Women's Work

By Emily Gold Boutilier / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
A decade ago, when Sharon Swartz was a young assistant professor, she did something she feared would end her career: she got pregnant. Swartz returned to her research a week after giving birth and began a field study a few weeks later. "I didn't even ask for a teaching reduction," she says. "It never would have even occurred to me."

Although Brown has a maternity leave policy for staff, leaves for faculty are determined ad hoc by individual departments. The Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) has been pressuring University Hall to formalize a faculty policy, and Executive Vice President of Planning Richard Spies says he expects one to be in place in the near future.

"If we can't be competitive in this area," he says, "we'll have trouble attracting people, especially women. The pressures on faculty, [especially] the very young faculty who are preparing for tenure, are enormous. Their family responsibilities often get compromised."

Brown's current Faculty Rules and Regulations endorses only "the principle of maternity leave." The Handbook of Academic Administration is slightly more explicit: it says pregnant professors are "automatically eligible" for six weeks of paid leave and that new parents are "entitled to" a semester unpaid, but that each department must compensate whoever fills in. In practice, some mothers receive a semester's break from teaching, while others teach fewer classes. Some of them earn full pay. Still others take six weeks off, or even less, afraid they'll jeopardize their career or financial well-being.

"When there is no standard policy, everything is negotiable," says CSW chair Elaine Bearer, an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. "Some departments have more funding and can be more generous, some have more faculty to cover required courses, some have fewer required course offerings."

The CSW is calling for a semester of paid relief from teaching and the creation of a central fund to pay for fill-in help. In addition, a new mother could push back the "tenure clock," buying time to do research or publish before her tenure review. "It's a make-it-or-break-it period for a scholar," says Swartz of the six-year period leading up to tenure review. That's why teaching relief is so important, she says.

Maternity leave for faculty is a divisive issue on many campuses. Critics argue that while leaves effect an entire department, only new mothers benefit. Others say the benefits should be granted more broadly - to those who care for elderly parents, for example. (Bearer hopes Brown will eventually extend the proposed benefits to fathers and adoptive parents). And still others maintain that parenting is a choice and warrants no special treatment. History professor Joan Richards says she faced opposition seventeen years ago when she insisted on a maternity leave: "The implication was, if I had been a better doobie I would have planned to have my baby in June."

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September / October 2002