Policies To Stop Tenure Clock Support Family Life

Policies permitting untenured women faculty to "stop the tenure clock," especially when they bear children, appear to be gaining ground at United States universities. Such clock- stopping allows women to step off the tenure track for an extended time, theoretically without penalty. However, the practical effects on career advancement of this relatively recent practice remain to be examined. "There has been debate, to be frank, about whether these policies can earmark you," acknowledges Catherin

Steve Bunk
Nov 23, 1997

Policies permitting untenured women faculty to "stop the tenure clock," especially when they bear children, appear to be gaining ground at United States universities. Such clock- stopping allows women to step off the tenure track for an extended time, theoretically without penalty. However, the practical effects on career advancement of this relatively recent practice remain to be examined.

"There has been debate, to be frank, about whether these policies can earmark you," acknowledges Catherine J. Didion, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Women in Science (AWIS). "Most people would agree that there are additional demands to being a birth mother, but I think there is a concern that this [policy trend] not be seen as . . . an explanation of why women haven't been advancing.

"The vast majority of women in academia want to have a rewarding professional life, but the problem is that so many of the mechanisms to do that are unwritten; they're not codified," she adds. "I think people deceive themselves if they believe tenure is judged by ability alone. The reality is that science, like everything in life, has a social component."

In 1993, AWIS embarked on a recently completed study of the "climate" for women in science, to design solutions to commonly faced problems (C.J. Didion et al., Cultivating Academic Careers, Washington, D.C., AWIS, in press). Didion says the project, which centered on three unnamed academic institutions, revealed that negotiations and decisions at the departmental level are critical to stopping the tenure clock without penalty. "What's going to be your teaching level, who's going to cover? These are the real questions, and what we found is that you really need a supportive departmental chair," she says. "You stop the clock to have some sanity and mental balance between your professional and parental life. In most cases, women are still very active at everything, but it's a question of what to do, and to what degree."

She believes that lessons remain to be learned by academia from industry, which she says is ahead in such areas as child-care facilities, flexible time for parenting, and telecommuting. She says corporations also have been quicker than universities to recognize that more balanced lives for their employees are better for the bottom li

The AWIS study cites a recent survey aimed at identifying the nation's most "family friendly" campuses, conducted by the College and University Personnel Association Foundation and the Families and Work Institute, both of Washington, D.C. Fewer than half of the 375 four-year institutions that responded allowed their faculty to stop the tenure clock for personal or family reasons.

The failure thus far of the others to follow suit can be explained, in part, by the intense competition for tenure. Generally, the "tenure track" consists of a six- or seven- year period during which the faculty member is expected to publish original research and develop teaching skills. The assessment procedure typically is secretive, and no reasons are given for denial of tenure. An employee who does not achieve tenure after the allotted time usually either goes off the tenure track or leaves the institution.

"Essentially women are expected to follow a 'male model' of academic success involving a total time commitment to scientific work and aggressive competitive relations with peers," concluded a National Science Foundation-funded study titled "Barriers to Women in Academic Science and Engineering" (H. Etzkowitz et al., in W. Pearson, Jr., I. Fechter, eds., Who Will Do Science? Educating The Next Generation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). "At present, the strategy of balancing career and family is contrary to the culture of high-status research universities."

LEVELING THE TABLE: Stanford's policy acknowledges that childbirth imposes challenges on a woman's career, states Kathryn Gillam.
At Stanford University, senior associate provost for faculty affairs Kathryn Gillam denies that the university's current policies on stopping the tenure clock are an attempt to recognize gender-related differences in approaches to academic success. "The expectations for women and men seeking tenure are the same, the workloads are the same, and the standards of achievement are the same," she declares. "And it is recognized that women have babies."

Stanford women have been allowed to stop the tenure clock for childbirth since 1971. The original policy permitted untenured faculty two extensions of one year each for births during the seven-year probation. In 1996, the two-child limit was abandoned on the grounds that it could be construed as an imposition on women's personal choices. Instead, a limit of 10 years to achieve tenure was set for all eligible faculty, regardless of the reasons for delaying the tenure decision beyond seven years. At Stanford, these reasons include research leave without salary, periods of purely administrative duties, and the one-year extensions for giving birth, which do not require the woman to take unpaid leave.

The latter arrangement is better than, and precedes, provisions in the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Subject to specific conditions, that law requires organizations with more than 50 employees to provide a worker with 12 workweeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child, among other reasons.

At Stanford, Gillam says, male faculty are not allowed to stop the clock for becoming parents in a way that would be analogous to the policy for birth mothers. She says this was "a point of significant debate" but adds: "The purpose of the policy is to level the table, to acknowledge that having a baby imposes an additional challenge to a woman's career." The policy recognizes that childbirth and its aftermath place special physical and biological demands on a woman, and that women face a biological clock that often overlaps with the tenure clock in a way not relevant to men or adoptive parents.

She estimates that a dozen female faculty have requested tenure clock extensions over the past five years. "What the outcomes are over time will take a long while to detect."

