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Academic Work and Family Responsibility: A Balancing Act


Congratulations! You've just been hired for a tenure-track assistant professor position at a prestigious university. Or maybe you've just received a government grant to conduct a groundbreaking study.

But you've also reached an age at which it may not be a good idea to, yet again, put off starting a family. The average age for receipt of a Ph.D. is 33, which puts tenure at age 40, even if you don't do a postdoc. If you decide to start a family, will you be able to take a paid leave after childbirth? What if you need to take leave during your lab project to assist your spouse with a newly adopted infant? How would you be perceived by your colleagues if you took leave during the probationary period to care for an elderly parent?

When making important career choices such as these, all faculty members should know whether "family-friendly" employment policies are available to them. Unfortunately, many faculty members are not aware of such policies, even when they do exist. Furthermore, research shows that work/family policies are underutilized, as faculty members perceive that they may somehow be seen as "not fully dedicated to their profession" if they also try to make significant time for family responsibilities. Since 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has worked to advance academic freedom and to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education. Today, AAUP seeks to address the conflict between the expectations of an academic career and family care-giving by providing guidelines for helping faculty members more effectively exercise their family responsibilities without damaging their career prospects.

Work/family conflicts are a serious issue; faculty members, particularly female faculty members, find themselves performing a balancing act in order to fulfill the expectations attached to both family and academic roles. A survey of faculty members at Ohio State University published in 2003 found that female faculty members were more likely to have dependent-care responsibilities and to express dissatisfaction with their ability to integrate work/life issues than their male faculty counterparts. The survey also revealed that male faculty members were 2.5 times more likely than female faculty members to have a spouse or partner available to assist with household and family responsibilities. This "time divide" also contributes to the incongruity between family and work roles, because faculty members at all ranks and all types of institutions work an average of more than 50 hours per week, with a substantial proportion reporting more than 60 hours per week (Jacobs, 2004).

This set of circumstances likely also plays a role in the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. Women constitute only 22% of the total science and engineering workforce, and fewer than 20% of science and engineering faculty in 4-year colleges and universities (National Science Foundation Advance Program). Furthermore, tenured women in science are more likely than other tenured women to be childless (Mason and Goulden, 2002). This finding suggests that women in academic science, disproportionately, perceive that they must choose either family or career. Academic women are expected to work hardest during the tenure-track years, precisely when their biological clocks are ticking the loudest (Wilson, 2003).

In November 2001, AAUP adopted its Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work, which addresses the dilemma faced by junior faculty members whose years of probationary service coincide with a time of their lives during which they might become new parents. The AAUP statement (see box) contends that "the goal of every institution should be to create an academic community in which all members are treated equitably, families are supported, and family-care concerns are regarded as legitimate and important."

AAUP Speaks

Specific Recommendations from the AAUP Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work include:

  • Paid leaves should be provided for pregnancy, family care, and emergencies with the option of longer-term unpaid leaves depending upon the circumstances.


  • Active Service With Modified Duties--Faculty members should have the option of a reduced workload, without loss of status, to handle family responsibilities.


  • Stopping the Tenure Clock--Faculty members should have the option to extend the probationary period for 1 year following the birth or adoption of a child (with a maximum of two extensions). The option of stopping the tenure clock should be provided with or without a leave of absence. Tenure decisions should be made according to the same criteria applied to other candidates, without imposing higher expectations due to the longer time period. The tenure clock should be stopped upon request and not be considered a matter for individual negotiation.


  • Universities and colleges should establish and communicate formal institutional policies rather than make individual ad hoc arrangements.

With the assistance of a 2-year grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (which also supports Next Wave), AAUP is currently undertaking an "Access to the Profession" project to promote changes in the work life of college and university faculty in line with its 2001 Statement. During the first phase of the project, AAUP has hired a part-time staff person whose primary responsibilities are to collect examples of model or innovative work/family policies for faculty, respond to queries submitted by telephone or e-mail, and develop a comprehensive Web-based resource on work/family issues for faculty.

We encourage you to visit this page, which is updated on a regular basis. Other plans in the works involve a special issue of the AAUP magazine Academe devoted to work/family issues, as well as a volume in the series New Directions for Higher Education to be published by Jossey-Bass in early 2005. AAUP staff members are also available to visit campuses to discuss work/family issues.

Academics shouldn't have to choose between their families and their work. No one should. AAUP firmly believes that attention to work/family issues will produce positive long-term effects on faculty retention, gender equity in the academic profession, and the redefinition of norms that conceptualize faculty only as teachers and researchers. Institutions should implement policies that facilitate a peaceful co-existence between expectations derived from family and work roles, instead of a stressful collision between the two.

Further Reading

Jerry Jacobs, "The Faculty Time Divide," Sociological Forum 24, 1 (Forthcoming, 2004) (Available at and PDF Files/TheFacultyTimeDivide.pdf)

Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, "Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women," Academe, 88(6) 21 (November-December 2002)

National Science Foundation Advance Program Solicitation, Program Announcement: NSF 02-121.

Ohio State University Faculty Work Environment and Work/Life Quality Report Executive Summary (May 2003)

Robin Wilson, "How Babies Alter Careers for Academics," The Chronicle of Higher Education, (5 December 2003)

For more information about AAUP activities in this area, please contact John Curtis, director of research, or Julie Schmid, department of organizing and services. You may also contact Portia Cole, policy analyst for work/family issues, to compare your institution's policy with other universities or if you are aware of innovative "family friendly" policies. You can call AAUP at (202) 737-5900; complete contact information is available on the association's Web site.

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