At the end of August newspapers and social media were flooded with debates about the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) gender pay gap findings, and it is a particularly timely debate given the rise of female leadership in global politics. The debates surrounding this new release stemmed from one core theme, do women earn less than men because of their own life choices? This got me thinking about my career journey as a female academic, especially given the recent special 10th anniversary edition of Feminist Criminology that tackles the male domination of criminology.
On the face of it gender shouldn’t matter, but in reality, for many women it matters greatly and this comes from my own personal experience. Young women are regularly told “you can have it all, a family and a career”, and I agree with this to some extent, however, the type of academic career and speed of academic progression varies greatly when a woman chooses to have a family. I was very fortunate to take up a prestigious research post following my doctorate in a reputable university with fantastic career prospects ahead of me. I was working with some of the most well respected professors and readers in their fields and considered myself very lucky. After an initial 12 month contract, my post was renewed without question and I had plans; get published, apply for research grants, travel the international conferences and get my name known in criminology, these were my goals and what I had worked so hard for. But then the day came, a day I should have been shouting from the rooftops, but instead was sitting in my parked car terrified of what might happen, it was the day I was to tell my (female) professor I was pregnant.
I had a good relationship with my ‘boss’, I considered us friends and I thought to myself, well she’ll understand, she’s had a family, oh how wrong I was. Whilst she was delighted for me and my husband, it was clear that my ‘situation’ did not fit with her requirements, and without going into all the messy details, I was told that my contract would not be renewed as they were unable to accommodate my maternity leave. As a result, 2 weeks before I was due to welcome my little bundle of joy into the world, I was unemployed. This moment in my career is something I will never forget, in addition to feelings of hurt and betrayal, I was angry, so very angry. As I witnessed my male ‘replacement’ flourish in the university I once respected, I thought to myself, gender does matter.
After 12 months of maternity leave I found it almost impossible to find suitable employment. My leave had meant I was behind others in terms of publications, grants and current affair knowledge. My world had been consumed by my beautiful baby to the detriment of my career. Luckily one university saw the passion and potential in me and understood that prioritising my family life should not be career suicide. When I returned to academia I started to make some key observations that have reinforced the gender disparities, and it started with my new (male) professor pointing out that having a child easily puts your career back by 5 years. Why, is this the case?
- My evenings and weekends are spent looking after my child, not writing articles and bids. This is my responsibility.
- I rarely attend conferences, particularly international ones, because I can’t be away from my child. This is my responsibility.
- I can’t attend the evening seminar series and networking drinks receptions because I have to pick up my child from childcare. This is my responsibility.
Having a child was a choice, yes, but with that choice is a lifelong responsibility that outweighs the academic career path. I have witnessed female academics use their annual international conference as their family holiday time. This is not what I want. I have observed colleagues missing the first day at school, the nativity play, the sports day achievements. This is not what I want. So yes, in my case I am making choices, choices that are undoubtably impacting on my academic progression. As I sit back and watch many of my (childless or male) colleagues achieving great things, all the things I once wished and hoped for,I am reminded on a daily basis as I look into my child’s eyes, that none of that really matters anymore.
I am sure the day will come when my evenings and weekends are free again to undertake the scholarship activity necessary for ‘success’ and when that day comes I will be in a position to make another choice. Do I try to catch up with my colleagues or do I accept that I am where I am because of the choices I made? Whilst I might not be rich on the salary scale, I am rich in so many other ways; I will be able to turn round and have no regrets of putting my child before my work, I might not be a great criminologist, but I’ll be safe in the knowledge I was the greatest mum I could be.
I cannot comment much on the male take on parenthood in academia. I have observed some male peers decide to opt out of the academic scholarship, for university administration and management to enable them to have more quality family time. I know of male colleagues who strive for so much academic success they sacrifice time with their children to achieve that 5* star paper and EU research bid. So, in this sense gender doesn’t matter. Men and women with children have to make choices, often tough choices. Maybe what gender pay gaps in academia tell us is that women are more confident standing up for their family and saying no to the increasing demands of the academic life. Maybe men don’t want to appear ‘weak’ by putting their career on hold for their family. I don’t know, I don’t have the answers. What I do know is is that it’s not so much gender that matters, but rather gendered choices, and whilst we still measure quality of life and success in monetary values, women will always been deemed to be “worse off”.
To conclude, let me return to the “you can have it all” proposal. I have a happy family and a good career, the difference is I chose to be more successful at parenting than at criminological scholarship. So yes, you can have it all but the scales will never be equally balanced.