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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

The Perils of Motherhood

It is when academic scientists choose to be mothers that their real problems start. Women deal with all the other challenges of being academic scientists as well as men do. Childless women are paid, promoted and rewarded equivalently to their male peers (and in some analyses at even higher rates). Children completely change the landscape for women—but do not appear to have the same effect on the careers of men. What happens when children enter the equation, and why does this change seem to impact women’s but not men’s careers?

2012-03WilliamsF5.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAnswering this question requires knowledge about the typical course of an academic career. Most college students interested in becoming professors in the sciences graduate from college and matriculate in graduate school soon thereafter. Earning a doctorate takes five to six years on average; it is common to work as a postdoctoral associate for several years after the doctorate. By the time students contemplate applying for tenure-track academic jobs, they are at least 27 years old, and on average 33. Landing a job means applying broadly and being willing to relocate, giving the search priority over the needs of partners or spouses. The next six years are spent in relentless efforts to accumulate an impressive portfolio of work—encompassing research, teaching, service and grants—until finally, at age 35 or older, a professor may be fortunate enough to earn tenure. Research by Jerry Jacobs and Sarah Winslow has shown that more than 60 percent of female untenured professors are over 40, and Mary Ann Mason and Mark Goulden showed the average age of tenure was already 39-plus by 2003.

Women’s optimal fertility is between ages 18 and 31. By age 37, many will have difficulty conceiving. Waiting to have children has not only physical aspects but also emotional ones—some women want to have children when they are younger. For women, the tenure track presents a harsh reality that juxtaposes the most significant physical and emotional challenges of their lives with the most significant professional challenges. It’s easy to see why the pretenure years might be off-putting for a woman who does not wish to delay having children until her late thirties—she must deal with pregnancy, childbirth and child care while simultaneously amassing a tenurable portfolio of work. This reality is too daunting for some women, and they either leave the tenure-track pipeline or give up on having children.

Surveys have shown that regrets plague women in the academy at a far greater rate than they do men. In a 2002–2003 survey of around 4,500 University of California faculty members by Mason, Angelica Stacy, and Goulden, 38 percent of women but only 18 percent of men stated that they “regret not having children” or “regret not having more children.” In research by Elaine Ecklund and Anne Lincoln at Rice University and Southern Methodist University, nearly 40 percent of women graduate students said they had fewer children than they wanted because of the pressure of their careers (versus only 20 percent of men), as did 45 percent of women faculty in astronomy, biology and physics (versus only 25 percent of men). Often this regret is associated with leaving the academy.

2012-03WilliamsF6.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageMen more often have stay-at-home spouses or spouses in flexible careers who bear and raise children while the men are free to focus on academic work. Women professors in heterosexual partnerships who want to bear children, by virtue of biology, can never achieve this same distance from childrearing, and male stay-at-home partners devoted to child care are rare. Mason and her colleagues found that mothers are 35 percent less likely to enter the tenure track and 38 percent less likely to achieve tenure than fathers, and twice as likely as fathers to work in part-time or non–tenure-track positions. Only one in three women who accepts a fast-track university job before having a child ever becomes a mother. Among tenured scientists, only 50 percent of women are married with children, compared to 72 percent of men, and women married when beginning faculty careers are much more likely to divorce or separate than men. For women who want to have children and a career in science, the picture is not pretty.

If women’s fears about the effects of having children on their careers were unfounded, we could simply educate young women scientists about what really happens and relieve them of their anxiety. But in fact, children represent a dramatic influence on women’s life paths and work productivity. To complicate the situation further, in some cases children have a positive impact on men’s productivity. Research by David Leslie has shown that the more children a woman has, the fewer hours per week she spends on her professional work, while the exact opposite is true for men.

Both for men and for women who have no children or plans to have them, the process of becoming a tenured professor in a scientific field depends on single-minded pursuit of academic goals. Whether measured in hours spent or in percentage of one’s life energy devoted, the job demands devotion to the task at a level that is extraordinarily challenging for women who are mothers of young children. The tenure system was created at a time when few women worked outside the home and when raising children was assumed to be women’s work, and thus it was designed for people without significant responsibilities in household work or child care. In fact, many early professors were unmarried men who were expected to live in residence at their universities. A lot has changed since then, but the tenure system itself has remained much the same.

