When Will Higher Education Institutions Support Working Mothers?

The very act of intentionally addressing gender biases at universities and colleges could help shift cultural views at the institutions themselves and in the work world.

I was invited to attend an event with women who work in higher education in Hawaii, where I presented my iBook Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy. I also listened with interest to panel discussions about leadership and one-on-one personal stories from faculty and staff who are working mothers. Throughout the day, it became clearer to me that higher education has a significant role to play in resolving work-life balance conflicts—not just for those who work at institutions of higher learning, but for the rest of us as well.

Most families are stretched thin by the challenge of financially supporting their children while also having the time to raise them, regardless of resources or profession. And our society-at-large does little to help parents, and disturbingly, support for families may actually be decreasing.

For example, while I was waiting in the lunch line at the higher education event, I struck up a conversation with a college theater instructor who was also a grandmother. She told me that when her children were young, she had sometimes brought them to work with her and seldom experienced negative reactions from students or other staff. However, she rarely sees staff who are parents doing the same now. She told me that she suspects the response would be much less supportive some 20 years later.

Yet higher education statistics show:

  • In 2011, a quarter of all college students nationally were parents.
  • At community colleges (where the women I spoke to worked) the numbers of parenting students reach over 40%.

Thus, having awareness and compassion for the needs of working families seems like it should be a fundamental requirement for those working in higher education.


  • Women outnumber men in college by 4 to 3.
  • The percentage of women who work outside the home is at about 70%.
  • And, women make up 40% of family breadwinners.

From an economic perspective, institutions of higher education should be taking the lead when it comes to supporting working mothers.

Later that same afternoon, I spoke with a high level college administrator who told me she does in fact bring her children to work, but despite her rank, has been criticized by colleagues, superiors, and even those who work for her. She, however, refuses to give in to overt or subtle disapproval based on her strong belief that: “If children aren’t disruptive, parents should feel comfortable bringing them to work
occasionally if necessary—particularly in an educational setting.”

Yet, it doesn’t really matter whether faculty and administrators “get” the social or economic reasons for supporting parenting students and faculty. Title IX, otherwise known as the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act,” requires that as long as a college or its programs receive federal funding, the institution is not allowed to discriminate against students or staff members based on gender. Nor is it allowed to discriminate against pregnant or parenting students when it comes to admissions, hiring, coursework accommodations and completion, pregnancy leave policies, workplace protection, and health insurance coverage. In fact, Title IX includes the following recommendations (and more!) for students:

  • Flexible leave options
  • Child care
  • Transportation
  • Tutoring
  • Excused absences related to children’s illnesses
  • Time and space to express breast milk

I realize that Title IX does not require higher ed employees to be allowed to bring their children to work—or even that colleges provide adequate childcare for both students and staff. (Though I wish it did!) That said, when it comes to supporting the intent of Title IX—equal opportunities in education for both men and women—taking concrete steps to support work-life balance would have an enormous impact on both students and faculty.

In addition, I believe that if colleges would take Title IX responsibilities one step further by addressing work-life balance in curricula, young people could be prepared in a more realistic manner for their future work lives. The very act of intentionally addressing gender biases at universities and colleges could help shift cultural views at the institutions themselves and (by extension) in the work world.

One catch-22 is that due to inadequate compliance with Title IX, more often than not, men are still the decision-makers at those institutions. So in spite of Patsy Mink’s revolutionary law, until there’s a shift in culture, even the highest ranking women in academia still need to lean on other women and parents in order to lead (especially if they have kids.)

The other catch-22 (that was very evident at the women in higher ed conference) is that working mothers are stretched so thin that addressing systemic issues can seem beside the point when parents are struggling to just survive from one week to the next. Somehow we need to support each other on a day-to-day basis while also working together to compel long-term institutional change.

The good news is that women are particularly good at that.

Shay Chan Hodges is the author of Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, an interactive collection of first person narratives providing deep, personal portrayals of what it takes to significantly participate in the 21st century economy while raising children. Lean On and Lead also introduces Family-Centered Design℠ thinking, a conceptual framework for designing our society and economy around the real needs of families, rather than the other way around. Shay resides on Maui with her husband and two teenage sons, and writes, speaks, and consults about these issues. Connect further with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

This originally appeared on Mom-Mentum. Republished here with permission.

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