Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2012 > Article Detail


When Scientists Choose Motherhood

A single factor goes a long way in explaining the dearth of women in math-intensive fields. How can we address it?

Wendy M. Williams, Stephen J. Ceci

Policy Changes with Potential

2012-03WilliamsF9.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIf sex discrimination in interviewing and hiring, or in reviewing of women’s work products, were responsible for the dearth of women professors in math-intensive fields, we would advocate interventions targeting these issues. But current data show that our society has moved past these types of blatant discrimination. Of course, more subtle forms of discrimination may operate today, and we await empirical data supporting their existence and illuminating optimal pathways to address them.

One potentially promising way to increase women’s representation is to focus efforts on the problems faced by mothers struggling to raise young families while building tenurable scholarly records. Accordingly, we advocate evaluation of an assortment of strategies (suggested by ourselves and by others, such as Mason and her colleagues) to determine which have promise. For instance, universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae. Ensuring that adolescent girls and boys have access to accurate career information is also important, so that misinformation does not lead young people to opt out of careers they might have found rewarding. Some of these strategies have been implemented at some universities; a range of adjustments to the tenure process will be necessary to ensure that women and men who want to have children and be primary caregivers will have equal opportunity.

Key factors that limit women today are still in need of solutions. It is time for our society to address them. The stresses faced when raising young families drive women out of careers for which they are trained and in which they would be as successful as men were they to make the choice not to have children. This critical constraint, which has both biological and cultural aspects, creates a sometimes grim and seemingly unfair reality for women that men simply do not face. Modern universities must create policies to target this real issue, which is supported by extensive empirical data, and which lies at the heart of the current problem.

Extended Bibliography

  • Bertrand, M., C. Goldin and L. Katz. 2010. Dynamics of the gender gap for young professionals in the financial and corporate sectors. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (2) 228–255.
  • Burrelli, J. 2008. Thirty-three years of women in S&E faculty positions. InfoBrief NSF 08-308. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Arlington, VA.
  • Ceci, S. J., and W. M. Williams. 2010. The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ceci, S. J., W. M. Williams and S. Barnett. 2009. Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological Bulletin 135: 218–261.
  • Ceci, S. J., and W. M. Williams. 2011. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 108:3157–3162.
  • Ferriman, K., D. Lubinski and C. P. Benbow. 2009. Work preferences, life values, and personal views of top math/science graduate students and the profoundly gifted: Developmental changes and gender differences during emerging adulthood and parenthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97:517–532.
  • Ginther, D., and S. Kahn. 2009. Does science promote women?: Evidence from academia 1973–2001. In Science and Engineering Careers in the United States, R. Freeman and D. Goroff, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Gilbert, N. 2008. A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Goulden, M., K. Frasch and M. A. Mason. 2009. Staying competitive: Patching America’s leaky pipeline in the sciences. Center for American Progress.
  • Hoffer, T. B., and K. Grigorian. 2005. All in a week’s work: Average work weeks of doctoral scientists and engineers. Science Resources Statistics Publication no. 06–302, December. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
  • Su, R., J. Rounds and P. Armstrong. 2009. Men and things, women and people: A metaanalysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological Bulletin 135:859–884.
  • Hyde, J. S., S. M. Lindberg, M. C. Linn, A. B. Ellis and C. C. Williams. 2008. Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321:494–495.
  • Hyde, J. S., and J. E. Mertz. 2009. Gender, culture, and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 106:8801-8807.
  • Irvine, A. D. 1996. Jack and Jill and employment equity. Dialogue 35:255–291.
  • Jacobs, J. A. and Gerson, K.. 2004. The time divide: Work, family, and gender inequality. Cambrigde, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Jacobs, J. A., and S. E. Winslow. 2004. Overworked faculty: Jobs, stresses, and family
  • divides. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 496:104–129.
  • Kane, J. M., and J. E. Mertz. 2012. Debunking the myths about gender and mathematical performance. Notices of the American Mathematical Society 59:10-21.
  • Leboy, P. S. 2008. Fixing the leaky pipeline. The Scientist 22:67.
  • Ledin, A., L. Bornmann, F. Gannon and G. Wallon. 2007. A persistent problem. EMBO Reports 8:982–996.
  • Ley, T., and B. Hamilton. 2008. Gender gap in NIH grant applications. Science 322:1472-1474.
  • Lincoln, A. E., S. H. Pincus and P. S. Leboy. 2011. Scholars’ awards go mainly to men. Nature, 27 January. Correspondence.
  • Lubinski, D., C. Benbow, R. Webb and A. Bleske-Rechek. 2006. Tracking exceptional human talent over two decades. Psychological Science 17:194–199.
  • Lubinski, D. S., and C. P. Benbow. 2007. Sex differences in personal attributes for the development of scientific expertise. In Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence, S. J. Ceci and W. M. Williams, eds. pp. 79–100. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Lubinski, D. S., C. P. Benbow, D. L. Shea, H. Eftekhari-Sanjani and M. B. Halvorson. 2001. Men and women at promise for scientific excellence: Similarity not dissimilarity. Psychological Science 12:309–317.
  • Marsh, H. W., L. Bornmann, R. Mutz, H. D. Daniel and A. O’Mara. 2009. Gender effects in the peer reviews of grant proposals: A comprehensive meta-analysis comparing traditional and multilevel approaches. Review of Educational Research 79:1290–1326.
  • Marsh, H.W., U. Jayasinghe and N. Bond 2008. Improving the peer-review process for grant applications. American Psychologist 63:160–168.
  • Mason, M. A. and M. Goulden. 2004. Marriage and baby blues: Redefining gender equity and the academy. Annals of the American Political and Social Sciences 596:86–103.
  • Mason, M. A., A. Stacy and M. Goulden. 2002–3. University of California Work and Family Survey. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley.
  • Mason, M. A., M. Goulden and K. Frasch. 2009. Why graduate students reject the fast track. Academe 95:11–16.
  • National Research Council. 2009. Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Nelson, D., and C. Brammer. 2010. A national analysis of minorities and women in science and engineering faculties at research universities. Norman, OK: Diversity in Science Association and University of Oklahoma. Retrieved May 14, 2011.*djn/diversity/Faculty_Tables_FY07/FinalReport07.html
  • Wai, J., D. Lubinski and C. P. Benbow. 2009. Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over fifty years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology 101:817–835.
  • Wai, J., M. Cacchio, M. Putallaz and M. Makel. 2010. Sex differences in the right tail of cognitive abilities: A 30-year examination. Intelligence 38:412–423.
  • Wolfinger, N. H., M. A. Mason, and M. Goulden. 2008. Problems in the pipeline: Gender, marriage, and fertility in the ivory tower. Journal of Higher Education, 79, 388-405.
  • Xie,Y., Shauman, K.. 1998. Sex differences in research productivity: New evidence about an old puzzle. American Sociological Review,63, 847-870.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist