COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The most anguished moment of Elena Irwin's academic career was, perhaps fittingly, also her first Mother's Day after giving birth.
Irwin, an economist at Ohio State University, felt overwhelmed, working 60 hours a week while caring for her 9-month-old, Isaac. She wanted to spend Mother's Day at a barbecue with Isaac and her husband, but she had to prepare for a seminar that week. She decided to stay home and work.
Soon after, Irwin recalls, she told the head of her department, ''I'm at the point where I'm willing to quit."
Instead, Irwin learned about an unusual option at Ohio State to work part time while remaining on the tenure track. Now, four years later, she has received tenure, has a second son, and still works part time.
The idea of a part-time, high-status option for professors is one of the hottest innovations under consideration at universities around the country, to plug the leaky career pipeline that has undermined the progress of women in academia, a profession in which long work hours peak during childbearing years. Among doctoral degree recipients, men with young children are 50 percent more likely than women with young children to begin a job on the tenure track, the class of jobs that are an entree to a serious academic career and the possibility, five to 10 years down the road, of a lifetime, tenured appointment.
Irwin's success offers a model for how the part-time tenure track can work, at its best, preventing talented women from leaving the profession or settling for positions as lecturers. But Ohio State's experience has also shown that ideas such as this have major hurdles to overcome before they significantly stanch leaks in the academic pipeline.
Schools have to confront bias ingrained in the academic culture against people who don't put in grueling hours. They have to consider what to do about people who can't afford a half-time salary because they are divorced or live in an expensive real estate market such as Boston. And they must wrestle with the delicate question of whether it's possible to do groundbreaking work, especially in the sciences, without working long hours.
At Harvard University, where the number of women offered tenured jobs dropped for three years before rebounding this past year, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is considering allowing junior professors to work part time for a couple of years, postponing when they will be evaluated for tenure. The University of California is implementing a policy promoting part-time tenure-track options, and the University of Michigan is debating a similar proposal.
A major university consortium, the American Council on Education, is pushing schools to create a more flexible academic career path, including part-time options, to address the low representation of women and members of minority groups, as well as a wave of retirements on the horizon and a decline in foreign scholars coming to the United States. The council drew 27 universities to a conference on the topic last month.
Part-time policies are designed to appeal to fathers, people with aging parents, and professors nearing retirement. Still, many proponents see mothers as the prime audience.
''A high-quality, part-time tenure track is the only thing that is going to help women reach academic positions in proportional numbers," said Joan C. Williams, a specialist in work and family issues at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. ''We tried the old feminist recipe in not offering women part time, on the assumption that they would work full time, and many, many of them didn't. Instead they became homemakers or adjuncts."
Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers sparked a furor in January for suggesting that there may be differences in men's and women's ''intrinsic aptitude" for science. But he also cited as the ''largest phenomenon" behind women's lower representation at the top ranks an explanation that is much less controversial: the ''clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity."
Research shows that parenthood hinders women's academic careers. Among those who had at least one child within five years after receiving their doctorate, more than half of women and more than three-quarters of men earned tenure in the sciences within 12 to 14 years of finishing their education, according to ''Do Babies Matter," a 2002 UC Berkeley study. In the social sciences and humanities, close to 60 percent of women and 80 percent of men received tenure.
Finding a way to narrow that gap will be difficult, as Ohio State has discovered. In a 2003 survey of Ohio State assistant professors, one in three women and one in five men said they would be interested in reducing their work hours to have more time for family and personal needs. And yet, by May, only 23 of the university's 3,000 faculty members were taking advantage of the part-time option, on the books since 1996. Of those 23, Irwin was one of only two who worked part time before tenure, suggesting that some professors did not view it as a viable option.
Going up for tenure requires assembling a portfolio of research to be evaluated by members of the same department and specialists around the country, a process that leaves a lot of room for subjective judgments about a person's status in the field or devotion to the job.
Maria Manta Conroy, a professor of city and regional planning with a 2-year-old son, will be evaluated for tenure at Ohio State next year. She says colleagues have been very supportive, even willing to schedule meetings around her son's day-care schedule. But she decided not to work part time because she worried that her colleagues would not approve.
''It may be as much a fear of mine as reality," Conroy said. 'The perception of me having a child is that my profession is not the priority anymore, [that] it's now kind of second to the family."
Ohio State officials blame a combination of ignorance about the available options and ''cultural norms" such as those Conroy fears for the failure of the part-time policy to catch on. A committee on women's issues is recommending that the university set up training for deans and department heads to make the case that the part-time option will help recruiting and retention.
That may not be enough. Another question that is contentious even among advocates for women in academia: Can you really create important scholarship part time? Some fields involve the kind of solitary thinking that can be done at any pace, but contemporary science, at least at the top ranks, is a cutthroat field, in which advances happen at lightning speed. Scientists compete to attract the best graduate students, and they are sometimes racing to make a discovery before someone else does. Many of the grants that pay for their work also have time limits.
''My experience in science is that great work is done by people who are pretty much over-the-top committed to it," said Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Irwin, 39, took an extra year before going up for tenure because she had given birth, an option that many universities offer to new mothers and sometimes fathers. She could have asked for two more years for working part time, but had been successful enough that she felt she didn't need it.
But she had to work 35 to 40 hours a week, part time by the standards of academia, for half her former salary and full benefits. She recently started working 70 percent of full time and said she and her husband, a professor in the same department, are lucky to be able to afford her reduced salary.
One day last month, Irwin got up at 5:30 to go jogging near her Arts and Crafts home in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, then helped Isaac, now 5, and Elliot, 2 1/2, to prepare for kindergarten and day care. Her husband dropped off the boys. She went into the office for three hours of meetings with students, where she pored over mathematical formulas and strategized about grant applications.
But shortly after noon, Irwin was a world away, patiently coaxing Elliot out of day care while he stopped to smell flowers, pick a pebble out of his shoe, and admire a large pile of mulch.
That afternoon, she hung around with the children as they played with neighbors, popped back to campus to give a short welcome to new graduate students, and then took her sons to a singing class. After dinner, she played more with her sons and put them to bed.
Then Irwin worked from about 8:30 to 10 p.m., a lighter night than usual. Colleagues report she sometimes sends them e-mail at 3 a.m.
The part-time schedule makes it hard for her to keep up with everything. It took her two years to help a student turn his master's thesis into a publishable paper because she could never find a few days for the project. She doesn't have time to travel to give seminars that would burnish her reputation, and she wonders whether, over the long term, her career will have a lower trajectory than it might have had.
''This is not a perfect solution . . . but having this option has made a big difference in terms of quality of life," she said. ''It hasn't taken the craziness out of our lives, but certainly has made things less crazy."
Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.