Jenny Baker
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Academics’ Forum: On Navigating the Dobbs Ruling as a Female Academic

Cindy Maupin University of Mississippi, & Nitya Chawla, Texas A&M University

The past few years have had more than their share of major historical events. As academics (and as human beings), the past few years have necessitated constant adaptation, learning to live by new rules, and navigating the impact of exogenous forces that suddenly dictate your health, safety, and future. The latest of these that has hit particularly close to home for many academics is the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade via the Dobbs decision, which has already resulted in a number of “trigger laws” and new policies that—quite literally—changed the lives of millions of women overnight. Included in that group are thousands of female academics, like myself and my fabulous cowriter, Nitya Chawla. Although some academics may be more impacted by this decision than others, we believe it is important to share challenges that current and future academics are grappling with as they (re)imagine what their personal and professional lives may look like. 

Our goal here is to highlight the varying ways in which this ruling has impacted, or will impact, the experiences of academics, particularly female academics—the perspective from which we feel most comfortable speaking. We should note that we are not approaching this piece, or the ruling more broadly, from a particular political angle. Although we recognize and respect that there are differing perspectives surrounding the moral, scientific, religious, and political views on abortion, this piece is neither intended to endorse nor negate any one of these views. Rather, in an industry that is infamous for its gender disparities (see Llorens et al., 2021) and has ideas implicit in “academic success” at direct odds with women’s health experiences (see Grandey et al., 2020), we aim to shed light on the ways in which the Dobbs ruling may exacerbate women’s concerns. Ultimately, our hope is that our piece can help increase awareness about the unique challenges that some academics may be facing and how we can enhance our collective empathy and serve as effective allies.

The Academic Motherhood Journey Just Got Bumpier

Ask any female academic on the tenure track about what she was advised was the “perfect” time to expand her family, and she will likely tell you that at least one senior scholar said to not even consider it until she (a) was confident about her tenure case, (b) had submitted her tenure case, or (c) had earned tenure. That has certainly been the experience for both of us and, quite frankly, it has not been just one senior scholar who has articulated this opinion. At its core, we know that this may not necessarily be a true reflection of scholars’ personal beliefs but rather a concern for how the challenges that are associated with parenthood—and motherhood in particular—are often at direct odds with securing a top-tier placement as an assistant professor and/or fighting the tenure clock (Cheng, 2020). The (many, many) problems inherent with this aside, it is undeniable that the biological clock runs up against the tenure clock—as women and their partners make the choice to delay parenthood (for a variety of reasons), health considerations such as infertility, miscarriages, and high-risk pregnancies become more likely (Mayo Clinic, 2022). With the Dobbs ruling, this becomes particularly concerning as medical interventions for missed (or incomplete) miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies involve many of the same treatments used for abortion (Donley & Lens, 2022). And, as if infertility was not already an extremely taxing process—emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically—the overturning of Roe v. Wade has sent this process into a tailspin with several states still debating the legal definitions of “pregnancy” and whether the definition encompasses a fertilized embryo that is yet to be implanted in a woman’s uterine lining (Patel, 2022). Thus, the career–family trade-off that is so embedded in academia seems to have taken on a new life for many female academics, as they now begin wrestling with how their choice to prioritize tenure may significantly alter their maternal health and trajectory. 

The Choice to Conceive May Drive the Choice of Where to Work and Live

For many female academics, access to safe reproductive health will play an important role as they choose where they would like to earn a PhD, take on a postdoctoral appointment, and begin (or continue) their career. This is not only the case for those who have already begun thinking about expanding their family. When individuals are applying to programs or job seeking, they may now have to consider the differential healthcare they will (or will not) have access to based on the laws of a particular state or region and how the risk of such a move impacts their health, safety, and dreams of expanding their family (Burns, 2022). On the institutional side, departments that are recruiting students, postdocs, and new faculty hires will have to be cognizant of, and empathetic toward, the struggles of women who are applying for positions that may require them to alter their life plans significantly due to differential healthcare access. Thus, dismissing these concerns as too forward thinking (e.g., if a state hasn’t yet put a trigger law into motion), suggesting the solution of driving to a close, bordering state that has different legal policies in place, or comparing other universities in states that may be similarly restricting, is far more damaging than helpful—it signals a complete lack of consideration for women’s access to safe and legal reproductive healthcare (Gilbert et al., 2022).

