Thursday, January 01, 2009

Note to hiring committees...

..."we do whatever the law requires" is not a selling point.

Due to a shocking combination of grace, coincidence, the good word of my mentors, and hard work (always the most shocking component), I ended the job search season with two offers. I was surprised and (very) pleased and was able to take a job I'm extremely enthusiastic about.

There was one part of the job search process that amused, annoyed, and, eventually, infuriated me, however. That was exploring the maternity, family, and emergency leave policies where I interviewed. This was interesting to me for a lot of reasons. A couple of my friends have done research on family-friendly institutional policies and their effect on women's academic careers. I went to both my on-campus interviews visibly and unmistakeably pregnant, and I was upfront with everyone about having a 2 year old. Most importantly, however, I'm a parent of a kid with a potentially serious chronic health condition, who was hospitalized and endangered as an infant. I know exactly how much a family medical emergency can impede academic work -- I estimate I was set back at least 9 months by mine.

At the first place I interviewed, I explained this experience and asked about their family leave policies. The chair responded, "We do everything the law requires." His tone implied that this was something to be proud of and that I should be fully reassured by his response. Not terribly impressed, I asked about tenure freezes. "That's covered under the law." No, it's not, I said. "Oh, it definitely is." Eventually I was told that the university was "very family-friendly" and then breezily assured, "Anyway, you don't seem like the type that would need to take time off for maternity leave!"

With the implication being, I suppose, that if I did seem like that type they wouldn't be interested? In the context of my having explained taking time off to care for my sick newborn, this hit me with frustration and unease. To make matters worse, the assistant provost didn't know any more than the chair about the university's policies. No one seems to care.

The next institution was very different. One of the people on the hiring committee met me at the airport and visibly noticed my condition. I volunteered my due date, etc. and she cheerfully told me a lot about their policies in the car on the way to the university. The provost and one of the other women in the department repeated and elaborated the next day. There was no feeling of stigma -- in fact their paid leave for maternity is exactly equivalent to the partial research grant they offer periodically, which makes it seem more sanctioned. The policies were adequate (not European but much better than most American jobs), but the sensation was much better.

This didn't make the decision for me -- far from it -- but I have to say, "we fulfill the law" isn't much of a selling point.