Posted on July 13, 2009

Is Having More Than 2 Children an Unspoken Taboo?

Robin Wilson, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 10, 2009

By academic standards, Rebecca R. Richards-Kortum has it made. She is a full professor of bioengineering at Rice University, runs a thriving cancer-research laboratory, and is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.

But with four children at home, she sometimes feels like an academic outcast. In fact, Ms. Richards-Kortum says she is most comfortable in her dual roles as professor and mother during the research trips she takes several times a year to southern Africa.


Ms. Richards-Kortum is one of a very small number of academic women with three, four, or more children. In academe, where having even one child can slow down success, trying to manage multiple kids can be a career-stopper.

Women with many children are seen by their peers and supervisors as less than serious about their work in a profession that often expects nothing short of complete devotion. Even administrators who consider themselves supportive of female professors with children may question the wisdom of those with more than one or two.


True, an academic career can be flexible–at least after tenure. But the dozen or so arduous years spent earning a Ph.D. and building a career makes academe one of the less friendly professions for women with children, say researchers who study the issue.

Graduate students have already picked up on that. In a 2006-7 study of 8,400 graduate students on nine University of California campuses, only 29 percent of the women and 46 percent of the men said they considered research universities to be family-friendly places for tenure-track professors to work.

Meanwhile, a national study of about 5,000 professors in chemistry and English, completed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University in 2002, found that female professors had an average of only .66 kids each. The average American woman by comparison, has about two children.

Yet another study, conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Utah, found that academic women were 27 percent less likely than doctors and 17 percent less likely than lawyers to have babies. It also found that male professors fathered fewer children than their male counterparts in those other professions.


Academic women, meanwhile, are well aware of the harm that having children can do to their professional lives. In the national study of English and chemistry professors, 26 percent of women–double the proportion of men–said they had fewer children than they would have liked in order to achieve academic success. “The cultural line in academe is that one child is acceptable, maybe two, but three are not,” says Marc Goulden, a Berkeley researcher who has completed several studies on academic women and children.

Julianna Baggott knows full well that the third child is often considered the third rail of academe. That’s why, when she is asked how it feels to be a professor with five children, she has one word: “subversive.” Ms. Baggott’s husband stays home to watch the kids, but that hasn’t made her feel any more comfortable about her large brood. She displays no photos of her children in her office in Florida State University’s English department, and she never tells colleagues that she can’t make a meeting because of the children, who range in age from 14 to 2. “I just say, ‘I’m sorry, I have a conflict,'” she says.

“Academia assumes that a woman, once she has kids, is not going to be able to maintain her career at the same level,” says Ms. Baggott, an associate professor. She just earned tenure and has written 14 books, including six for children. “I’m a workaholic,” she says during a cellphone interview between stops on a West Coast tour for one of her latest books, The Prince of Fenway Park (HarperCollins, 2009).

Some women say it is academe’s focus on the mind, not the body, that makes being a pregnant professor–or one with kids–so unusual and unwelcome.

“In academia, the mind/body split is operative,” says Nicole Cooley, an associate professor of English at the City University of New York’s Queens College and a contributor to Mama Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). “Academia’s grounding in the clerical tradition means that a lot of your identity is your intellectual work, and you don’t sully yourself with domestic arrangements and bodily things.”


Women with several children say colleagues and supervisors alike are not shy about sharing their scorn over the women’s über-fertility. Two years ago, when April Hill, an associate professor of biology at the University of Richmond, had her third child at age 38, one administrator remarked, “Aren’t you a bit old for that?”

Elisabeth R. Gruner, an associate professor of English at Richmond who contributed an essay to Mama Ph.D., says: “There is a distaste that you’d want to spend a lot of time with little kids–an idea that you may not be very smart.”

Saranna R. Thornton, who heads the economics department at Hampden-Sydney College, was at a picnic with faculty and staff members nine years ago when she shared the good news that she was expecting her fourth child. A senior administrator looked at her and asked, “Don’t you know what causes that?” Ms. Thornton even got quizzical looks from close friends and colleagues, who asked her why she was having another child. (The short answer, for Ms. Thornton and several other women who spoke to The Chronicle: They simply really enjoy children, sometimes much to their own surprise.)

Georgia Frank, an associate professor of religion at Colgate University, says she senses an attitude from some in academe that anyone who has more than two children has surpassed an invisible quota. “There is something greedy about going for just one more,” says Ms. Frank, whose own children are 15, 12, and 7.