Behind the Scenes: Experiences of Pretenure Counseling Professor Mothers

Experiences of Pretenure Counseling Professor Mothers

Mary Hermann & Cheryl Neale-McFall

In the article, Experiences of Pretenure Counseling Professor Mothers, we explore the current state of academic motherhood.  The study was inspired by our discussions about our experiences and the experiences of colleagues.  Through these conversations, we discovered that in spite of over 20 years of research encouraging family-friendly practices in academia, life for academic mothers seemed to be getting harder. 

The voices of our participants illuminate academic and cultural norms and policies that create challenges for faculty mothers.  We discuss the impact of the recent recession and dwindling state support for universities on the current workload of pretenure faculty.  We address gendered expectations in the academy and the lack of policies that support faculty mothers.  We explore how prevailing cultural norms related to the “increasingly extreme parenting model” (Hewlett & Luce, 2006, p. 10) and “Martha Stewartization of America” (Douglas & Michaels, 2004, p. 9) impact faculty mothers.  We also discuss the benefits that our participants experienced as a result of their multiple roles.  And we share our participants’ advice for faculty mothers.

In order to promote initiatives that support academic mothers, we provide a summary of family-friendly policies suggested in the literature and further implicated by our findings.  We discuss the importance of changing societal norms and implementing family-friendly government policies as well.  And we note the importance of continued attention to this topic in academia as universities are optimal environments for promoting social and institutional change.  


Researchers have identified some of the factors that inhibit the success of mothers in academia, including overt and covert discrimination, inequitable teaching and service assignments, and the lack of policies that support combining motherhood and academic work.  Pretenure mothers are particularly vulnerable as they attempt to balance increasing demands for achieving tenure and the overlap of the tenure and biological clocks.  In addition to further exploring these factors, this phenomenological study of ten women counseling professors considered the impact of rising cultural expectations related to motherhood.  Results of this study revealed that combining pretenure academic work and motherhood seems to be increasingly more challenging.  Themes highlighted include instances of incompatibility in academic and motherhood roles and barriers in academic culture.  Also provided are positive aspects of academic motherhood, strategies for success under current cultural and academic systems, and suggestions for advocacy efforts to further support faculty mothers.

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