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Academic’s Forum: Principles of “Industrial Efficiency” From an Academic Mother

Nitya Chawla, Texas A&M University

When Adriane Sanders and I were emailing back-and-forth about the latest issue of the “Academic’s Forum” column for the fall TIP issue and she mentioned her idea of the history theme “From Hugo to AI,” I must admit that my first reaction was to suggest that I forego this issue’s column and focus on the next one. After all, how could Hugo Münsterberg—one of the founding fathers of I-O psychology—inspire a discussion surrounding the life of a junior academic mother?! For days, my mind kept wandering back to how I could possibly write a column that aligns with the overarching theme and—more importantly (and frustratingly!) for me—why I was finding it so very hard to think of a connection.

It was during one of these days when I was naturally late driving Kabir to daycare and mentally panicking about all the ways our week was already a hot mess while he was babbling away about seeing a T-Rex on the trees (as one does) that I realized that the history of the field itself was the fundamental reason why this column felt so hard. Indeed, at its founding, the very principles of I-O psychology were based on how organizations can ensure worker productivity and efficiency. This workforce, however, was never intended to include women—and especially not working mothers. Indeed, in what many consider the foundational text of I-O psychology, Münsterberg identified three specific challenges for managers: (a) finding the “best possible man” for the job (italics added for emphasis), (b) facilitating the “best possible work,” and (c) securing the “best possible effects” (Münsterberg, 1913). And, although I wish that by “men,” Münsterberg really meant all working beings, this simply isn’t the case—women, per Münsterberg and society writ large at the time, were largely expected to fulfill the role of stay-at-home wives and mothers (Cruea, 2005). In fact, it isn’t lost on me (and others who have written far more deliberately on the topic; Koppes, 1997) that our field has overwhelmingly heralded the contributions of male, but not female, pioneers of I-O psychology.

I think it is fair to say that we have come a long way since the early 1900s—not only in terms of women’s increased participation in the labor market but, equally importantly, in terms of having conversations surrounding how we can better support women through all stages of their careers and family lives. Although the same is certainly true of academia, the industry continues to pit women’s maternal and health experiences at direct odds with traditionally held notions of “academic success,” with our field unfortunately being no different. As we necessarily reckon with all the barriers faced by academic mothers and discuss our hopes for short- and long-term structural solutions, returning to the foundations of our field for this column prompted me to reflect on the more idiosyncratic and informal ways through which I have tried to cultivate some sense of productivity and efficiency over the past 2 years.

And so, with these in mind, I thought I would share just a few principles that have—in the famous words of Münsterberg—facilitated the “best possible work” and the “best possible effects” for this academic mama:

  • Recraft your collaborations and author teams. Over the past 2 years, I cannot count the number of times I have had to send texts along the lines of “I can work on this after Kabir is in bed tonight”; “I am so sorry, I need to cancel our meeting—Kabir is home sick today”; or, “I can try to get the paper back to you by the end of this week, but Rahul is traveling, so it may be a few more days!” Although I have felt more embarrassed and guilt-ridden with every text, I am so grateful to have developed a group of coauthors who have never let these moments define me, my work, or our collaborative relationship.
    Right before I graduated, I remember my advisor—Allie Gabriel (Hi!)—answering my question about how to form effective and long-lasting collaborations as a “trial and error process.” This has certainly rung true, but I will also add that the process itself, as well as its outcome, has looked different pre- and postmotherhood. As jarring as it may be, some of the coauthors that you thrived with during one particular stage may not be the same ones you thrive with during another stage. For me, my ability to work on research and enjoy the process has been a direct function of having coauthors who extend me grace and embrace the challenges of my nonwork life and maternal identity.
     
  • Cultivate your academic village. The journey of being a tenure-track academic mother can not only feel impossible at times but also incredibly lonely. And, to some extent, it objectively is—for instance, when I was pregnant, there was only one other faculty member in the department who was also a mother of young kids and on the tenure track.1 Yet, the challenges associated with your child’s formative years overlapping nearly perfectly with the tenure clock is highly unique, and there are few individuals who not only understand them but are also living (or have lived) them.

