“A Family-Friendly Policy That’s Friendliest to Male Professors”

That title from Justin Wolfers’s article in the The New York Times:

The central problem is that employment policies that are gender-neutral on paper may not be gender-neutral in effect. After all, most women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden. Given this asymmetry, it’s little wonder some recently instituted benefits have given men an advantage.

I am sure there is a spirited discussion on social media, but with my new abstinence policy, I have no idea. I would probably make better points if I saw it. My only consolation (sort of) is that I will not see any blowback from my own thoughts.

The basic premise strikes me as true–men benefit more career-wise. But with caveats. Because the few months after the birth does not tenure make or break. Parenting is permanent.

There’s not a day goes by that I am not grateful for my own parental leave: one course off at Yale for each of the two kids, plus a smidgen less administrative work that year. I’d say the (slim?) majority of my peers going up for tenure do not have children. Having kids (and being dedicated to them) cut 20 hours out of my work week from the day they arrived. I don’t care how much more productive I became after kids, trying to fit everything into 9am-5pm and 9-11pm just five days a week: when aggregate inputs went down, so did aggregate outputs.

This to me is the big “time shock”: not the few months after the birth, but the compressed work hours forevermore, especially when you are compared explicitly at tenure time against childless colleagues who can and often do put in much, much more time. On average across families, women bear an unequal burden here. That’s not true of my family. But if it’s true for the average female assistant professor, then this could be a bigger disadvantage she faces, one that isn’t solved with a maternity leave policy.

That said, the parental leave right after birth matters too. Jeannie wanted to (and did) take off more time than me after the births. I know a lot of female assistant professor colleagues who did the same, and only a few male ones. (Also, let’s not forget who had the physical ordeal here.)

My sense is that most universities have an all-or-nothing parental leave policy that doesn’t quite fit different people’s priorities, or the unequal burden by gender (even if, in some relationships, it’s just the child-carrying itself).

As a profession, I think we ought to make sure that assistant professors who have kids get a break. Maybe a course off, with the understanding they are still active department members. And those who want to take serious time off after the birth could get a more serious break, such as more course relief and a tenure clock extension. Personally I’d support a policy that systematically favored women here, for longer than a semester.

All-or-nothing, gender-blind, one-semester long leave policies bear no resemblance to the demands of parenting, and the tensions with the tenure system.