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Adventures in Academe

The implicit gender bias around academia and motherhood


The following is an email exchange I had with one of my students who was profiling community members for a weekly column in the local newspaper. At the time, I was seven months pregnant with my first child.

Good day Professor,

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this, it’s much appreciated!

  1. How far along are you with the pregnancy?
  2. How many years have you been teaching at Bishop’s?
  3. Where did you pursue your doctorate education?
  4. Has being pregnant affected your school implications? (I understand you’re still involved with extracurricular activities like the Ted talks, debate weekend, the undergraduate conference, etc. Has it slowed you down at all?!)
  5. Are you teaching classes this semester, if so how many?
  6. Are you one of those women who knew how many kids she wanted, and already named them before she even met their father?!
  7. Boy or girl, or is it going to be a surprise?

I think that should be enough. I know that the questions are seemingly all over the place, but trust me I have a plan! If there are any that you prefer to omit, feel free to do so, and if there is anything else that you want to add, please do so!

Again, thanks a bunch!

John Doe

Dear JD,

Your email presents an important teaching and learning opportunity. A profile of a university professor in a local newspaper might focus on teaching interests, research projects, extracurricular activities, awards and a general sense of how the individual contributes to diverse communities.

However, you have chosen – I am sure unintentionally – a very different kind of profile. Indeed, your first question, “How far along are you with the pregnancy?” precedes the more relevant “How many years have you been teaching at Bishop’s?” The order of questions implies a hierarchy; once pregnant, an individual becomes defined first by her biological state and second by her professional status. Identity becomes relational (identity is established vis-à-vis a child or spouse) rather than individual (self-definition based on goals, values, and beliefs) or collective (identification with groups and social categories to which the individual belongs). The problem here is that relational identity doesn’t allow for an individual to establish his or her own identity.

I do not mean to suggest that academia and motherhood isn’t a topic that warrants attention. Female academics are much less likely to have children, much older when they do choose to have children, and in some cases (in the sciences in particular) women leave academia altogether. There is a lot of scholarship on this, and I encourage you to do some reading on this subject (e.g. Academic Motherhood, 2012).

What concerns me is that your questions do not probe the implicit gender bias around academia and motherhood as much as they manifest implicit gender bias. If we were to pose the same set of questions to my colleague Dr. X, who – along with his wife – is expecting a baby in a few weeks, the results would be much more incongruous (e.g. “Are you one of those [men] who knew how many kids [he] wanted, and already named them before [he] even met their [mother]?!”). This differential should give us pause for serious reflection.

There are a few relatively benign questions in your interview, while other questions are loaded with underlying assumptions that warrant attention. The question that concerns me is question 4: “Has being pregnant affected your school implications? … Has it slowed you down at all?!”

What this suggests is that pregnancy, like a debilitating disease, interferes with a woman’s ability to fulfill her professional obligations. This statement is not only untrue, but it is also one of the central arguments put forward to justify male privilege and female subordination.

I do not mean to suggest that you are trying to be sexist. However, your questions are informed by an underlying cultural bias that is often invisible. One of the most important functions of higher education is to make visible these dominant ideological structures to question, challenge and deconstruct implicit gender bias. I hope I have helped you think more critically about these issues and I thank you for the opportunity to think critically about this topic myself.

If you would like to pursue a professional profile, I would be happy to answer your questions relating to my academic career.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Jane Doe / December 17, 2015 at 02:03

    Is this actually real? I mean, yes, there are definite gender bias issues in higher education along these lines and I have suffered from them myself, but this “John Doe” letter seems so perfectly constructed to allow you to address them that I almost have a hard time believing it. A student actually asked you “are you one of those women…?”?? This seems just so far removed from my experience as a woman in a Canadian university.

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