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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

I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.
—Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Prize winner and mother of a daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, who also won the Nobel Prize

2012-03WilliamsF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageJennifer was an extremely talented undergraduate, majoring in mathematics and engineering. Her grades and test scores were nearly perfect; her professors saw a bright future for her as an engineering professor and encouraged her to pursue a doctorate. In graduate school, she continued to excel, accumulating high-quality publications, fellowships and awards. She landed a premier postdoctoral position and was headed for a first-tier professorship. But she never applied for a tenure-track academic job. As a 33-year-old postdoc, she could not imagine waiting to have children until after tenure at age 40, nor could she imagine how she would juggle caring for a young family with the omnipresent demands of an assistant professorship. The harried lives of the two tenured mothers in her department convinced her that such a path was not for her. Jennifer made the choice to have a family and teach mathematics part-time at a local community college.

Although it’s not hard to find evidence of women professors’ many successes in the academy, scenarios like Jennifer’s are all too common. Women hold a substantial portion of professorships in the humanities and liberal arts, and they are well represented in the social sciences and some fields of natural science, such as biology. Overall, women make up 33 percent of faculty at doctoral-level institutions. They receive many teaching and service awards and do as well as men in winning grants. But women are in short supply in math-intensive fields, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and computer science. For example, in the top 100 U.S. universities in 2007, women full professors in these fields numbered only 4.4 to 12.3 percent, and women were only 16 to 27 percent of assistant professors (see Figure 2).

2012-03WilliamsF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWhat is going on here? 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? Where are these women going, and why do they leave their chosen field?

Much has been written about the underrepresentation of women professors in math-intensive fields, particularly in upper-level positions. Despite the substantial amount of high-quality data on this issue, however, myths and misunderstandings prevail. Potentially addressable issues that limit women are often ignored, and efforts and resources are misdirected toward solving problems that no longer exist.

The usual explanations for the shortage of women focus squarely on sex discrimination at various life stages. As a result of such discrimination, the argument goes, girls and women drop out of math-based endeavors or change their focus. Some scholars have argued for the effects of early socialization practices that lead girls along a path that downplays math—pink versus blue attire for babies, Barbie dolls proclaiming “Math class is tough,” middle-school math teachers calling on boys more than girls, high-school girls urged to be cheerleaders or writers instead of scientists. Others invoke gender stereotypes—sets of shared cultural expectations that suggest, for instance, that females are not gifted in math or that the responsibility for raising children belongs primarily or solely to women. Still others look further down the pipeline, at disenfranchisement of women once they enter academic-science careers, focusing on claims of “chilly climate”; unequal pay and promotion; devaluing of women’s work styles and biased assessment of their efforts; and old-boys’ clubs that isolate women. Researchers have also studied the role of sex differences at the extreme right tail of the math distribution—more boys than girls demonstrate extremely high levels of math ability on standardized tests such as the SAT. Still others suggest that women simply prefer to use their math and science skills to be veterinarians and biologists, for example, rather than engineers and computer scientists, and that the difference in the numbers can be explained by this freely determined preference.

We argue for the importance of another factor in women’s underrepresentation: the choice to become a mother. To place the role of this choice in context, we consider its impact on women’s careers relative to the impacts of other variables that may reduce women’s participation in the sciences. Our own findings as well as research by others show that the effect of children on women’s academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors in contributing to women’s underrepresentation in academic science.

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