Even beyond the challenges of where women ultimately choose to work and live for their day-to-day lives, there are additional (and frequently less thought about) challenges for female academics to remain successful in their roles. For instance, traveling for conferences, workshops, or research collaborations to locations where women’s healthcare is not protected introduces substantial risk for pregnant women in light of the Dobbs ruling. These concerns are likely to extend beyond the borders of the United States to also include international female academics whose home countries have much more expansive and subsidized health care systems (Miller & Sanger-Katz, 2022). This will be a loss on many fronts—for women, they have to forgo important career opportunities for sharing their work, honing their skillsets, and collaborating with others; for academia, we lose the dissemination of research that stems from diverse thoughts and perspectives. Across all these considerations, it is evident that women’s access to reproductive healthcare has cascading effects on women’s labor force participation and career success.

This Is Not Just A “Women’s Issue”

Men are often absent from conversations about reproductive health, family planning, and family support despite their important role in families. Yet, male academics may also have to make tough decisions about where they work and live based on the healthcare possibilities for the women in their immediate family, including wives, daughters, and other loved ones. Even for those who have no immediate worry for the women in their lives, their colleagues and collaborators may now be trying to surmount even more restrictive hurdles and—as empathetic colleagues—that is something we should all be cognizant of. In fact, this may go beyond female colleagues and collaborators to also include male scholars who may be facing infertility struggles. As the trauma associated with a lack of access to reproductive healthcare could have wide-ranging consequences for our colleagues, we need to do better in terms of recognizing the unique challenges they may be facing with respect to their health and families and finding different ways to ensure that their well-being needs are being met.

What Can We Do About It?

Academic departments thrive when they are composed of individuals from different backgrounds and experiences, who trust one another, and who help one another to succeed—both at work and at home. As such, although you may personally not be impacted by the Dobbs decision, we urge you to take on the mantle of being compassionate and begin (or continue!) advocating for those whose family planning, career options, and futures have been drastically altered. Recognizing the additional sacrifices women may be forced to make in order to pursue careers in academia, and supporting them through those difficult decisions, should be a priority for all of us.

References

Burns, A. (2022, July 11). States with abortion bans risk losing their economic edge. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/11/us/politics/abortion-ban-states-businesses.html

Cheng, S. D. (2020). Careers versus children: How childcare affects the academic tenure-track gender gap [Job Market Paper, Harvard University]. https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/sdcheng/files/sdcheng_jmp.pdf

Donley, G., & Lens, J. W. (2022, June 1). Abortion, pregnancy loss, and subjective fetal personhood (Working Paper No. 2022-16). University of Pittsburgh Legal Studies. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4125492

Gilbert, K. L., Sanchez, G. R., & Busette, C. (2022, June 30). Dobbs, another frontline for health equity. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/how-we-rise/2022/06/30/dobbs-another-frontline-for-health-equity/

Grandey, A. A., Gabriel, A. S., & King, E. B. (2020). Tackling taboo topics: A review of the three Ms in working women’s lives. Journal of Management, 46(1), 7–35. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206319857144

Llorens, A., Tzovara, A., Bellier, L., Bhaya-Grossman, I., Bidet-Caulet, A., Chang, W. K., Cross, Z. R., Dominguez-Faus, R., Flinker, A., Fonken, Y., Gorenstein, M. A., Holdgraf, C., Hoy, C. W., Ivanova, M. V., Jimenez, R. T., Jun, S., Kam, J. W. Y., Kidd, C., Marcelle, E., …Dronkers, N. F. (2021). Gender bias in academia: A lifetime problem that needs solutions. Neuron, 109(13), 2047–2074. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2021.06.002

Mayo Clinic. (2022, July 15). Pregnancy after 35: Healthy pregnancies, healthy babies. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/in-depth/pregnancy/art-20045756

Miller, C. C., & Sanger-Katz, M. (2022, May 4). On abortion law, the U.S. is unusual. Without Roe, it would be, too. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/22/upshot/abortion-us-roe-global.html

Patel, N. (2022). Abortion “trigger” ban statutes: Impacts on Plan B, birth control, and IVF treatments. Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, XXIII(3). https://www.law.georgetown.edu/gender-journal/abortion-trigger-ban-statutes-impacts-on-plan-b-birth-control-and-ivf-treatments/


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