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When Scientists Choose Motherhood


What do the statistics in Figure 2 tell us? In general, people who are now full professors entered academic employment between about 1970 and 2000. Thus, the percentages of women in these positions reflect the hiring practices of past decades as well as the percentages of women who earned PhDs in STEM between 1970 and 2000. Similarly, the percentages of associate professors who are women tend to reflect the hiring practices and percentages of those who earned PhDs before about 2003.

However, Williams and Ceci say, "Why are women who are talented and dedicated enough to graduate from college with degrees in mathematics not progressing through graduate school and ultimately earning full professorships?" The implication seems to be that Figure 2 shows that the people who are currently assistant professors will not continue to become full professors.

But, that is not what Figure 2 shows.

Back when some of the full professors in Figure 2 were hired, the situation was quite different. For example, some were hired in the 1970s and and 1980s. In the 1970s, women earned about 10% of the PhDs in mathematics. Very few of them were hired at top research universities during that decade. Despite that, their share of PhDs in mathematics increased to about 20% in the 1980s, and to about 30% in the late 1990s and 2000s. But, it was only in 2005 that surveys began to show women's share of assistant professor or tenure-track positions at top mathematics departments was close to 30%. This can be seen by comparing Nelson's 2002 survey of the top 50 STEM departments with her findings for 2007 which are shown in Figure 2. It can also be seen by examining the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences surveys for 1995, 2000, 2005, and preliminary findings for 2010. (See my article for the Association for Women in Science magazine posted here:

Williams and Ceci's hypothesis that "the effect of children on women’s academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors" seems to require further evidence in order to explain these and other recent increases in proportions of women in top mathematics departments.

posted by Cathy Kessel
February 15, 2012


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