Women, especially mothers are less likely to be promoted to full professors at Canadian universities. With increasingly more women earning doctorate degrees, and close to half of the faculty at Canadian universities consisting of women, it is crucial to understand and remove barriers keeping women from reaching top-earning academic positions.

Is motherhood and caring for a family incompatible with an academic career? Why are men dominating top-earning and top-leadership positions at Canadian universities?

A study conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University examined experiences of academic mothers on the tenure track at Canadian universities to outline career obstacles they face.

The following article highlights the findings of the study authored by:

  • Yvonne James, University of Ottawa
  • Ivy Bourgeault, University of Ottawa
  • Merridee Bujaki, Carleton University
  • Stephanie Gaudet, University of Ottawa

Twenty-two (22) women at two universities in Ontario, Canada were interviewed as part of the study, of which 20 identified themselves as mothers. All the women held tenure-track positions within their universities and were from diverse faculties and departments.

Care Work and Academic Motherhood: Challenges for Research and Tenure in the Canadian University

Challenges for academic mothers

While maternity leave itself is a progressive accomplishment in Canadian social policy, existing studies indicate that promotion practices in academia remain largely unchanged. Universities still have traditional practices that expect and reward undivided dedication to academic work and largely ignore the time-consuming nature of raising young children.

Previous studies also argue that with societal expectations of care work generally placed on women, among parents, it is academic mothers who experience the bulk of work-life conflict.

Participants in this study identified the following main challenges related to academic motherhood.

Fear of academic erasure while away on maternity leave

In the highly competitive academic tenure track, where published research impacts possibilities for promotion, academic mothers had concerns about the impact of their absence on their careers. They feared loss of productivity, loss of collaboration with peers and a drop in the amount of research they published. To counter negative impacts, they felt pressured to assert their presence physically and intellectually, striving to continuously be available to be contacted by colleagues, collaborators and students. One of the interviewees, who worried about her job, mentioned going to work once a week during maternity leave with her baby “to make sure I was still contributing to the projects I was leading.”

Getting stuck on the “mommy tenure track”

“Mommy-track” is an idiom describing the career path of women who reduce their work hours and make work arrangements to better carry the main responsibility of raising children. Interestingly, existing research suggests work arrangements offered to parents such as flexible hours or reduced work responsibilities tend to result in fewer opportunities for advancement and reduced income.

Facing a work environment with unrelenting focus on research output, the women interviewed were concerned about the impact a reduced research productivity would have on their careers while they were raising their families. One of the interviewees shared how a male supervisor advised her to learn from other academic mothers how to maintain productivity, praising academic mothers who, “had kids, and you would never have known.”

Academic mothers applying for a promotion or research grants also shared how they were expected to explain and justify gaps in productivity that may be a result of maternity leave. One interviewee said, “You’re constantly having to say what the impact is of taking a maternity leave.”

The amount of service work, which is workload to support a department or faculty and tends to be undesirable because of its lack of impact on career advancement on the tenure track, was also an issue. It is well documented that women academics tend to take on more service work than their male counterparts. Academic mothers, participating in this study, often found themselves overwhelmed by service work, which takes away from the time available to dedicate to research.

Additionally, interviewees shared struggling with doubts pertaining to their research programs, their careers and even reproductive choices. One interviewee commented how having to continuously justify every professional and personal decision, “sucks away at your confidence.”

It seemed academic promotion processes penalized leaves of absence. Interviewees that experienced the mommy-track, saw tenure applications delayed and denied, while departmental service work grew.

This study suggests that in academia, women’s career downgrade to the mommy-track begins with lower productivity in the immediate post-partum period during maternity leave or when they restart research projects following maternity leave. Once on this path, academic mothers tended to experience a series of lowered expectations, reduced opportunities for promotion, and decreased research capacity.

Researcher, Yvonne James, commented on experiences of the study participants.

“Having to compete for promotions on the tenure track during the most time-consuming phase for raising children puts academic mothers at a disadvantage,” she said.

Balancing research demands and child-raising responsibilities

Existing research have described the academic environment and culture as masculine, where undivided commitment to academic work is expected, giving little value to care work at home (caring for family) or at work (service work at universities). They argue that the academic work environment and expectations regarding research processes are incompatible to any kind of care work.

Similarly, participants in this study shared perspectives about the incompatibility of academic research processes with caring for a family. Academic mothers found themselves having to adjust their research to allow room for care work responsibilities. Women felt they needed to make care work invisible to succeed in academia, causing stress in balancing work and care responsibilities. One interviewee shared her views of making care work visible saying, “I want people to say, ‘Hey, look, she has kids and she is doing her job, and she’s doing her job well.’”

Consistent with existing research, this study argues that traditional processes of rigorous academic research are not conducive to caring. Expectations around conducting field work or attending conferences were examples mentioned of the tension between academic expectations and the impact care work has on mobility for academic mothers.

“Re-imagining academia as a place that facilitates rather than hinders caring is an important step toward change,” said Yvonne James.

Implications and future research

This study argues that expectations around gender that tasks women with family care work become entangled with academic processes, putting women at a disadvantage. It suggests that maternity leave, which is considered a progressive practice, has unanticipated impacts on the careers of academic mothers. Consequently, academic mothers grapple with:

  • fear of being overlooked and forgotten while away on maternity leave
  • bias against maternity leave and child rearing
  • delayed or denied tenure applications
  • doubts about career path and reproductive choices
  • excess of service work with less time for research
  • balancing research productivity demands and child-raising responsibilities

Beyond visible processes like access to childcare and parental leave, this study shines a light on the less visible issues hindering academic mothers’ careers, such as academic erasure and mommy-tracking.

Findings of this study supports existing research that suggest traditional concepts of productivity and promotion practices at Canadian universities are incompatible with family care work contributing to the academic gender gap.

Yvonne James shared her thoughts on the change she hopes to see.

“The current promotion requirements at Canadian universities make women feel their career success depends on making ‘the right’ reproductive choices,” she said. “And that needs to change.”

As far as future research, authors of this study would like to see studies examining the experiences of academic motherhood and caring in the post-pandemic academic environment. While current data shows an increase in men’s research productivity following lockdown measures, women’s research productivity did the opposite. It is believed that care responsibilities that largely fell on the shoulders of mothers due to school and daycare closure, have widened the research productivity gap between women and men.

This study suggests future research should assert the importance of caring through academic processes. Making care work visible and taken into consideration throughout the tenure track, would help remove barriers keeping academic mothers from top positions at Canadian universities.

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available from the first author, Yvonne James.

Other Information

For more information or to get in touch with a subject matter expert, please contact CRIW at criw@carleton.ca or 613-520-2650.

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.