable reason to lose interest.

        Please don’t generalize like this. There are girls who are as competitive as any boy and something being a challenge definitely adds to the desire to do it.
        But there’s definitely “there are very few girls but way too many creepy smelly dudes all around me, half of whom make comments to my face that girls can’t do math while at the same time breathe down my neck” aspect in many hard STEM majors that most definitely is not an attractor for young women. It was not as bad in my home country, we had near parity at undergrad level, plus I was so much better than average that soon nobody would dare imply that I didn’t belong there. The women who end up with hard science degrees are generally excellent in their field and also tough skinned. But there are many who are not exactly outstanding (as are most boys who earn hard STEM degrees) or just not as thick-skinned and who say “F**k it” and leave to go to chemistry or bio or medicine or business or elsewhere where they won’t be such a minority or such an obvious target for creepy attention; the boys who are no better/more talented stay and get their degrees.

        I don’t think anyone should try to coerce women into STEM. We just need to not lost those who are already into STEM. I think somewhere around 30:70 women:men would be a natural balance in the physical sciences (math, physics, many branches of engineering) if we didn’t constantly lose interested women to other fields, which yields today’s ratio that’s more like 10:90.

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        • Pen on said:

          I guess what I meant was that in my experience, men try to keep each other in the program (with a”physics is hard so being physics majors makes us the best students in the whole school because all other majors are soft!” sort of mentality–I kid you not, I have been there for those conversations). Women encourage each other, sure, but there’s more a sense of “let’s buckle down and do the work.” Which is fine, at least until someone starts slipping back. Then I feel there’s more offered to men in terms of support–when a woman starts slipping back, there’s more of a dismissal. I don’t mean to generalize–this is all based on my experience as a former physics major. There are also guys who slip through the cracks. But in the program I was in, all the guys tended to band together to keep each other above the water, because it was a challenge and they were going to come out of it. There was some of that with the women, but there was also a lot of infighting and research-related drama (with that particular group, anyway). There’s less of a discrepancy where I am now.

          The creepy attention definitely doesn’t help, though.

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          • “I guess what I meant was that in my experience, men try to keep each other in the program (with a”physics is hard so being physics majors makes us the best students in the whole school because all other majors are soft!” sort of mentality–I kid you not, I have been there for those conversations”

            We say the exact same thing in Spanish. Because we have to do what everybody else does but “backwards and in heels”, which means with the extra effort of doing it in a foreign language.

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  3. “I have no idea why academics so love to pity themselves and can’t recognize obvious advantages. Or at least not try to deny them.”

    They are afraid of inciting envy and afraid if others knew about how easy they have it there might be calls for something like the standardization of the academic work day.

    This used to be the case in Poland where I knew people from some (technical) universities who were expected to be in their offices (or the classroom) from 8 to 4 every day (whether there was anything to do or not).

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    • We already have a colleague at my university who is suggesting this. Mind you, it’s not an administrator. It’s a professor who is worried that her colleagues are doing less work than she does. It’s pathetic.

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    • [Academics] are afraid of inciting envy and afraid if others knew about how easy they have it there might be calls for something like the standardization of the academic work day.

      BINGO!

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      • An alternative is not to say anything at all. Why attract attention to the issue altogether?

        The piece I linked is huge on Facebook. If the author and the people who keep reposting it didn’t want to incite envy, they’d keep quiet. But the post sounds like, “OMG, my diamonds are too small!”

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        • “If the author and the people who keep reposting it didn’t want to incite envy, they’d keep quiet.”

          Remember the old story about the man that found a pot of gold? He wanted to bury it to hide it but was worried that people would be curious why he had dug up part of his yard. So he put up a big sign “There is No Gold buried here!” and when it disappeared wondered why people didn’t believe him?

          A lot of academics are concerned about their collective image and very anxious to put out their version (without thinking all the consequences all the way through).

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  4. I agree with Clarissa that flexibility is one of the best features of academia (along with job security and being able to set own research agenda), for which people are willing to take a substantial paycut with respect to industry. I could probably make 2-3 times what I do now in industry, but it wouldn’t be worth it. I work a lot of hours, but I am able to distribute them as I need to. I can take 1.5 hours in the middle of the day to take a sick kid to the doctor’s or go volunteer for 45 min in my kid’s Kindergarten class. I work evenings (2-3 hrs/day) and most weekends (probably 16 hrs over the course of the weekend, a couple of hours at a time, more if I have to grade); this is all done around chores and family time and is exactly how I like it. I would never trade my academic job for a corporate one.

    The thing is, it’s very competitive to get a tenure-track academic job, and it’s hard work to get tenure. This is not an easy job to get or keep precisely because people understand the perks, and the perks are why universities (especially public ones) can get away with paying people so little with respect to the corporate world.

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  5. There are also subject variations and rank variations – having a child during a STEM PhD or post-doc at an elite university with a long hours culture, for example, or being in a field-heavy culture where the expectation is that people will spend multiple months of the year in the backwoods, camping, very remote etc etc is going to make life more difficult than a 9-5 office job (which is where the comparison is usually made, NOT with zero hours retail work or similar).

