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Academic Mamas: Motherhood and Academia

Posted by Lisa Lines on 11 May 2017

Academic Mamas: Motherhood and Academia

Associate Professor Joanne Devlin and I are currently co-editing a book, with the working title Academic Mamas. With stories from women academics across diverse disciplines in Australian universities, our book will be intended for everyone who wants to learn about the different experiences of mothers in academia and to identify strategies that can be helpful for supporting mothers in their careers.

In order to share a greater number of stories than can be included in the book, this blog will be publishing a series of articles written by female academics sharing their experiences.

Some context

Women are significantly under-represented in the senior levels of academia at Australian universities (and around the world)—not exactly a revelation on par with An Inconvenient Truth, but nevertheless a matter that is not researched or talked about enough. At the lowest academic positions, Level A (Associate Lecture) and Level B (Lecturer), there are slightly more women than men; at Level C (Senior Lecturer), a disparity begins to emerge with women comprising just under 45%; at Level D (Associate Professor), fewer than 30% are women; and finally, at Level E (Professor), fewer than 20% are women (see Strachan et al. 2011; Universities Australia 2014; Wallace and Marchant 2013).

Table 1: Female Percentage of Academic Positions in 2016
(Department of Education and Training 2016)


Female %

Level A (Associate Professor)


Level B (Lecturer)


Level C (Senior Lecturer)


Level D (Associate Professor) and Level E (Professor)


This is not just a women’s issue; having an equal representation of women and men in academia contributes to structural diversity, considered beneficial ‘because differences among group members enhance collaboration, generation of ideas, knowledge and skills which can improve problem solving and work outcomes’ (Diezmann and Grieshaber 2010, 223). Essentially, more people with more backgrounds mean more skills, insight and ideas.

What’s preventing gender equity?

It is no secret that the primary reason for the ‘leaky academic pipeline’ (see White 2004; van Anders 2004), whereby women leave academia or aren’t promoted to the higher levels, is motherhood. In Australia, the average age of a woman having her first baby is 30. It is even later for female academics, who often put off having their first child until after they have completed their PhD and gained their first academic position. This means that female academics are normally entering motherhood as early-career academics who are trying to secure tenure or advance their careers.

Secondary reasons include the disregarding of teaching as a path for advancement in academia (in favour of the paths of research or management) as a matter of policy, the preference among university departments for the hiring of casual staff for teaching-only roles (when teaching-plus-research roles are the minimum to be considered for promotion), and the related over-representation of women at the lower academic levels. The parity of women and men in Level A positions is unchanged from 1997, but parity in Level B positions was only reached in 2009. The prediction for Level D and E positions, with an increase in female representation of a mere one per cent per year, is for parity to be reached by 2033 (Wallace and Marchant 2013).

There has been research conducted into some aspects of this issue, but it hasn’t been examined adequately or comprehensively. Moreover, the experiences of the women behind these statistics are completely lacking, in Australia at least. (A number of publications explore the issue of motherhood and academic in the US; see Evans and Grant 2008; Ghodsee and Connelly 2014; Ward and Wolf-Wendel 2012).

Our contribution

Academic Mamas and the stories on this blog aim to fill this gap, exploring the reasons behind our leaky academic pipeline, and identifying the challenges and opportunities facing mothers in academia by using personal narratives that tell of a diversity of experiences, both good and bad. In telling these stories, we aim to help individuals facing similar challenges, including by providing a sense of connection to a community of academic mothers. The book will also be a resource for universities, departments, committees and policy makers to help achieve their gender diversity and equality goals.

I look forward to sharing with you the stories of these women and their experiences of motherhood and academia in Australian universities. If you’d like your story to be included, please contact me.

Dr Lines has also produced a video discussing the topic of women in academia, which you can watch on our YouTube channel.

Reference List

Department of Education and Training. 2016. Selected Higher Education Statistics—2016 Staff Data. Research report.

Diezmann, Carmel M. and Susan J. Grieshaber. 2010. ‘Gender Equity in the Professoriate: A Cohort Study of New Women Professors in Australia’. In Research and Development in Higher Education: Reshaping Higher Education, edited by M. Devlin, J. Nagy and A. Lichtenberg, 223–234. Paper presented at the 33rd HERDSA Annual International Conference, Melbourne, Vic., 6–9 July.

Evans, Elrena and Caroline Grant. 2008. Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Ghodsee, Kristen and Rachel Connelly. 2014. Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Strachan, Glenda, Kaye Broadbent, Gillian Whitehouse, David Peetz and Janis Bailey. 2011. ‘Looking for Women in Australian Universities’. In Research and Development in Higher Education: Higher Education on the Edge, edited by K. Krause, M. Buckridge, C. Grimmer and S. Purbrick-Illek, 308–319. Paper presented at the 34th HERDSA Annual International Conference, Gold Coast, Qld, 4–7 July.

Universities Australia. 2014. Selected Inter-Institutional Gender Equity Statistics (Australia Wide) 2012. Research report.

van Anders, Sari M. 2004. ‘Why the Academic Pipeline Leaks: Fewer Men than Women Perceive Barriers to Becoming Professors’. Sex Roles 51 (9/10): 511–521.

Wallace, Michelle and Teresa Marchant. 2013. ‘Sixteen Years of Change for Australian Female Academics: Process or Segmentation?’ Australian Universities’ Review 55 (2): 60–71.

Ward, Kelly and Lisa Wolf-Wendel. 2012. Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

White, Kate. 2004. ‘The Leaking Pipeline: Women Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers in Australia’. Tertiary Education and Management 10: 227–241.

Lisa Lines

Director and Head Editor of Capstone Editing

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Academic Mamas: Motherhood and Academia