    As small as it may be, building and holding on to this village is essential. These are the women who will help you figure out how to breastfeed and/or pump during teaching days, give you company via text or Zoom calls when you are up late trying to get some writing done, share various parenting resources, send you the most relatable toddler memes, and celebrate you as joyously as they celebrate your child on their birthdays.

    But, I would be remiss to not mention that my village consists of academics who not only have varying family structures and nonwork challenges but also are at various stages of our profession (e.g., associate professors and professors). They have each played such an essential part of my motherhood journey so far, from grounding me and giving me perspective as parents of older children to creating spaces that allow me to thrive as well as authentically nerd out without letting the “mom guilt” creep in. All in all, this village is eclectic and diverse, and I am so much better for it. 
     
  • Be unafraid to ask for help (and ask often). As an assistant professor trying to make her mark on the field, I am always hyperaware of the signals I am sending—ranging from whether I am demonstrating my skills as an independent researcher to whether I am creating value in the department through teaching and service to whether I am doing my bit in terms of giving back to the field and developing junior scholars. In obsessing over these signals, however, I have so frequently chosen not to ask for help even when I have really needed it. After all, what would asking for help signal?!

    Time and time again, however, I have realized how wrong this approach has been. Choosing not to ask for help only ever leads to greater levels of stress as I not only end up struggling to deal with the very thing I could have used help on but, simultaneously, begin wishing that I had asked for help sooner and then eventually worrying about how I now need to do a really good job given that I chose to forego assistance in the first place (welcome to my inner monologue—it is not pretty!).

    In reality, however, members of a village are never concerned about the signals being sent. Rather, they are solely focused on using their resources to support and lift others up. And, although I am admittedly still working on this, there is so much to gain from re-framing asking for help as a signal of strength rather than weakness.
     
  • Invest in your relationships at home and outside academia, too. At this moment, I am writing this column in relative darkness as Kabir insisted on taking his afternoon nap in bed with me. More importantly, however, Rahul is downstairs finishing up some chores and getting lunch prepped. Although I would love to say that a day like this is the exception rather than the norm, that wouldn’t be true—although each day looks slightly different, each day that I can be productive involves a ton of effort behind the scenes from Rahul (even if he is traveling for work). We are also extremely lucky to have parents, siblings, and close nonacademic friends who are always willing to pitch in.

    Akin to crafting trusting and successful collaborative teams, getting to this point has involved a series of trial-and-error arrangements. I suspect that this will continue to be the case as Kabir gets involved in more extracurricular activities and Rahul’s job responsibilities change and grow. Yet, the errors that accompany the trials are often frustrating, exhausting, and take a significant toll on relationships. In these moments, we have found that investing time in regrouping, having difficult conversations about what didn’t work, and figuring out what we each need goes a long way.
     
  • Prioritize yourself. As someone who researches recovery and well-being, it would be particularly ironic to not highlight the importance of investing in yourself and different aspects of your identity. Yet, I will sheepishly admit that I almost chose not to include this principle because it is one I have struggled with the most and continue to do so. That said, just as the inspiration for this piece came as I was dropping Kabir to daycare, I know that my mind is clearer, more energized, and better at developing connections (or even mentally responding to reviewer comments!) when I am taking time for myself guilt free and/or allowing myself to enjoy the seemingly mundane responsibilities of childcare such as daycare dropoffs or watching Cars for the millionth time.

And so, while our field wasn’t grounded on building workspaces that focus on the ways in which women and individuals of all gender identities can succeed, I do hope that we can use these moments of reflection to not only revel in how far we have come but also, how much further we can go. In regards to parenthood in particular, I hope that our conversations surrounding how we can create better informal and formal structures for academic mothers continue to evolve and develop such that, even if it is a little lonely in your department, you feel far from alone in our field more broadly. At the very least, please know that this academic mama’s inbox and DMs are always open for advice, resources, and of course—toddler memes.

Note

1 Of note, although I have moved institutions, the demographic makeup of this department has changed.

References

Cruea, S. (2005). Changing ideals of womanhood during the nineteenth-century woman movement. University Writing Program Faculty Publications. https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/gsw_pub/1

Koppes, L. L. (1997). American female pioneers of industrial and organizational psychology during the early years. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(4), 500–515. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.82.4.500

Münsterberg, H. (1913). Psychology and industrial efficiency (pp. 23–24). Houghton Mifflin Company.

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