BALANCED LIFE: M.D. Anderson revised its tenure clock policy to help women balance work and home life, says Margaret Kripke.
Margaret L. Kripke chairs the department of immunology at the Houston-based M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas. She cofounded a women's group that in 1986 prompted extension of the center's seven-year tenure probation up to an extra year without penalty for a woman or a man who temporarily stops working for medical or family reasons. A second extension may be requested, although it is not encouraged because of the difficulty of catching up again.

MOVING UP: University of Michigan's Terry Root thinks women increasingly are being accepted in science's higher jobs.
"Partly, this [revised policy] evolved because we are a clinical institution," says Kripke, "and it's very difficult, particularly for women in their child-bearing years, to do clinical work, have children, and make tenure all at the same time."

Kripke was awarded tenure when she came to the center in 1983. Her only child had been born between her Ph.D. and postdoctoral work. "My model is an early one; have your kids and get your support system set up for them, and then get your tenure," she comments. "Another model, which seems to be popular now, is to first get tenure and have your children later." She thinks one of the most difficult times to have children is after postdoctoral work but before achieving tenure.

"When I came here, I was the first and only female department head. We now have three female department heads and have had one female vice president," she says. Nevertheless, "there's still a perception that women can't achieve as much as men, which means they have to work harder to prove they can. I think that's still true, as a crude generalization."

Terry L. Root is an associate professor of biology and natural resources at the University of Michigan who has made a major personal sacrifice to advance her career. "Captive spouses" is her term for the problem: "My husband is a faculty member at Stanford, I'm a faculty member at Michigan. It's a 2,000-mile commute," she says. "There's no facility to help in that matter; someone has to deal with captive spouses."

Root, an ornithologist, has no children and says she earned her tenure without great difficulty. "In the science world, I think people are taking to heart that we've got to start accepting more women [in high positions]. Otherwise, there's too much of a brain drain."

When she started work at the university in 1987, staff were allowed maternity leave but faculty were required to go on disability leave to have children. Since then, she says, the institution has revised its policy to allow female faculty to stop the six-year tenure clock without penalty for up to one year to have a child.

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LONG WAIT: Hon Fong Louie Mark of Brown University believes she still suffers professionally from the break she took to raise a family.
Hon Fong Louie Mark, an assistant professor of pathology in the Brown University School of Medicine and director of the cytogenetics laboratory at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, took a nine-year leave of absence from 1977 to 1986 to raise a family. It was a personal decision she doesn't regret but now realizes "irreversibly damaged" her career. Although widely published in scientific journals, she feels she is not able to advance at her institution.

After returning to work, she chaired the university's committee on the status of women for several years. "Brown does have a policy. It is possible to the stop the tenure clock, but not many people knew about it," Mark says. She wrote an article on the topic for the faculty bulletin. Her committee also examined ways faculty members could work at slower or faster paces and have their progress evaluated at regular intervals.

Brown University also has an affirmative action monitoring committee to review tenure decisions of minorities and women, but it applies only to campus-based faculty. "They have hundreds of hospital-based faculty that they have no jurisdiction over," she points out. Nor are hospital-based faculty such as Mark currently eligible for tenure. She now is in a group working on this problem.

"I think women have made great gains but people get impatient, because it's not fast enough," she remarks. "As a woman and a member of a minority, I have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. I haven't taken one day of vacation this year. Still, I'm not doing all that well. I can't imagine what it would be like if I worked less hard."

STRONG NUMBERS: About 20 percent of the University of Iowa's tenured faculty and half of its new faculty are women, reports Elizabeth Altmaier.
Women looking for equal opportunity in academia might do worse than the University of Iowa, which ranks No. 1 among the country's top 60 academic institutions for female faculty on the tenure track, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Universities. Associate provost Elizabeth M. Altmaier reports there are 131 women and 229 men on the university's tenure track. About half of all new faculty hirings are of women. Currently, 271 of the tenured faculty, or about 20 percent, are women.

In the early 1990s, Altmaier was on an ad hoc university committee that studied policies related to parenting in a number of other institutions. In 1993, a new policy "to reduce conflict with parental obligations" was adopted that includes clock-stopping for tenure-track male or female faculty who are primary or coequal caregivers. The six-year tenure probation can be extended twice, by a year each time. "The policy is gender-neutral, and it doesn't specify the type of parental relationship, so it could be a gay couple who adopt," Altmaier comments.

As "an impediment-based extension," the year off the track does not figure in later assessments of progress toward tenure. "Our third-year review has a lot of teeth, and you have to be able to demonstrate strong progress toward tenure by then, or you'll be terminated," Altmaier notes. She says the university has averaged three to four applications for clock-stopping in the past four years, about 25 percent of whom were male caregivers. "To be honest, most faculty tend not to have children before they're tenured," she acknowledges.

"I think that stopping the tenure clock is a nod to the male model [of doing science], because it says, in the competition, this person is disadvantaged," Altmaier observes. "The problem is that women are still going to have children if the biological clock says they're going to have them, but it can make their pre-tenure years awful."