Harvard Educational Review
  1. The PhD Parenthood Trap

    Caught Between Work and Family in Academia

    Kerry F. Crawford and Leah C. Windsor

    Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021. 272 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

    Women dominate nearly every facet of the United States higher education sector. About 60 percent of students on college campuses are women, and women outpace men in ultimately earning bachelor’s and advanced degrees, including PhDs (National Student Clearinghouse, 2021; Zhou & Gao, 2021). The majority of professional staff on campus are also women, with nearly six in ten administrators identifying as female (Fuesting, Nadal-Hawthorne, Schmidt, & Bichsel, 2021). Women still remain underrepresented, however, in one critical area of higher education: the professoriate. Today, women represent just 45 percent of tenured associate professors and 33 percent of full professors at US institutions (Colby & Fowler, 2020). It’s not that women are not interested in pursuing these prestigious tenured positions. In fact, 50 percent of tenure-track assistant professors are women (Colby & Fowler, 2020). Rather, the academy’s often inhospitable working conditions engender insurmountable obstacles for women, ultimately confining them to untenured roles or pushing them out of academia altogether.

    Kerry F. Crawford and Leah C. Windsor’s book The PhD Parenthood Trap: Caught Between Work and Family in Academia explores one of the biggest contributors to the well-documented “leaky pipeline” hindering women’s access to the professoriate: parenthood. Drawing on rich survey data and vignettes written by faculty, researchers, and graduate students from a diverse range of research universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges about their experiences navigating family formation, Crawford and Windsor offer insight into how cultures, policies, and structures in academia make it impossible for women to “have it all”—to simultaneously be mothers, wives, and successful scholars and educators. Inspired by their own struggles balancing family life and their early academic careers in the political science field, Crawford and Windsor highlight the challenges that mothers—and parents more broadly— face in academia as a means of calling for systemic change in how institutions perceive and support caregivers. They argue that addressing higher education’s bias against family formation will make the professoriate not just more inclusive of diverse scholars, but also improve the retention of women faculty.

    There is a vast literature documenting the manifestations of gender bias in the professoriate, including gender gaps in citations, tenure rates, and teaching evaluations, and The PhD Parenthood Trap delves into why these gaps exist and how the process of family formation particularly disadvantages women. Each of the book’s nine chapters focuses on what Crawford and Windsor term “lower-order processes,” or the “daily experiences and decisions” that contribute to “higher-order” phenomena like women achieving tenure and promotion at lower rates than their male colleagues (p. 16). They argue that although the spotlight is on the higher-order processes, the lower-order ones are the critical yet invisible “tributaries that strain the careers of academic parents . . . steer[ing] the divergent courses of men’s and women’s careers” (p. 17). Examples of lower-order processes the book elevates include the physical toll of pregnancy and the early years of parenthood; adoption; infertility, and pregnancy loss; and breastfeeding and lactation. The authors examine how these issues affect women across all roles in academia, including graduate students, adjuncts, early career tenure-track faculty, and even well-established professors.

    As a resource written by and for women academics, The PhD Parenthood Trap shines in its emphasis on uplifting the voices of women scholars who have navigated parenthood in the academy. Crawford and Windsor expertly weave these voices into the narrative by including copious quotes from survey participants about how their institutions have both promoted and hindered their efforts to be parent-scholars. The authors also supplement these quotes with more than twenty longer vignettes written by current, former, and aspiring faculty members about the highs and lows of starting a family while pursuing an academic career. These first-person stories delve deeper into the themes presented in each chapter, describing in vivid detail how academic parents—of all genders—have faced hostile coworkers, difficult working conditions, and archaic institutional policies that make “work-life balance” a myth. The highly personal vignettes are a nice complement to the anonymized and thus more impersonal survey data; the inclusion of the names and institutional affiliations of most vignette contributors makes the stories they share even more powerful, as it forces readers to recognize that these are real women in academia who have faced challenges balancing parenthood and being a member of the faculty.

