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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.

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