Is Higher Education a “Family-Friendly” Career Choice?

This blog is part of a cross-post series between The Familiar Strange and our friends at Broad Agenda, a gender equality initiative born out of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra, Australia. TFS thanks Dr Pia Rowe and Virginia Haussegger AM for their interest in collaborating with us. We encourage you to check out more of their blogs, too! 


There is a pervasive belief, at least in the Western world, that education is a good career choice for ‘women who want a family’. In fact, it is not uncommon for individuals to enter a career in education with their family (or future family) in mind. This is mostly based on the idea of convenient working hours. The story goes that, if tertiary educators are not teaching a class or sitting in a compulsory meeting, they have the autonomy to choose whether they are working on campus or elsewhere, making it easier to combine work with childcare. However, this myth can be damaging, and the changes to the higher education sector make it increasingly difficult to combine the two.

What is a family, and what does ‘family-friendly’ mean?

The term ‘family-friendly’ is redolent with ambiguity. Different contexts demand that it be interpreted differently, and even when it is applied to workplaces and workplace policies, what counts as ‘family-friendly’ varies across cultures, sectors and individual organisations. It may include (i) the possibility of taking carer’s leave and/or maternity leave, (ii) workloads that allow for increased time with family (I.e. no more than an average of 30 hours of work per week, (iii) flexible and alternative working hours and locations, or (iv) on or off-site assistance with childcare (see this study for examples).

These definitions assume not only that children are the key caring responsibility (as opposed to aging parents or responsibilities to an extended family, for example), but also that a single policy has the potential to fit all circumstances, contexts and cultures.

However, in a multicultural employment environment like Australia’s, this is not a reasonable assumption. For example, flexible working hours have been found to hold minimal value to employees from China, Kenya or Thailand; elder-care is equally as valued as childcare in South Korea; and in Hong Kong, where women have been found to postpone having children in order to stabilise their financial positions, value is placed more highly on tax reductions or subsidies for parents, and assistance with childcare services. Clearly, what is ‘friendly’ to one family may not be so to another.

The myth of the family-friendly education career

So how does the concept of ‘family-friendly’ intersect with careers, particularly those in academia? While education, in general, is unlikely to be the utopia of easy hours and long holidays that many seem to envisage, universities have created a particularly pernicious confluence of difficulties for academics. The increasing casualisation of the workforce means that tenured or permanent positions are now often an unachievable dream, and without tenure, work-life balance can be nigh unattainable.

The problem with the tenure system lies in the two-class system that it represents. Tenured staff have a reasonable, and secure, living wage. However, those in insecure or casual employment make up to two-thirds of the Australian academic workforce, 70% of academics in the US and 91% of academics in Germany, which may make it difficult for them to meet their living costs.

Despite their academic qualifications, casual staff have been likened to seasonal fruit pickers who can easily get trapped into a vicious cycle because the high teaching load prevents them from doing enough research to keep up with their full-time counterparts, making them less competitive on the job market for permanent positions.

This is even more common among female academics and is intensified again for women of colour, or those who are not citizens of the country in which they are working. A study of economics faculty members who had recently been denied tenure found that men received 61% more interviews than similarly qualified women, and that skin colour and citizenship also played a role in whether or not they were offered interviews at other US universities.

So, with women still performing the lion’s share of unpaid caring and household duties, and receiving fewer opportunities at work, what’s a woman with a family, or who wants a family, to do?

A change is as good as a…

The answer to the question ‘What should I do when there are too few opportunities in the universities near me?’ is often ‘It’s time to pack your bags, you’re moving somewhere new!’. As the neoliberal agenda marches ruthlessly forward, and with an increasingly global war for academic talent in universities, it is more likely than ever that competition for jobs is coming from all corners of the earth. Consequently, academics must be prepared to move if they wish to pursue or continue an academic career.

While for some an international move could constitute an exciting new adventure, for academics with spouses, children and/or elder care responsibilities, this kind of upheaval often leads to the termination of their careers.

Much of the research about international academic mobility seems to work with an underlying assumption that prevalence of academic mobility is synonymous with ease of academic mobility — that is, if everyone is doing it, it must be relatively effortless. This, of course, fails to take into account the vast swathes of research on foreign academic stress or adjustment. Moving to a new country is hard – moving to a new country either with a family or by leaving a family behind, is often even harder. But the rhetoric of ‘it’s normal, it’s no big deal, get on with it’ prevails, influencing both universities in their recruitment and orientation practices, and academics in their mobility practices.

Dr Sarah Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology, spoke recently about the gendered aspects of academia. In a very candid interview, she noted that for her, getting divorced was a blessing: as a committed academic, it’s incredibly hard to be a good partner, a good parent, even a good friend. At the end of a day of academic work, you may not want to talk to anybody else, and giving yourself that option is a form of self-care. But that kind of self-care doesn’t help you to play well with others, so it becomes a vexed choice – be a good academic, or a good wife and mother.

When an academic career relies so heavily on your willingness to love your work so deeply that you will donate your time to doing it, unpaid, it presents a very difficult conundrum for those who also wish to have a family.

Author note: This blog was developed out of a chapter I’ve written about global families in transnational education for the Research Handbook of Global Families, edited by
Dr Yvonne McNulty and published by Edward Elgar, due out in 2019.

[Image sourced from the Tumblr site Congrats, you have an all male panel!, which crowdsources images of “all male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts”. The caption on the image reads: “Opening of the academic year at Leiden University, the Netherlands”]


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