    One of the most compelling vignettes is in chapter 2, written by a tenured faculty member about her experience having children while completing her doctoral program. She recalled an incident when a male department head chastised her for getting pregnant, as he assumed she would need to take time off from her assistantship. “There was no care for me as a person or a student, just shock that a graduate student would even think about having a baby,” she lamented. “I ended up asking my OB/GYN to induce me early, just so I could ensure that I didn’t miss a day of work. Even now, the situation stings” (p. 43). Another contributor, a single mother who taught at a Colorado college, wrote about her administration’s refusal to accommodate snow days and other weather-related delays at her daughter’s school. She described how her department once asked “if I could send my daughter to live with someone else” since “it snows a lot in Colorado” (p. 56). These shocking accounts shed light on the harsh realities that scholars face juggling their lives inside and outside the academy.

    Crawford and Windsor wisely harness these compelling stories to articulate actionable recommendations for transforming academia into a more supportive environment for parents. After presenting relevant survey data and vignettes, the authors conclude each chapter with a robust list of best practices that university administrators, department chairs and unit heads, and faculty themselves can adopt or advocate for at their institutions to ameliorate difficult working conditions for parent-scholars. Best practices and specific recommendations are further discussed in chapter 9. Its robust recommendations make The PhD Parenthood Trap more than just a resource for academic parents; it also provides higher education leaders, faculty, and staff with tools for transforming their institutions’ cultures and policies around family formation.

    One of the strongest recommendations concerns developing mandatory paid parental leave policies that are applied universally—to graduate students, adjuncts, and untenured and tenured faculty alike. Throughout the book, Crawford and Windsor outline specific elements that should comprise such a policy, including robust mechanisms for reporting discrimination, tenure clock extensions, course reductions, and other practices that can alleviate the temporary reduction in productivity that comes with parenthood. They also argue for a broader definition of who qualifies for such leave that encompasses non birthing parents, partners, and women who have experienced difficult pregnancies, infertility, or adoption processes. In addition, the authors offer targeted advice to readers, calling on administrators and department heads to ensure that family leave policies are adequately communicated and urging faculty to speak up when their needs are not being met. In this way, Crawford and Windsor provide administrators, faculty, and other higher education staff with the tools and knowledge needed to enact reform on their own campuses.

    While The PhD Parenthood Trap tries to balance both the negative and positive experiences of academic mothers, readers would have benefited from hearing additional insights from women whose departments or institutions have actively worked to improve family formation policies. Articulating clear recommendations for institutions to improve parents’ working conditions is helpful, but it is equally important to understand how these recommendations can best be put into action. For example, Crawford and Windsor underscore the importance of administrators and departmental heads communicating to all faculty and staff about departmental family leave policies as well as university policies concerning family formation, childcare services, and breastfeeding support. However, tangible advice from the survey participants, vignette contributors, or the authors themselves about effective avenues for communicating such information would have been useful for readers looking to publicize similar policies and programs on their campuses.

    In summary, The PhD Parenthood Trap is a must-read for higher education faculty and other professionals who seek to understand and ameliorate the difficulties that parents—especially mothers—face in starting families while pursuing academic careers. Although the insights and recommendations shared are primarily aimed at women scholars, the book offers useful guidance for all academic parents and for the university leaders and policy makers who have the power to implement positive change at their institutions related to family formation. As Crawford and Windsor argue, having children and successfully pursuing a tenure-track faculty position should not be mutually exclusive realities—mother-scholars should indeed be able to “have it all,” and The PhD Parenthood Trap outlines the steps institutions and faculty themselves can take to finally make that a reality.

    Tara P. Nicola


    Colby, G., & Fowler, C. (2020). Data snapshot: IPEDS data on full-time women faculty and faculty of color. American Association of University Professors. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/Dec-2020_Data_Snapshot_Women_and_Faculty_of_Color.pdf

    Fuesting, M., Nadal-Hawthorne, S., Schmidt, A., & Bichsel, J. (2021). Professionals in higher education annual report: Key fndings, trends, and comprehensive tables for the 2020–21 academic year. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED614172.pdf

    National Student Clearinghouse. (2021). Overview: Spring 2021 enrollment estimates. Retrieved from https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CTEE_Report_Spring_2021.pdf

    Zhou, E., & Gao, J. (2021). Graduate enrollment and degrees: 2010 to 2020. Council of Graduate Schools. Retrieved from https://cgsnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/CGS_GED20_Report_final_v2-2.pdf

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