Happy Mothers Day to Academic Moms (We need more of you)

Happy Mother’s Day to all my female colleagues around the world, who produce amazing research and do great teaching while being moms!

Being an academic means a lot of hard (and rewarding) work, and being a parent on top of it brings an extensive set of challenges — especially as one effectively competes with others who don’t have kids! Compared to men, women face an additional set of challenges as academic parents, due to a wide variety of factors, including fixed biological ones (e.g. only they can actually bear children) and societal expectations which change ever so slowly (though thankfully generally for the better). It is important to have your perspectives as colleagues, teachers, and researchers, and I don’t think that academia does enough to allow you all to more easily balance the needs of work and family — much to our detriment. And there are still pay gaps between men and women, especially at more senior levels of academia. It all means that many women who may have provided fundamental insights into science sadly never go into academic work based on a very rational choice about the likely costs and benefits such a career brings. Many of my female colleagues feel they must wait until relatively late in their reproductive life to have children, often after tenure or after tenure is pretty much assured. This brings with it additional risks and challenges that women should not feel forced to take.

As it is we still have too few academic women, and even fewer academic moms. I believe the latter are an important group to support, since they are the ones who provide examples and can be role models for young women who are considering academic careers but who know they want children. Carlota Smith, a colleague in the UT Austin Linguistics department who sadly died five years ago, was a trailblazer who was a single mom academic in the 1970s and who I know directly inspired many of the female graduate students in our department. We need more Carlotas.

The less attractive it is to be an academic mom, the fewer women we’ll have in our midst, again to our detriment — this is especially true in fields like computer science. This has big effects on academic women who choose not to have children as it reduces the pool of potential female colleagues they could have. Even in our linguistics department, there are too few female graduate students who study computational linguistics, despite an otherwise reasonably balanced population of male and female graduate students.

So, knowing all the challenges you face on top of the usual ones — thanks again, and keep on being amazing. You all have my respect!

Author: jasonbaldridge

Co-founder of People Pattern and Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. My primary specialization is computational linguistics and my core research interests are formal and computational models of syntax, probabilistic models of both syntax and discourse structure, and machine learning for natural language tasks in general.

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