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Ellen Goodman: Academia is unfriendly to professors who want to be mothers

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

BOSTON — May I take a minute to pass out the cigars for Adriana Iliescu? How about a teeny-weeny cigarillo? This 66-year-old Romanian woman has just been officially designated the world's oldest mom.

Of course, Adriana had a bit of help giving birth to Eliza Maria. She had nine years of fertility treatment plus a donor egg and some donor sperm. Nevertheless, this single senior has finally fulfilled her dream.

As she glowingly told reporters, "I always worked so hard in my career I had no chance to build a relationship and start a family, and after I retired I regretted it bitterly. But I never gave up hope."

With that statement, Adriana is much more than the world's prime time primigravida. She is a role model for revisionists who are forever telling women they can have it all, just not at the same time. She may even become the poster elder for those touting "life sequencing" as the bright shiny new/old solution to the problem of balancing work and family.

She has figured it out: pensions and pacifiers.

You will not be surprised that her demanding career was as a college professor. If we may leap across the Atlantic for a moment, we know academic women in America have the lowest fertility rate of women in any of the professions.

Before Iliescu entered the momhood, Berkeley Dean Mary Ann Mason set out to answer the question asked by her women graduate students: "Is there a good time to have a baby?" Her analysis of 160,000 Ph.D.s showed that having children early in their careers was a boon for men and a bust for women. Fathers who had children within five years of their Ph.D. were more likely to get tenure-track jobs than other men, but mothers were less likely than either fathers or other women. As for women who got on the tenure track before the baby track? Only one in three ever became mothers.

Right now, the big flap in the land of academia is over Harvard President Larry Summers' off-the-cuff and off-the-wall remarks about women and science. He wondered aloud whether innate gender differences were one reason women weren't getting ahead in the sciences.

I am not sure whether Summers' recurring bouts of foot-in-mouth disease are based in nature or nurture. Is there a gaffe gene? But what slid by with little fuss was this economist's other explanation for science and gender inequity: "the conflict between motherhood and the 80-hour week." He made it sound as if the weighty work week was genetically programmed.

Higher education is a laboratory where all the contemporary problems of work and family get distilled. The average graduate student gets a doctorate at around age 33 and makes tenure by 40. As Mason says, "The 30s are the make-it-or-break-it decade with everything colliding at once." Moreover, in the academy, the rule is up or out, publish or perish, tenure or bye-bye. Do I hear a biological clock ticking?

The focus on the 80-hour — or the 60-hour — workweek doesn't discount old-fashioned gender discrimination, especi- ally in science. One of the women who walked out on Summers' remarks was MIT professor Nancy Hopkins. Six years ago, the DNA researcher led a hardy band of 15 senior faculty women, armed with calculators and measuring tapes, who forced the venerable institution to 'fess up to gender bias.

But those professors also worried that they had become "negative role models" to younger women in science. Had their stressed-out lives, their difficulties balancing work and family, led many younger women to say "if that's having it all, you can have it"?

These questions are in the air, not just in academia. As Mason notes ironically, "No sooner did women enter the work force than the game changed. We've gotten into this terrible escalation that to be successful you have to work ever more hours a week." Today's "mommy hours" are yesterday's "daddy hours." But what happens on campus matters because college professors are the role models — positive and negative — that young women encounter at their own life crossroad.

There are a few more family-friendlier plans in academia today, ranging from flex-time for tenure-track teachers to re-entry plans. But "life sequencing" remains a conversation about women directed at women. When was the last time you heard a treatise urging men to marry and father earlier in life?

Meanwhile, too few have taken on the unisex madness of the workload overload. Until we do that, having it all, in sync or sequence, is going to be as seamless and sensible as having a baby at 66.


Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com; © 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

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