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Maternity Leave and Tenure Expectations During a Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lauren Azevedo and Pamela Medina
February 20, 2023

COVID-19 disproportionately impacted women and underrepresented groups. Academic parents within these groups were not left unscathed, and we wrote about these challenges in our PA Times article “Pandemic, Parenting, and Academic Productivity- Oh My!” last year. The pandemic also exacerbated workplace gender and wage gaps that have existed for some time. As the pandemic continues, and universities provide some guidance and leeway on tenure timelines (pauses) for COVID-19, the time is ripe to reevaluate how we are assessing and experiencing maternity leave on top of pandemic pauses.

Women fall behind men in terms of gaining full tenured professorship status. One of the main barriers to this achievement is parenthood and childbearing, as highlighted by Karin Sanders and colleagues in “Views from above the glass ceiling: Does the academic environment influence women professors’ careers and experiences?” in Sex Roles. But the fact is that having children is a typical part of a person’s life, and women and parents should not be less likely to achieve success because they have a child and require time away from work to give birth and raise children.

Junior faculty are typically most impacted by tenure delays on maternity leave due to their ages aligning with child bearing years. Junior faculty parents often describe a balancing or juggling act to manage both work-life and home-life. Junior faculty are also less likely to advocate for policies and tenure expectations that account for life circumstances for fear of repercussions to job mobility, as junior faculty have less security in their positions than their tenured counterparts. Some U.S. faculty feel they need to hide childbearing pauses to avoid implicit bias among women and mothers, or downplay productivity gaps. Additionally, administrators and other tenure decision makers often see pregnancy as stalling or derailing their career, or even worse, as a lack of commitment and seriousness to their research.

But what should maternity leave look like in academia and how should we deal with additional pauses after COVID-19? There were generally inconsistencies and uncertainties surrounding the handling of parental leave for tenure eligible faculty, even before the pandemic. We know that the ideals of maternity leave are socially constructed, in that they vary on contexts, structures, opinions and cultural norms. The United States University setting is quite different from professional structures and university settings in other highly developed countries, in that typical tenure line responsibilities involve teaching, research and service, in some balance, and there is no government guaranteed paid family leave for new parents. In a study on paid parental leave, Allison Morgan and her colleagues found that, among 205 Ph.D. granting institutions in the United States and Canada, approximately 60 percent had some sort of paid leave for new mothers or fathers and that the average is around 14 weeks for women and 11 weeks for men. Other universities have a shorter paid maternity leave or no paid leave at all, or only offer limited time away from teaching and still require research and service. Most universities tend to also have some sort of unpaid leave option for new parents, which holds their position at the University until they can return full time.

The truth is that during maternity leave, many young aca-parents still find themselves teaching, conducting research and performing service responsibilities, as not to impact their tenure timeline and continue to make a salary to support their families. Often young junior faculty members fail to use “out of office” emails and fear that lack of participation in their positions may negatively impact their promotion to associate professor. In addition, university birth leave policies often do not accommodate the intricacies of faculty schedules. This is particularly challenging for teaching faculty, also more likely to have poor work-life balance and lower salaries. As births do not align with the academic calendar, teaching faculty cannot take a 6 to 14 week leave without severely disrupting their 16 week teaching schedule. A reduction of workload to accommodate this does not sufficiently provide faculty with the physical recovery and bonding time from even the lowest-risk births, which require a minimum of six weeks of full leave.

The benefits of an actual paid maternity leave for new mothers and their children are well documented. According to Van Niel et al.’s 2020 literature review on paid maternity leave and mental and physical health of mothers and their children, benefits include significantly better mental health of mothers and their children, along with physical health benefits such as the likelihood of breastfeeding, lower infant mortality and increase in well visits to the doctor. In addition to the substantial health benefits to women and their families, maternity leave for new parents helps insure income protection, increases workforce participation and reduces gender pay gaps.

In evaluating tenure portfolios, it is important that reviewers ignore gaps that exist due to maternity leave. This is because many junior faculty prefer not to share their personal life and experiences with their workplace, particularly in their CVs and narrative statements within their dossiers. Tenure review should include the review of materials leading up to tenure, during tenure-eligible time periods and not consider the length it took to get there or gaps in teaching, research or service.

As universities are caring for their junior faculty who have faced the impact of COVID-19 on productivity and the impacts of maternity leave on tenure timelines, we suggest the following policies and practices be considered:

  • Advocate for junior faculty to actually take full maternity (or paternity) leave, rather than a reduction of workload, and respect their out of office status;
  • Regardless of federal, state and local guidelines, be considerate of individual faculty requests for their own health and safety, as pregnant women and families with new babies are in high risk groups;
  • Offer flexibility for new parents transitioning back to work after welcoming a new child (via online teaching options, online meetings, etc.);
  • Encourage tenured faculty to pick up slack on committee and service responsibilities during the junior faculty absences;
  • Do not ask junior faculty to provide new service during these leave periods. Junior faculty may find it difficult to say “no” for many reasons.

Reconsidering tenure “delays” and instead looking at tenure expectations is also an equitable path forward. Given that these delays tend to disproportionately hurt women, more work needs to be done on how to reevaluate our tenure policies rather than simply offering delays to tenure timelines.

Author: Lauren Azevedo is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg. She can be reached at [email protected].

Author: Pamela Medina is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at California State University San Bernardino. She can be reached at [email protected]

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