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Academic Mamas: Motherhood and Academia

Associate Professor Joanne Devlin and I are currently coediting a book, with the working title Academic Mamas. Filled with the stories of women academics across diverse disciplines in Australian universities, our book will be intended for everyone who wants to learn about the different experiences of mothers in academia and identify strategies that can be helpful for supporting mothers in their careers.

In order to share a greater number of stories than can be included in the book, this blog will be publishing a series of articles, such as this introspective piece, written by female academics sharing their experiences. (You can find the list of these articles at the end of this article.)

A History of Gender Inequality in Academia

Gender disparity has long been an underlying issue in society; while progress has been made towards securing gender equity, there is still a clear inequality in opportunities and outcomes for women. Aside from the gender pay gap, which still persists across a range of industries and professions, women have always been significantly under-represented in the senior levels of academia at Australian universities (and around the world).

It is important to recognise that the assumptions underpinning gender inequity are deeply entrenched. In the 1950s, career women were stigmatised by not behaving as ‘real’ women. A study conducted in the 1990s suggested the patronising notion that ‘the academic award provided a good career structure for women if they wanted to behave like men, which most did not’ (Blackford 1998, 51). The restructure and corporatisation of Australia’s university system in the 1990s further pronounced the academic gender divide, in which women were over-represented in the lowest-paid, least-secure positions, but were scarce in managerial roles (Lafferty and Fleming 2000).

A number of studies since then have explored and objected to the fact that life-planning choices made by men and women should cause a disparity in terms of earnings, entitlements and promotions (see Baker 1999; Blackford 1998; Crabbe and Ekberg 2014; Corelle 2007; Rainnie et al. 2013). Many female academics experience a ‘motherhood penalty’ when they attempt to juggle their careers and their caring responsibilities (Baker 2010).

While more awareness is being drawn towards this subject, such as through this consultative article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015, as well as the iconic essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter in 2012, much is still yet to change. It is not just the demands of the senior academic profession that disadvantages working mothers, but also the decisions that employers make regarding the commitment that working mothers have towards their careers. A long-held generalisation (and misconception) is that women who have children are not likely to have the time or devotion to pursue formal qualifications and the full-time work experience that is required for academic roles.

The Figures Speak for Themselves

The Department of Education and Training in 2016 provided a snapshot of the gender imbalance, particularly in the senior levels of academia (see Table 1).

Table 1: Percentage of Academic Positions Held by Women in 2016


Female %

Level A (Associate Professor)


Level B (Lecturer)


Level C (Senior Lecturer)


Level D (Associate Professor) and Level E (Professor)


Note. Department of Education and Training (2016).

At the lowest academic positions, Level A (associate lecturer) and Level B (lecturer), there are slightly more women than men; however, at Level C (senior lecturer), a disparity begins to emerge with women comprising just under 45%. At Level D (associate professor), fewer than 30% are women. Finally, at Level E (professor), fewer than 20% are women (see Strachan et al. 2011; Universities Australia 2014; Wallace and Marchant 2013).

Further, research suggests that women are subject to prejudice by their own students. An assistant professor at Northeastern University, Benjamin Schmidt, used his website to analyse trends from 14 million student reviews (Bates 2015).

The data indicated that reviews of male professors were more likely to include the words ‘brilliant’, ‘intelligent’, ‘hilarious’ or ‘cool’, while women were more likely to be described as ‘helpful’, ‘strict’, ‘unfair’, ‘disorganised’ or ‘annoying’. There was even an evident bias in objective measures such as promptness, in which students rated a female professor 3.55 out of 5 and a male professor 4.35, despite the fact that they returned work at the same time. These findings have significant consequences for academic professors’ careers because student evaluations are often taken into consideration in the process of hiring and promotion (Bates 2015).

It is important to remember that this is not just a women’s issue. Having an equal representation of women and men in academia contributes to structural diversity, which is considered beneficial ‘because differences among group members enhance collaboration, generation of ideas, knowledge and skills which can improve problem solving and work outcomes’ (Diezmann and Grieshaber 2010, 223). Essentially, a diverse team of people from differing backgrounds translates to more diverse skills, insights and ideas.

What’s Preventing Gender Equity?

It is no secret that the primary reason for the ‘leaky academic pipeline’ (see White 2004, 227; van Anders 2004, 511), whereby women leave academia or are not promoted to the higher levels, is motherhood. Mothers in academia have a lot to contend with: some women resort to lowering their expectations of career advancement, while others accept positions with fewer hours and less pay to fulfil their perceived motherhood responsibilities (Baker 2010). One study found that potential job applicants and actual employees who were pregnant or were mothers were perceived as less qualified, less competent and less committed to the job, both in experimental situations and by real employers (Correll et al. 2007).

In Australia, the average age of a woman having her first baby is 30. It is even later for female academics, who often delay having their first child until after they have completed their PhD and gained their first academic position. This means that female academics are normally entering motherhood as early-career academics who are trying to secure tenure or advance their careers. Consequently, female academics find themselves torn between demonstrating a devotion towards their profession while juggling domestic arrangements and contending with societal pressure based on a narrow view of ‘good parenting’.

The endeavour for working mothers to achieve this balance is compounded by ‘the lack of institutional support for pregnancy, breastfeeding and childcare’ (Baker 2010, 223). While universities and other employers have tried to address this through ‘equity programs for hiring and promotion, women’s mentoring programs, the expansion of family-related leave, and women’s salary reviews’, the competitive nature of the education industry and the pressure to increase employee productivity may discourage universities from hiring or promoting working mothers (Baker 2010, 223).

Another issue in universities is the fact that teaching is often disregarded as a path for advancement in academia. A survey pertaining to engineering academics in the UK found that ‘teaching is undervalued in university promotion and rewards procedures’, which some respondents found frustrating ‘particularly in light of the reliance of many universities on teaching income’ (Graham 2015, 7). Rather, career paths of research or management are prioritised, hence the trend to hire casual staff for teaching-only roles while offering promotion opportunities to academics engaged in research or corporate leadership.

The over-representation of women at the lower academic levels is an area of interest for future research. Moreover, the experiences of the women represented by these statistics are completely lacking, in Australia at least. (A number of publications explore the issue of motherhood and academia in the United States; see Evans and Grant 2008; Ghodsee and Connelly 2014; Ward and Wolf-Wendel 2012). The parity of women and men in Level A positions is unchanged from 1997 and parity in Level B positions was only reached in 2009. The prediction for Level D and E positions—with a predicted increase in female representation of a mere one per cent per year—is for parity to be reached by 2033 (Wallace and Marchant 2013).

Our Contribution

Academic Mamas and the stories on this blog aim to fill this gap, by exploring the reasons behind our leaky academic pipeline. We aim to identify the challenges and opportunities facing mothers in academia by using personal narratives that share a diversity of experiences, both good and bad. In telling these stories, we aim to help individuals who are facing similar challenges by providing a sense of connection to a community of academic mothers. The book will also be a resource for universities, departments, committees and policymakers to help achieve their gender diversity and equality goals.

I look forward to sharing with you the stories of these women and their experiences of motherhood and academia in Australian universities. If you’d like your story to be included, please contact me.

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