Female academics pay a heavy baby penalty

by Mary Ann Mason

In 2000, I greeted the first entering graduate-student class at Berkeley where the women outnumbered the men. I was the first female dean of the graduate division. As a ’70s feminist I cautiously thought, “Is the revolution over? Have we won?” Hardly. That afternoon I looked around the room at my first dean’s meeting and all I saw were grey haired men. The next week at the first general faculty meeting of the semester I noted that women were still only about a quarter of the faculty, and most were junior.

Our Berkeley research team has spent more than a decade studying why so many women begin the climb but do not make it to the top of the Ivory Tower: the tenured faculty, full professors, deans, and presidents. The answer turns out to be what you’d expect: Babies matter. Women pay a “baby penalty” over the course of a career in academia—from the tentative graduate school years through the pressure cooker of tenure, the long midcareer march, and finally retirement. But babies matter in different ways at different times. A new book I co-wrote with the team at Berkeley, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, draws on several surveys that have tracked tens of thousands of graduate students over their careers, as well as original research.

The most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women’s, but not men’s, academic careers. For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price. They are far less likely to be married with children. We see more women in visible positions like presidents of Ivy League colleges, but we also see many more women who are married with children working in the growing base of part-time and adjunct faculty, the “second tier,” which is now the fastest growing sector of academia. Unfortunately, more women Ph.Ds. has meant more cheap labor. And this cheap labor threatens to displace the venerable tenure track system.

The early years are the most decisive in determining who wins and who loses. Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career. They receive little or no childbirth support from the university and often a great deal of discouragement from their mentors. As one Berkeley graduate student who participated in our study put it, “There is a pervasive attitude that the female graduate student in question must now prove to the faculty that she is capable of completing her degree, even when prior to the pregnancy there were absolutely no doubts about her capabilities and ambition.” And consider the postdoctoral particle physicist who brought a lawsuit that was settled. She was effectively blacklisted by her adviser when she had a baby. When she was pregnant, her adviser said he would refuse to write her a letter of recommendation unless she returned from her pregnancy leave soon after giving birth.

Before even applying for the first tenure-track job, many women with children have already decided to drop out of the race. They have perceived a tenure-track job as being incompatible with having children. In our study of University of California doctoral students, 70 percent of women and more than one-half of the men considered faculty careers at research universities not friendly to family life. Others are married to other Ph.D.s, the “two body” problem. In those cases, one body must defer to the other’s career and that body is far more likely to be the woman’s. Or their husband’s career, not in academia, limits their choices. As one biology graduate student in our study said, “My husband has a job he loves, but it will require that we don’t move: This limits my postdoc and career options significantly. I think the chances of staying in the same city throughout the career and finding a tenure track position are almost nonexistent. However, I am not sure I care any more.”

Then there is the job interview. One job candidate we interviewed said “ I also had the experience of being in an interview, mentioning my child, and seeing the SC’s [search committee head’s] face fall, and that was the end of the job. Although there could have been a million reasons, there is no doubt that having a child did not help my candidacy in that case.” Mothers are more likely to join the ranks of the second tier, or to drop out of academia.

There is some good news for women. The second tier is not a complete career graveyard. We have found that a good proportion of those toiling as adjuncts and part-time lecturers do eventually get tenure track jobs. On the other hand, single, childless women get those first jobs at higher rates than wives, mothers or single men—almost at the same rate as married fathers.

The pressure cooker years as an assistant professor leading up to tenure usually number four to seven years. At the end of this trial, the university decides “up or out”—tenure for life or dismissal. It is well established that women are less likely to be awarded tenure than men. There is a baby penalty, especially strong in the sciences—but women without children also receive tenure at a lower rate than men. There are other factors than children that cause women to fail at this critical juncture. The women who do make it often do so alone. Women professors have higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and fewer children than male professors. Among tenured faculty, 70 percent of men are married with children compared with 44 percent of women.

Women who achieve tenure are more likely than men to fall into the midcareer slump. They take longer, sometimes much longer, to be promoted to full professor, the top of the academic ranks. For the first time in the career march from graduate school, children do not make a clear difference in their career slowdown. Partly, this may be because the children are no longer young. Old-fashioned gender stereotyping—in particular, weighing down women with university service and mentoring responsibilities—may contribute more to this inequity. Marriage, however, is a positive factor for both men and women when they come up for promotion to full professor.

Men and women retire at about the same age, but women have less income to rely upon in retirement; their salaries at retirement are, on average, 29 percent lower.  This is partly the result of parenting responsibilities: For women, each child reduces her pay. This is mostly as a cumulative effect from time and money lost earlier. But children have no such effect on men’s salaries.

All female faculty members experience the “baby penalty,” but in the sciences (biological and physical sciences, engineering, math, and some social sciences) the impact is more decisive. Women have responded in record numbers to the national campaign to include more women in science and receive significantly more Ph.D.s in all these fields, including the traditionally male dominated fields of engineering and chemistry, but they also drop out in record numbers. This is a great loss in trained talent, but also the loss of a major economic investment; it costs at least several hundred thousand dollars, largely from the federal government, to support a young scientist through a Ph.D. and postdoc. Most of this drop occurs early, often in the postdoctoral fellow years when those who have children are twice as likely to change careers as other women. As one interviewee, Jennifer, a female neuroscience postdoc who had recently had a child, and whom we interviewed for our study, said, “I don’t think I will ever be able to do a tenure track job, and people were very upfront with me about that when I had my child. Looking around me, I see that people are completely shut out of positions because of family.”

What makes academia so difficult for mothers? In large part it is because it is a rigid lockstep career track that does not allow for time out and which puts the greatest pressure on its aspirants in the critical early years. Most Ph.D.s are achieved and tenure granted in the critical decade between 30 and 40, the “make or break decade” as we call it. It is also the decade in which women have children, if they have them at all. Low fertility is not a coincidence among tenured women; they believed they must wait to get tenure (average age around 40) before beginning a family. The university does little to provide a more flexible career path or to put in place family responsive programs that would make it possible to balance work with babies.

So what is the answer? Pursue business or law instead? These fields, where women receive roughly one-half of professional credentials, as they do in academia, each have their story to tell, but it is a familiar story. At the end of the day, women fall into the same pyramid shape as in the university. There are few at the top (managing partners, CEOs, university presidents, top scientists), many in middle management, and many who have entered the second tier—the part-time, consulting, adjunct faculty roles—or dropped out of the race; this lowest tier is disproportionately women with children. Those women who have reached the top in all of these professions have done so at the expense of not having children. A survey of top executives within three levels of CEO found that 49 percent of the women are married with children compared to 84 percent of  the men.

It is important for women to become more assertive at faculty meetings, to negotiate starting salary, to argue for justice in the promotion process, as Sheryl Sandberg argues in Lean In. Still, when a female faculty member must leave a meeting early to pick up a toddler at child care or to pump breast milk for an infant, “leaning in” will not be enough to keep her on the same career track as a man.

We all know what structural changes would help to level the playing field in all of these careers and they are quite similar: paid family leave for both mothers and fathers, especially for childbirth, a flexible workplace, a flexible career track, a re-entry policy, pay equity reviews, child care assistance, dual career assistance. Those universities and corporations who have actively created these policies have found an advantage in recruitment and retention. For instance, at Berkeley, after enacting several new policies to benefit parents, including paid teaching leaves for fathers, job satisfaction scored much higher among parents, and more babies are being born to assistant professors.

It is time for women to “lean in” and demand family policies that will at least give them a fighting chance to have both a successful career and babies. Read more…

© Slate.com © Photo by Cristi M/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.