The research by Mason, Stacy and Goulden found that childless women and childless men professors report working an average of 78 hours per week across all life domains (in the workplace and at home), and men with children work 88 hours per week. But women with children work 100-plus hours per week across all life domains. Among assistant professors with children, women spend nearly 4 hours fewer per week on their professional careers than do men (52.5 versus 56.3), according to Jacobs and Winslow. The impact of children on women is especially dramatic for the proportion working 60-plus hours per week—42 percent of married male assistant professors with children work 60-plus hours per week, compared to only 29 percent of married women with children. The reality of the lives of women professors with children may seem too stark for their younger colleagues, postdocs and students.

2012-03WilliamsF7.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe role of children in women’s versus men’s decisions about whether to stay in a research-intensive career track or opt out of it can also be seen in research by Goulden, Karie Frasch and Mason. They show that once children—or even plans for children—exist, women become far more likely to move out of the research-professor pipeline. Women with no plans for children show decision making comparable to men, exhibiting about the same likelihood of opting out of research-professor careers.

This single factor of having or wanting children has great impact. In some analyses, females are twice as likely as males to decide not to pursue tenure-track careers as a result of this factor. Having children prior to working as a postdoctoral associate creates a 19 percent likelihood for men of opting out, versus 32 percent for women; having new children after beginning postdoctoral work creates a 20 percent versus 41 percent difference. No other factor can account for as much leakage of women from the research-professor pipeline. The percentage of women in the applicant pool at each of several key transition points shows this decline: From award of Ph.D., to application for tenure-track positions, to being invited to interview, to being offered a tenure-track job, to being promoted to associate and full professor, women’s numbers diminish. The proportion of applications from women is significantly lower than the proportion of doctoral degrees awarded to women. This gap is more pronounced in some fields than in others; for example, the difference is quite substantial in chemistry and biology, two disciplines with relatively high proportions (32 percent and 46 percent, respectively) of recent Ph.D.s awarded to women. However, when women do apply for tenure-track positions, they are more likely to be interviewed and hired than their proportion in the applicant pool (as opposed to their proportion in the Ph.D. pool) would lead one to expect. These data, in sum, lead us to conclude that the dynamics of family formation in Western society—not biased hiring committees, journal reviewers and grant panelists—are the primary cause of the underrepresentation of women in academic science.

2012-03WilliamsF8.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageDo women in nonacademic careers face the same challenges? At least in some fields, the answer is yes. The economists Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz surveyed nearly 2,500 University of Chicago M.B.A.s who graduated between 1990 and 2006. More women M.B.A.s dropped out of the full-time workforce with each added year following their degree. As their biological clocks ran down, significantly fewer remained in full-time and part-time employment. Although this situation is also seen among women in medicine and among Ph.D.s, it is exacerbated in business, particularly for those jobs associated with work weeks of more than 60 hours (investment banking, consulting) or close to 60 hours (venture capital, sales, trading). For the first few years following receipt of their M.B.A., men and women have similar labor-force participation, both at nearly 100 percent. However, 10 years after graduation, among women who have one or more children, only 52 percent work full-time and full year. Sex differences in labor-force participation widen as careers progress.

Women are not found in greater numbers in some fields, particularly math-intensive ones, due to a combination of factors. The two most significant reasons are that women are more likely than men to prefer other fields (such as medicine, biology, law and veterinary science, rather than mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science and physics), even when they have comparable mathematical ability, and that family-formation goals extinguish tenure-track aspirations in women more often than in men. The majority of child care, housework and household management is done by women, and women scientists are no exception in assuming this greater burden. Although this second factor affects women in all fields of science, not just math-intensive ones, the lower numbers of women entering graduate programs in math-based fields means that any factor that further reduces their number results in a dearth of tenure-track female faculty. At the top 100 universities in the 1996-to-2005 cohort, less than a third of Ph.D.s in math-intensive fields were women, and in three of those fields less than 15 percent of Ph.D.s were women. Fields such as biology, psychology, sociology and medicine, in which the majority of new Ph.D.s and M.D.s are now women, are able to retain a larger number of women in the tenure-track pipeline, even after family-driven attrition.

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