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  • The Balancing Act:Work, Family, and the Need for Institutional Change in the Academy
  • Erika Lee (bio)

I have just finished reading Linda Kerber's insightful article. I had printed it out so that I could read it while I nursed my five-month-old son. I am now writing this response on my laptop computer while I watch over my three-year-old son as he goes to sleep. Multitasking has become a way of life for me and for many of the other academic mothers I know. For the most part, we have been conditioned to view only its merits; to see it as a result of our choice to have careers and be parents at the same time. We congratulate ourselves that we are lucky. We tell ourselves that we can do it all—teach superbly, write provocative, original research, contribute to our institutions and communities, and be active, involved partners and mothers at the same time. Kerber's assessment of the state of the profession, however, has reminded me that the state of academic women's work in the twenty-first century is, in fact, full of contradictions. On the one hand, some of our work as academicians can be highly flexible. As a working mother of two young children, I cherish this flexibility and know with certainty that I am luckier than the great majority of working women who have more traditional nine-to-five jobs. (The cashier at Walgreens who coos at my son has left hers in day care to work the day shift. And one of the teachers at the university's child care center cannot afford to enroll her own daughter in the program, so she is faced with the difficult task of caring for other people's babies while she is separated from her own.) I am fortunate to have an extremely supportive partner who has uprooted himself to follow my career and who participates fully in the care of our family. We also have an excellent child care center at the University, although the waiting list is eighteen months long! Nevertheless, the same flexibility that enriches academic work can also translate into workdays that have no end. Moreover, the desire and need to do it all and to do it as if the two halves of my life—that of professor and that of wife and mother—are mutually exclusive can be exhausting. I have been conditioned to believe that my status as a mother should not infringe upon my performance as a historian and vice versa. There is, of course, nothing new about multitasking mothers. What is new is the sheer number of tasks we do at once and the fact that professional women are juggling careers at the same time. Many academics are part of two-career households as well. It is thus extremely timely to ask how we and our academic institutions can do things better. [End Page 168]

As Kerber illustrates, earlier generations of women historians struggled to gain access to graduate school, tenure-track jobs, and the profession in general, sometimes having to choose career over family. I am a member of the newest generation of women historians who have benefited from the opportunities that resulted from their struggle. As an Asian American, I am equally indebted to the generations of scholars of color and others who fought to open up the academy to minorities. In many ways, this is a wonderful time to be working as an academician. Nevertheless, as the recent controversy at Harvard illustrates, institutions have responded unevenly at best to women in the academy. The struggle to maintain and expand access and opportunities to women and minorities continues, as does the struggle to enable them to balance careers and family lives without sacrificing either.

Women are now in graduate school and in tenure-track jobs in greater numbers than ever before. The vulnerability and hostility that Kerber describes are foreign to many, hopefully most, of us. Even those of us in less "traditional" fields—including my own field of Asian American history—are finding increased opportunities compared to previous generations. Moreover, having families is no longer shunned. (In my department...


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pp. 168-171
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