When Progressive Policies Backfire

photo-1457408994065-3c1586bd86d0It’s a common practice in higher education to give new parents “clock relief.” The practice, which started about 30 years ago, is designed to help new parents manage the tenure process. Typically, professors are hired—most are in the early to mid 30s by the time they start their first job—and they have 7 years to produce the research publications required to get tenure. Since new faculty are often already in their mid 30s, however, for many, especially women, time to have a family is limited. This means as they are launching their careers, they are also frequently raising small children. In recognition of the problem, faculty can apply for “clock relief,” which essentially gives them one additional year before they come up for tenure. Sounds good, but a new study suggest that men have benefited from the policy far more than women.

As reported in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, a recent study on hiring in economics found that the “stop-the-clock” policy has had a disturbing impact on tenure in the field:

Before [“stop-the-clock”] policies, just under 30 percent of male and female economists at the top 50 departments got tenure. After those departments adopted stop-the-clock policies, women’s chances of getting tenure in their first job dropped by 22 percent while men’s increased by 19 percent.

In an article in The New York Times, Alison Davis-Blake, the Dean of the business school at the University of Michigan, further explained, “Giving birth is not a gender-neutral event.”

Why the “Stop-the-Clock” Policy has Served Male rather than Female Faculty

There are many potential reasons for the disparity and truth be told, finding real answers to the question may be difficult, since this is partially a private concern. Anecdotally, however, most female faculty members (like women attorneys and those working in for high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley) will tell you that embracing the “stop-the-clock” has consequences for them.  Cheryl, who teaches history at a liberal arts college but would not use her last name or identify her college since she is currently coming up for tenure, explains:

When my male colleagues have a new baby, they announce it at a department meeting. Everyone celebrates. Then, if they come in to work and complain that they are really tired because they have a new born, everyone feels sorry for them. A disproportionate number of my male colleagues have received raises and been rotated out of heavy administrative positions when they have new baby. It’s like the entire institution is trying to help them. Most women I know are afraid to mention they are pregnant…eventually, it’s just obvious. Most of my colleagues also avoid asking for clock relief because quite frankly, it has historically worked against women. Bear in mind, I teach at a “very progressive” liberal arts college, so I can’t imagine what goes on in an engineering school. If I had a younger female colleague who was pregnant asked for advice, I’d tell her to have the child, hire a great nanny and get back to work. Don’t take an extended leave or ask for clock relief. Both are career suicide.

photo-1457954275879-87d67ee5507eCheryl’s story is not at all unusual. But neither is Dan’s story. Dan, an English professor at a mid-size public university, told Talent Management 360: “I got a leave, which was great, since I really wanted to be involved with my new child.  I also used that time to write my first book. And the clock relief gave me an extra year to find a publisher. My university was great through the whole thing!” While not jumping to any conclusions, Dan’s situation is not entirely unusual. While he may have stayed home to care for his newborn, in reality, Dan still had time to write. Most female faculty members will tell you that writing a book while caring for a newborn is simply impossible.

Should Clock Relief Policies Be Abandoned?

While clock relief for scholars on the tenure track may not be entirely problematic, studies, such as the one cited above, suggest that it is not necessarily the answer. According to Joan C. Williams and Jessica Lee, the authors of the Chronicle of Higher Education article, some potential solutions include the following:

  • Acknowledging where birth mothers are different
  • Ensuring that faculty members who care for children, the elderly, or the sick are not penalized for doing what any responsible family member would do
  • Adopting sex-neutral policies on caregiving.

But these solutions all come with a catch? As Williams and Lee observe:

Nearly 30 years later, women still do more child care than men, including a highly disproportionate amount of baby care. If campuses don’t explicitly link leave and stop-the-clock policies to child care, why shouldn’t men–or a noncaretaker of any gender–use it to go to Mardi Gras? The more diligent will use the leave to write articles, making a policy meant to level the playing field for women into an affirmative-action program for men. The solution is to tie child-care leave and stop-the-clock policies to caregiving, which is what most policies do. The question is how.

While the “stop-the-clock” policy in higher education is a specific example, it has broader implications. In short, the policy and its impact on women in higher education suggest that even progressive policies can and do backfire. The question is how to support women and men in the workplace and to ensure that equitable policies are not appropriated by those who already have a notable advantage.

August 10, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   liberal, policies, politics, progressive   

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