For Female Scientists, There's No Good Time to Have Children

That's why so many drop out of the field. Here's how to make the system more fair for women in academia.
Better policies could ensure that there are more Jane Gooddalls in the future.(Rick Rycroft/AP Images)

American women are leaving academic science, including the social sciences, in alarming numbers. Many will turn away from science while still in graduate school. Although women obtain more than half of the baccalaureate degrees in the sciences, they receive only 46 percent of the doctorates. Others will drop out of the science pipeline after receiving their Ph.D.s, or when they come up for tenure. Less than one third of Ph.D.-level scientists employed in tenure-track positions at four-year colleges and universities are women; less than one quarter of full professors are women. These inequities are particularly striking in an era when women have made great strides in American society more generally. Were the gender gap closed, were women to take their rightful place alongside male scholars, the world would see a renaissance in biological, physical, and behavioral science.

The academic career system developed in an era when most faculty members were men with stay-at-home wives. In an era of dual-career families, the old model does not meet the needs of women who want to both start a family and have a fast-track career in the sciences (or the humanities, for that matter). Although balancing these priorities is a challenge for many Americans of both sexes, female academics are at a unique disadvantage. In our new book, Do Babies Matter: Gender & Family in the Ivory Tower, Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and I draw on over a decade of research to show why family formation--marriage and children--represent the biggest stumbling block women face en route to a career in academic science.

In graduate school, if not before, women begin to learn that science and families don't go well together. They can't help but notice that most of their advisors and mentors are men. Moreover, less than one half of tenured female faculty all disciplines are married with children. Consequently, aspiring female scholars don't have a lot of role models, especially those who've managed to combine marriage and children with a successful career in academic science. Due in part to the paucity of role models, about 30 percent of the women--and 20 percent of the men--we surveyed at the massive ten-campus University of California system turn away from their goal of becoming a professor at a major research university. "I could not have come to graduate school more motivated to be a research-oriented professor," one woman told us. "Now I feel that can only be a career possibility if I am willing to sacrifice having children."

The most significant winnowing out of women occurs right after fledgling scientists finish graduate school. It has long been known that women are less likely than men to snag tenure-track positions. National data from the authoritative Survey of Doctorate Recipients shed light on this disparity. The married mothers of young children--that is, children too young to attend school--are 35 percent less likely to get tenure-track jobs compared with married fathers of young children. The same women are 33 percent less likely to get jobs compared with unmarried women who aren't the parents of young children. However, unmarried childless women are four percent more likely to get tenure-track jobs than are unmarried childless men. At this professional turning point, family formation probably explains why female scientists don't get tenure-track jobs.

Why do marriage and motherhood have such profound consequences for women's job market prospects? Married female scientists are almost always in dual-career marriages, while only around half of male faculty have wives who work full-time. One spouse must defer, and that spouse is likely to be wife (unfortunately we have no data on same-sex unions, or nonmarital live-in relationships). And unlike in most other professions, taking an academic job typically requires relocation to another state. The baby penalty is even easier to understand. Many women are loath to face the demanding "publish or perish" assistant professor years while caring for young children; cognizant of this challenge, some academic search committees are reluctant to hire women perceived to be on the mommy track rather than the tenure track. These problems persist because the rigid academic career structure really doesn't offer women any good time to have children.

Presented by

Nicholas H. Wolfinger is an associate professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. He is a co-author of Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower.

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