Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel
Rutgers University Press, 2012

Kelly Ward, a Washington State University professor and co-author of Academic Motherhood, contends that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture still prevails in academia when it comes to pregnancy.

Sometimes that keeps women from reaching their professional potential and getting the personal support they need.

“Department chairs fear saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing,” says Ward. “The pregnant woman ends up not understanding medical leave policy or not being prepared to have someone assume her teaching duties.”

Ward and her University of Kansas colleague Lisa Wolf-Wendel based Academic Motherhood on a decade of interviews with more than 100 women who are both mothers and faculty members, talking with them in both early and mid-career. The book is getting national attention from media and policy makers. It concludes that, despite ample challenges, female academics can indeed have it all.

“A lot of women get tenure, have families, and live to tell about it,” says Ward, who chairs WSU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology. “Not only that, they’re healthy, happy human beings.”

Tenure—the attainment of a permanent, top-level faculty position—makes a higher education career especially challenging to women, Ward says. It requires an intense six-year review process in which assistant professors who have already spent years earning a doctorate prove themselves through research, publication, teaching, and service.

With tenure comes the title of associate professor and the chance for a higher-paying, high-prestige full professorship. It’s an up-or-out system. Those who don’t make tenure must leave their institution.

“Because the average age for women to earn their doctorate is 34, the tenure clock is ticking simultaneously with their biological clock,” says Ward, a mother of three. “Compared to doctors and lawyers, academic women are the professionals least likely to have children.”