Academic Motherhood and the Unrecognized Labors of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Women of Color

What the invisibility of the most marginalized reveals.
By Atia Sattar

pink background with woman holding stomach

Shortly after I experienced a series of pregnancy losses in 2019, I had a heartening conversation with my department chair. I shared with her my personal ordeal and the ensuing struggle to keep up with my academic responsibilities. As a fellow woman of color, she urged me to prioritize my psychological well-being; we spoke at length about the particular stresses of being women of color faculty and about the impact of these stresses on fertility. While women in higher education often face a career penalty for their struggles with infertility and motherhood, women of color do so within an institutional context that also frequently undervalues them and is dismissive of their abilities, as the essay collections Presumed Incompetent and Presumed Incompetent II amply document. We therefore face additional challenges when dealing with hiring, promotion, and tenure as well as in our various relations with students, colleagues, and administrators. Furthermore, within the broader US health-care context, women of color experience higher rates of infertility and worse birth outcomes regardless of socioeconomic status and education.

My own struggles with pregnancy, miscarriage, and eventual motherhood accordingly emerged at the intersection of my identities as a brown, immigrant, female-identified, non-tenure-track faculty member. I am one of the 63 percent of faculty members who occupy non-tenure-eligible positions in the United States. Within this overlooked and undervalued majority, I am also one of the 47 percent of full-time faculty members who are women and 10 percent who are women of color. The latter number is a marker of slowly increasing numerical inclusion, but statistics do not necessarily reflect an experience of inclusivity. What percentage of us, I have wondered, struggle to conceive, give birth to, or raise a child? How do our embodied experiences of infertility, pregnancy, miscarriage, and motherhood intersect and interact with our already marginalized position as non-tenure-track faculty women of color?

I certainly agree with those who, in scholarship on the intersectional challenges faced by female-identifying faculty, decry academia’s narrow, patriarchal notions of productivity, which undervalue or ignore women’s intellectual, emotional, and reproductive labors. The hierarchical and gendered dichotomous framework of the mind-body split—described nearly thirty years ago in Jane Roland Martin’s edited collection Changing the Educational Landscape—persists in academia, and this philosophical outlook underlies the expectation that women erase their embodied experiences of infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood in favor of an idealized, objective, and disembodied masculine mindset. Distressingly, however, scholarly critiques of the inequity inherent in the demands of such a personal erasure often themselves erase the labor of non-tenure-track faculty members, especially when we are also women of color.

My own inquiry into the motherhood of non-tenure-track faculty women of color quickly revealed that most of the literature (both scholarly and popular) on infertility and motherhood in academia has failed to capture the experiences of women of color. And even when scholarship addresses race, fertility, or maternity in the academy, these writings tend to exclude those of us not on the tenure track. Most often, the literature focuses on the competing clocks of tenure and biology. I have developed a particular dislike for the catchy titles these “clocks” engender when juxtaposed—how fast each is “ticking,” how “alarming” they are, how they are “dueling.”

Unlike their tenured and tenure-track peers, non-tenure-track faculty women of color face further “identity taxation” in their careers as they navigate low wages and a lack of professional stability while being overburdened with institutional service linked to the desire for more minority representation throughout campus life. We frequently feel obligated to engage in such service in hopes of promotion and greater job security, keen to offer our perspective as women of color within an underappreciated faculty majority. The result, however, is that we bear a greater responsibility than white or tenure-track peers to support marginalized students and educate colleagues about race and racism. At the same time, we encounter the classism of what Jamiella Brooks calls the “ebony tower”: institutional hierarchies maintained by other academics of color. These hierarchies are clearly visible when scholarly discourse that acknowledges the penalties and burdens of being an academic woman of color refers almost exclusively to those who seek or have tenure.

As an immigrant, my foreignness operates as an additional destabilizing factor in my sense of professional belonging, exacerbating the feelings of estrangement characteristic of my intersectional identities. My educational career in the United States began in 2001 and was accompanied from the start by an acute sense of insecurity that still follows me as a Pakistani Muslim woman in post-9/11 America. I spent my time in graduate school believing in a singular, tenure-based narrative of academic success and then spent more years in an unstable job market being asked by prospective employers whether I would need a work visa. I ultimately chose to place my psychological well-being above my aspirations for a tenure-track job and accepted a non-tenure-track position in a diverse city that I loved and at an institution that granted me a visa. I decided to marry my partner, an American citizen, earlier than planned as a result of the Trump administration’s horrifying Muslim ban and my current university’s mismanagement of my application for permanent residency. I gave birth to a mixed-race child in March 2020, just a few days before the pandemic lockdown began, and I have spent the last two years struggling to manage academic motherhood while constantly worrying about my child’s inability to be vaccinated as I navigate Zoom and in-person teaching during a pandemic.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the caregiving expectations of academic mothers. Women continue to perform the bulk of both family care and university teaching, struggling to manage the compounding toll of personal and student pandemic burnout. Non-tenure-track faculty members today are more vulnerable than ever as they fear non-renewed contracts and hiring freezes. Some of us are dealing with further trauma and grief resulting from the unequal racial toll of COVID-19 as well as the police violence and government policies that continue to harm Black and brown bodies. And we deal with these injustices even as we attempt to address issues of inclusion in our academic departments, as we teach our courses and lead diversity workshops.

As a mother of what will soon be two pandemic babies, my unrecognized labors have also included a gestating body and the on-demand production of breast milk. Never before have I experienced such an embodied sense of productivity, and the failure within academia to acknowledge that labor feels particularly significant.

Typically, the institutional and disciplinary recognition granted to non-tenure-track faculty members consists of pity and charity, always contrasted with the ideal of tenure (our defining feature, after all, is the lack of it). Our condition seemingly attests to compromise and failure; our overabundant precarity threatens tenure. Academic freedom and job stability must be protected, I read constantly. But for whom?

It is as though we have forgotten that our universities are built on what were once Indigenous lands; these bastions of knowledge and cultural capital are historically colonial, racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, and classist, and they continue to marginalize those of us in the global majority. Why else do we still ask why there are so few women full professors, critique the academy’s pregnancy penalty, and offer strategies to tackle structural racism? The scarcity of scholarship on non-tenure-track women and mothers of color is not surprising when we consider that what counts as legitimate knowledge is determined by those who control the systems of knowledge production.

In writing this essay, I, too, am acutely aware of my own relative privilege. I have a male partner (a husband) with a flexible enough work schedule to be the primary caregiver while I work, affording me the time and space—physical and mental—to write. My journey of pregnancy loss eventually led to one child and then another, a turn of fortune that many do not experience. I hold a full-time faculty position with the opportunity for promotion. And my desire for representation in academic literature, despite my critiques, betrays my situatedness and investment in its institutions.

It is easy to ignore non-tenure-track faculty women of color when our intellectual and embodied labors, our intellectual and embodied knowledge, are largely absent from academic discourse. Even though the majority of faculty women of color are in non-tenure-track positions, we are most visible only as numbers. It is past time to recognize what this absence reveals, especially when this absence manifests itself within institutions that claim to be places of enlightenment and progressive thinking. What does it say about how the work of educating at a university is valued? What ideals and hierarchies does the current system maintain? Whose knowledge, productivity, and future does it privilege and protect? After all, if the efforts of non-tenure-track faculty women of color go unwritten in the annals of academia, we remain a contingency. Even as we multiply and reproduce, our lived experiences persist as mere possibility, not a reality, in the imagined present and future of higher education.

Atia Sattar is associate professor (teaching) in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. Her email address is [email protected].