    Also, everyone likes to think their suffering is particularly unique and deserving – I’ve stopped going to women’s group meet-ups despite both liking the people and liking the idea of anything which involves collective action to make the university more accountable and more about people because the focus was so much on things that would advantage select individuals – e.g. mechanisms for hiring (male) academic trailing spouses, payments to allow spouses and children to travel to conferences as well as the presenter etc. – which both alienate childless people like me (single part time with chronic health issues does NOT need to hear how easy their life is, when partnered with children has just been describing all the fun things they’ve been able to afford to do to their house, on their holidays etc. but is bemoaning how awful it is that they don’t get extra payments because they have children) and ignore some wider issues like, oh, campus childcare which closes at 5-30 whilst classes and other functions go on until 6pm, which potentially affects parents of all genders whether student, academic or administrator, or a system where no-one challenges a public narrative that person A (female) is over-emotional and hysterical, but when person B restates the EXACT SAME POINT, he is passionate and devoted to the institution; and when a female is good at administration or student support, it’s easy for her, it’s her natural talent, whereas a male who is BAD at those things (as in, deliberately misses deadlines, office hours etc., is heard publically swearing at students) is praised for being “really devoted to his research”.

    There are real systematic and localised problems with academic careers, but we need to both not ignore the GOOD things, the things that let us avoid problems OTHER careers have (even ignoring the luxury of having a career rather than just a job), and to show we understand that we are part of a wider society, and see our issues in that perspective too (in other words, this is exactly the same problem you were discussing when your colleagues attacked the other campus rather than Raunier – sometimes the personal can be used to disguise or direct attention away from the political, and that seems to be a big and depressing theme lately that one would hope academics with all their much vaunted critical thinking skills would be able to avoid…)

    Like

    • “payments to allow spouses and children to travel to conferences as well as the presenter etc.”

      Wow, never heard that one. It alienates me, too, to be honest. People are really something.

      “that seems to be a big and depressing theme lately that one would hope academics with all their much vaunted critical thinking skills would be able to avoid”

      Very true. I keep hoping that finally it will start to dawn on my colleagues that they are being baited so easily.

      Like

    • I have kids and I completely agree that it’s insanity to talk about someone paying so that the whole family can go to a conference. This is far from making or breaking someone’s career. I’d definitely say that having to be in the field for many months so you’d gather the actual data is way, way worse than not being able to bring baby to a 3-day conference (the latter is really a nonissue even for a breastfeeding mom, and IMHO it’s way more trouble than it’s worth to bring baby than not; also, going to conferences is vastly overrated and most (not all) are not worth the money and time; most people would be better served by staying put and doing work than by globe trotting). Also, most issues in academia are issues for everyone who’s trying to have any semblance of work-life balance, not just women or people with kids.

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  6. Fie upon this quiet life on said:

    I don’t know. I think this flexibility depends on institutions. My college is very hostile to people who aren’t there 5 days a week. They increased our required office hours to ten hours per week to ensure people had to be on campus a minimum of three days per week, but even that is strongly looked down on by our administration and even other faculty.

    My husband has always had greater flexibility with his job in the tech industry. When the kids are sick, on break, or doing activities, he’s the one who takes them. I’m not complaining. I’m happy that he has that flexibility. I don’t have that from 9-5:30, Monday through Friday.

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    • 10 hours of office hours?????? That’s insane! It’s simply punitive.

      On a different note, happy birthday!

      Like

    • Yes, that is the situation at my current place as well, and I think at many others. In my first job it was like that, too, classes and meetings back to back 8-5 and you were expected to eat lunch with the students in the cafeteria. But they were cool with only doing this 4 days.

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      • Even if the teaching load is 5:5, that’s only 15 contact hours a week.

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        • Fie upon this quiet life on said:

          I have 12 contact hours, plus 10 office hours, plus weekly and twice a month meetings. Even if I were only doing the office hours and contact hours, I would still have to be there five days a week because of the schedule of classes that I have. (And have no choice about, being the least senior person on the totem pole.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • You are in a legitimately bad situation. But there are so many people who teach 2:2, never publish anything, have no writer’s career to thing of, yet are tragically “overworked” and at the office 80 hours a week. The more they moan about their extreme hardship, the less likely it is that anybody will believe people with actual grievances.

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            • I don’t actually know anyone like this, but the person in the article seems to have worked about 8-9 hours in all (9 if booking travel counts as work and took an hour). The day seemed very light to me because someone cooked dinner for her and she got to bed by 10. (My days may seem light to others since I often do not get up until 8, or start working seriously until 10 — because I don’t get out of the office as early as she does.)

              The thing about the article is, she only spent one hour in class. That is why she was able to do so many other things at work. But what is even weirder is how out of control she seems to feel, when in fact everything is in good control. She also seems to have difficulty staying in the moment, some kind of anxiety issue (which makes me wonder how she switches to writing mode so easily, and makes me think the anxiety is faked).

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        • 15 contact hours (I actually only have 12, but instructors have 15-18), 10 hours office hours goes to 25, plus appointments and committee meetings, it goes to pretty much 5 days 9-5 because of the way scheduling is. If there’s just an hour between this and that, you can’t really leave, although yes you can dash out for something if really necessary. It’s still more flexibility than some jobs, but it’s not like being at a couple of the PhD granting departments I have worked in where nobody was ever there, practically.

          I also find that these things depend a great deal upon the culture of the place. At my first job and this one, it is important to be present. If you’re not, you hear about it and see it at raise and promotion time. I had another job where most people were there all the time, but they didn’t care if you weren’t (except for classes, meetings, etc.).

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          • We don’t have raises any more, not even cost of living, so I’m justified in never being there. I do my 9 teaching hours plus 2 office hours and I’m out of there.

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            • Neither do we, but it looks bad not to get promoted, and it is important to get the kinds of grades you’d get if you were going for raises, because otherwise there is post-tenure review, cuts, program reduction, and unemployability to think about.

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