GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Denis Sullivan and Mary Churchill on Life As a Balancing Act

In Conversations, Voices from Mars on 2010/02/18 at 09:00

MARY      I’d like to introduce Denis Sullivan, a leader at Northeastern University in Boston. Denis is a Full Professor in Political Science and Director of both the Middle East Center and the International Affairs Program. He is also a fantastic friend and colleague of over fifteen years. Denis continues to be a close confidant and a key voice in my feedback loops. So Denis, did I cover the important pieces?

DENIS     Definitely! The main “piece” is our friendship. That is our primary connection, link, driving force. All the professional “goodies” on top of that are, in some ways, “means to our ends” – ways to keep working together, keep promoting great things for students and colleagues and friends around the world.

MARY      I agree. I wanted to include a conversation with Denis on The University of Venus because he has always been such a strong advocate for women, the next generation, international students and scholars, and international education.

DENIS      As a bit of background — Growing up with 4 sisters, a strong single mother – and at 84, still strong! – and a nurturing grandmother, and then becoming a father of 2 amazingly brilliant and talented daughters … that helps explain a bit about the ‘strong advocate for women’ you mention – for which I thank you!!

MARY      So I guess the question I would like to start with is – What do you see as the big opportunities for the next generation of women in the academy, women between the ages of 30-46? How do we guarantee our success? How do we make sure we get tenure, get promoted, and take on senior leadership roles? And the flip side of that, what should we avoid?

DENIS      The academy is in the lingering throes of male dominance. Women academics (faculty, staff, administrators) should leverage their collective power to push even harder –without throwing the baby out with the bath water! With the decades-long push to hire more women faculty, this is the time to put up the best and the brightest for faculty positions – and senior staff positions as well. And to allow for a more balanced leadership in academia – men and women who are the best suited for the positions they hold.

MARY      However, studies show that women are less likely to get tenure, get promoted, and less likely to be appointed to senior leadership roles. I think once they get tenure, they are in somewhat of a better place and I stress somewhat here. So, what is your one piece of advice for getting to the next level?

DENIS      Well, I have a recent case of a young woman who is finishing her PhD and is trying to balance work, life, and future career opportunities. Senior academics (such as me) have been pushing her to finish her PhD before taking on an administrative role but she tells us very clearly that this is not her priority right now. So who am I to say what is best for her? She is considering quality of life issues, economic necessity, having a child. It is not for me to “push” her; it is for me to give advice as a senior academic and to listen and learn from her – what she wants/needs, what her generation will build, which will in fact be what I deal with in the future, when I transition out of my life-long career in this profession – a long time from now I hope!

MARY       It will be a long time! The academics I know are working well into their late 70s and early 80s. Denis, I hear you saying that the rules of the game have changed. The process that you and your generation in academia went through is not the same for my generation – the next generation. In some ways it seems that there are more options – mixing administration and teaching/research but that the expectations are greater.

DENIS      As I see it now, women in academia are EXPECTED to have a PhD if they want to get into a senior administrative ‘track’ or in an area that MIGHT in future lead to senior leadership …

MARY       … And that women are also trying to balance work/life pieces where women of a prior generation either gave up husbands and children and/or worked through some very rough personal times.

DENIS      Don’t do that! Balance, balance, balance. Yes, there are now many more options to mix administration and teaching. It is absolutely a balancing act – think Dr. Seuss and Oh, the Places You’ll Go: “Life is a great balancing act”

Check out Denis Sullivan’s’ blog for a longer version of this conversation.

This is the first post in our Voices from Mars series.

  1. It’s no small coincidence that Mary and I are friends because Denis and I are friends! Denis may be my “director” but I think it’s more the case that he’s my “mentor in residence”–who makes sure I also get that life/work balance right (and I’m determined to do so!).

  2. So nice to hear again Denis speaking – it’s been a long time!
    The balancing act that Denis names as a crucial strategy for succeeding in both academic and private life is not reserved to women; men also must figure out the life puzzle: how to mix and match work priorities, families, and other interests. To see people as one-sided being, with only one driving forcce, is a little simplifying, I would say. We all make choices, men and women, and I think that there are many men out there in our scholarly world, who dream not only of great articles and books but also of being good partners and fathers and football players…

  3. My assumption is as men dream, it is more likely that their dreams can become possibilites. For women the juggling act becomes even more difficut. As we dream and work hard to get all the certifications possible to get up in the world of academia,the flip side is that soceity has transfixed us (as women) to feel guilt if we seemly neglect our traditional roles as wives, mothers and daughters.As we balance , we must be strong enough to withstand the harsh critism that comes as we travel the path to realising our full potential as women.

    • I agree – I think that men deal with similar issues with regards to work/life balance. However, the playing field is far from level and the consequences are higher for women. Here’s a quote from a report released last week – “The Myth of the Pipeline: Inequality Still Plagues Working Women, Study Finds” on ABC’s website : “Lang says it’s also an important wake-up call for the legions of young women who thought this battle had been fought and won by their mothers. “We’ve raised them to think they can do anything,” she says. “There are still a lot of inequities. They need to be armed and vigilant.”
      and this from another report released last week: “According to a study done by the National Science Foundation, more unmarried women and women without children became full professors from 1958 to 2006 than married women or women with children. Significantly fewer females, compared to men, are going on to become full-time tenured professors and researchers because of responsibilities associated with raising a family, according to the NSF.” full article here

  4. Just for the sake of clarity (and of a good discussion). Maybe then we should not gender the debate. Maybe it is not between men and women but between those who want and are able to prioritize their career and those who put forward their family or “other lives”. And when it comes to statistics: how does it look for men? How many unmarried/divorced and childless men are professors in comparison with married men with children.
    The debate is also clearly culturally framed. In Sweden there are numerous men who officially come out and speak against this image of the out-focused man and the home-focused woman. Maybe caricaturing it a bit, there are men who publicly wish to be “househusbands” while their spouses are the breadwinners. The social welfare system forces fathers to take at least 2 months of the 12 awarded as parental leave, with a large financial bonus going to families that share evenly the amount (6 months for the mother, 6 for the father). So that is a way to level the playing field and to allow each individual, man or woman, to follow his or her preference in regards to the work s family puzzle.

    • I just wrote an entire comment that I lost! very abbreviated version with examples of Jack, Gracie, and Jo – I wish we lived in a world that was not gendered – we do not – therefore we cannot remove gender from the debate. This reminds me of color conscious by appiah and gutmann – we do not live in a color blind society and pretending that we do only makes it less equal and less just. I think sweden is at one end of the spectrum but recent us press on germany is pretty stark – see nytimes article here. Also – I think Anamaria takes the stance of a political scientists whereas I come at the issue from the view of a sociologist. I am particularly attracted to the notion of dreams introduced by A. Kadir – when our gendered society alters the ability to dream – which it does!- as a parent, that is where I see need for intervention. As a sociologist, I see it societally and I feel the group in power needs to do more – whether that group is men, whites, christians, english-speakers, wealthy, etc.

  5. I really like it when folks come together and share views.

    Great site, continue the good work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: