Publish or parent
New College of Education study explores how tenure-track fathers negotiate work-family conflicts
Jan. 9, 2012
Sick kids. Sleepless nights. Conflicts between work and daycare.
Although research suggests that most dual-income couples share parenting duties, many people still believe that mothers are the true primary caregivers. And the most beleaguered.
But according to a new qualitative study out of The University of Texas at Austin, male tenure-track professors are experiencing their own set of work-family conflicts as well.
Just ask Jack, a father of two young children and a tenure-track assistant professor in the natural sciences:
“I could sleep standing up. The baby had an earache last night and cried for eight hours straight. My preschooler had the usual meltdown this morning as we were leaving and wouldn’t put his shoes on. I had an 8:30 meeting but didn’t get in until 9:00, and I didn’t remember until that minute that I’d volunteered to bring bagels.”
The difficulties mothers face shouldn’t be discounted. Biology is a factor — tenure demands usually coincide with the childbearing years. But fatherhood and career demands pose their own conflicts.
“As father involvement and work-family conflict increase across occupations, it seems to be manifest in these stressors,” said Dr. Richard Reddick, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration.
The new study was conducted by Reddick, counseling psychologist Aaron Rochlen and three College of Education graduate students. The findings are featured in the January 2012 issue of Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
With more than 28 million fathers in the U.S. with children under the age of 18, research data on fathers’ work-family conflicts has the potential to improve the emotional well-being of millions of men and their families, as well as benefit their employers.
“There’s considerable research documenting strain experienced by female academics with children but almost none on male academics,” said Reddick. “Although our study was focused on those in academia, the findings may resonate with working fathers in a variety of professions. Because dual-career couples are so ubiquitous these days, the whole topic of work-family conflict is getting well-deserved attention.”
Studies on working mothers repeatedly have confirmed that the dual roles can take a substantial physical and psychological toll on mothers and have negative repercussions at work and home. Research on faculty households also indicates that academic mothers report work-family conflict much more frequently than their male colleagues and are more likely than academic fathers to state that they feel fatigued, anxious, overloaded and underappreciated.
Rochlen, who’s an expert on men’s emotional well-being, male depression and stay-at-home fathers, hypothesized that tenure-track faculty fathers also were experiencing work-family conflict and tenure strains but could be dealing with the pressure in less vocal ways.
“It’s not uncommon for men to have different symptoms of depression than women and cope with it differently. This same pattern may surface with work-related emotional conflicts as well,” said Rochlen, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. “In general, as compared with women, men are not as used to talking about parenting joys and challenges, particularly in the workplace. They are great at talking about sports, but diaper rash is a less comfortable topic.”
Rochlen, Reddick and graduate students Joe Grasso, Erin Reilly and Daniel Spikes surveyed and interviewed tenure-track assistant professors from a variety of ethnicities and academic areas, all raising at least one child under six years of age.
Many respondents reported experiencing pervasive conflict and strain as they faced tenure demands while trying to play an active, meaningful role as fathers. A common theme was that the tenure process, even when parenting wasn’t figured in, presented considerable challenges to their personal relationships and physical health and mental well-being. How they coped with these challenges often affected the decision whether or not to have more children.
When it came to achieving a balance between work and family, some faculty said that they, by necessity, had become consummate efficiency experts, cutting everything that wasn’t related to work or parenting from their schedules and reaching previously unimagined levels of productivity. Others resorted to compartmentalizing their lives, keeping work and home matters strictly separate.
Others said they had to give up on being as competitive as they were capable of being at work. They reported being more likely than colleagues with no children or with older children to turn down some of the most interesting projects and had to forgo the 12-hour workdays. Most interviewees agreed that being an attentive, “present” father made that almost impossible, forcing them to spend less time working on their career.
According to Reddick, progressive working academic fathers tend to be as misunderstood as stay-at-home dads, ironically, in that their goals are at odds with societal expectations.
“The traditional idea that fathers should, and probably really want to, play a subordinate role in childrearing is tenacious,” said Reddick. “All of our study participants, however, described themselves as progressive fathers, meaning they embraced and advocated the idea of an equal division of labor at home and work.”
One of the more surprising findings from the study was that faculty fathers generally weren’t familiar with institutional support designed to help support employees with young children, regardless of gender. Even after being informed of family-friendly policies, most of the dads were reluctant to take advantage of policies like stopping the tenure clock.
“Most respondents didn’t elaborate on why they weren’t taking advantage of family-friendly benefits,” said Reddick. “The data suggests that there’s more than a little awkwardness involved when you’re a dad and you ask for leave to take care of children. The respondents also brought their own perceptions of the role of an academic father to their departments, and for some, they felt it just sounded like an excuse.”
As one might expect, study results showed that fathers working in departments in which there were several dads with young children perceived their workplaces to be more sympathetic to the challenges faced by a working father. Those departments also were more likely to offer an outlet for faculty to discuss stress, exhaustion and work-family conflict.
The majority of faculty fathers concurred that being a father didn’t relieve them of any of the requirements and responsibilities considered an essential part of their profession. And they agreed that being a father wouldn’t lead to leniency in the tenure review process.
One study participant commented, “I don’t think I get cut any slack. I mean, people aren’t looking at my publication record and saying, ‘Well, OK, but how many kids does he have?’”
Although this study represents only a first step in exploring fathers and work-family conflict, the findings do suggest some ways in which academic fathers can achieve a work-family balance, said Reddick and Rochlen.
“One theme that emerged, and that has significant implications for policy and practice, was that tenure-track faculty fathers’ lives tend to be veiled and are only shared with other colleagues who are dads and in a similar situation,” said Reddick. “It will improve everyone’s health and well-being if departments actively foster discussions about achieving a realistic work-family balance.”
The researchers also concluded that universities would benefit from being more aggressive in communicating family-friendly policies. This might include re-enforcing the fact that the use of these benefits will not hurt faculty dads when it comes time for promotion and tenure review.
“Institutions, like The University of Texas at Austin, which are providing family-friendly policies could benefit from promoting these benefits more broadly,” said Rochlen. “Doing so could help recruit and retain top-tier faculty — both women and men.”