It’s official, women are out enrolling and out graduating men at the university level. And while it is exciting that women are more educated than ever their presence within the University hierarchy as professors and administrators is scarce. So what’s going on here?
Well, universities are by their very nature institutions of privilege that were built to reflect and accommodate the lives of their intended pupils-- white men. Women in the academic world still face gender based discrimination, are less likely to get tenure than male colleagues (only 1 in 4 college presidents are women), and they graduate only to face a mountain of student loan debt that is difficult to repay since they are paid less for all forms of their labor. For women of color the same economic, social, and institutional barriers that make entering higher education difficult continue to manifest once inside the Ivory Tower. Of the 178,547 doctoral students who completed a degree in the 2014-2015 academic year, only 21% were women of color. But the barriers are compounded once again when they have children. In the higher rungs of academia the stakes and the expectations are that much higher, yet we rarely hear about how difficult it is for mothers of color to finish their post grad programs with the very little support from they tend to receive from the administration.
On large university campuses one of the top concerns for new mothers is not only the presence but the availability of lactation rooms. It does no one good to have lactation rooms on the other side of campus. It’s something Maricela Beccerra has first hand experience with as a mother of two who is pursuing her doctoral degree in Contemporary Mexican Literature at UCLA. It was her struggle to find a lactation room near on UCLA’s enormous campus that first lead her to join the group Mothers Of Color in Academia in order to find some real solutions.
“The fact that no one knew that parents, or lactating moms in this case, existed on campus-- that was a big shock to some people. We’ve been asking for rooms, in my department for example, I’m one of nine or eleven moms, I think, last time I counted, and the fact that my department never considered making a space for us. People were shocked that we were demanding a space. That is a right by the way-- in California your employer has to provide you with a space to lactate” - Maricela Beccerra
But fighting for more lactating rooms was only the beginning, together the women of MOCA have dedicated themselves to improving conditions and resources for all mothers of color at UCLA as well as other colleges and universities. So far they have chapters at UCSB and Rio Hondo College, “we want people to acknowledge parent students, especially our parenting students of color” Baccerra said. “There aren’t that many of us to begin with and we want to let them know that we’re there.” But there is so much more on MOCA’s to do list some of which include: affordable insurance coverage, subsidized carpool parking, housing subsidy for parenting students, evening and weekend childcare, on campus early care facilities, as well as improved physical and mental health resources. There is also what Baccerra calls “the money issue” that’s associated with student teaching or TAing. Doctoral candidates are also expected to teach classes, grade papers, prepare courses and course materials, as well as all of the responsibilities of being students themselves on top of being mothers. It’s something she says makes achieving her dreams of being a professor that much harder since a TA makes around 20k a year and realistically how can anyone TA, take a full course load, work another job to make up the difference and still have time to dedicate to their child? “I got very lucky because I’ve had a bunch of fellowships, but at the same time I’m the one that supports my family, so I cannot provide on 20 grand per year. It's a joke” she said.
But the lack of support is also something Latinas in particular experience both from society and family when they decide to pursue higher education. “I have Tias and Tios that tell me, ‘Oh you just read books for a living. That’s all you do at school you just read books.’ --They don’t see my PhD as a job even though its takes like 40-60 hours a week out of my time, but for them it's like a hobby” Baccerra laughs. There is also the issue of people belittling women who “choose” to have kids during their stint in college. In reality by the time women reach the end of their post graduate studies many are well into their 30’s, and as we know there is a biological timeframe here. It’s something that Baccerra says is always a topic of debate for those who don’t see women of color as a group deserving special services, “I always get that argument that, ‘Oh you wanted to be a mom.’ I mean listen, I’m a grad student I’m not 22, 21- even if I was, I mean it's your choice to have a kid- but as a grad student if you want to be a mom you have to do it while you’re studying. There is no other way. Biologically your body tells you that it’s time” she said. “So you have to think of all of that and I think we have the right to have a family if we chose to, and also get our degree.”
Ultimately what MOCA offers is a community of women who have each others backs in a real way. And isn’t that the way it should always be?
“At the end of the day we only have each other, and we’re in this together. I think one of the biggest things MOCHA has done for me is provide me with a bunch of comadres that can help me take care of my kids and also support me as I’m trying to get my degree.” - Maricela Beccerra