Skip to main content

Academia's 'Baby Penalty'

Men fare far better in academia than women – especially women who have children

“In fact, academia has the distinction of being a more punishing profession for mothers than either law or medicine.” – Sandra Waxman and Simone Ispa-Landa

This article originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report on February 11, 2016.

By Sandra Waxman and Simone Ispa-Landa

Last month, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter introduced a suite of new Pentagon policies aimed at retaining female troops, especially those with young families. This follows on the heels of a bold new report issued at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting where 10 major Fortune-500 companies, including Twitter, Barclays and PricewaterhouseCoopers, committed to achieving full gender parity by 2020.

Our nation's universities should join in. Women comprise only 37.5 percent of tenured faculty and 22 percent of university presidents.

Like the Fortune 500 companies and the Pentagon, American universities have adopted policies aimed at supporting the advancement of women, including those pertaining to childbearing and childrearing. There is broad agreement within academia that losing well-trained, committed and talented women to the "leaky pipeline" has devastating ripple effects. It means losing out on women's discoveries in science and their insights in the humanities, losing the diversity that spurs creativity and losing role models for today's students, whose diversity far outstrips that of the university faculty who advise and teach them.

Nevertheless, the gender imbalances persist: Academic men fare far better than women – especially women who have children. In fact, academia has the distinction of being a more punishing profession for mothers than either law or medicine.

Some have argued that because tenure clocks and biological clocks tick to the same unrelenting beat, achieving gender diversity in academia will be especially challenging. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Becoming a parent is not, on its own, to blame: Men with young children are 35 percent more likely than women with young children to secure tenure-track positions after completing their Ph.D.s. Fathers also outstrip mothers in securing tenure by about 20 percent.

Neither is gender bias alone to blame: Women without children are 33 percent more likely than women with children to secure tenure-track faculty positions. In other words, at a pivotal point in establishing their careers, mothers in academia pay a "baby penalty." Why should parenting continue to weigh so much more heavily on female academics than on their male counterparts?

Certainly, cultural attitudes play a role, including persisting assumptions that so-called career mothers shortchange their babies, their professional competence or both. For example, Princeton University students were asked recently to consider several fictitious consultants including two new parents who continued to work. The only difference between these new parents was their gender – yet the students described "Kate" as considerably less competent than "Dan."

Universities are not solely responsible for changing broad cultural stereotypes like this in one fell swoop. But they also cannot afford to maintain the status quo. The time has come for universities to take stock, identify the obstacles facing mothers and set clear priorities to remove them. Here are three steps.

1. Make existing parenting resources widely accessible.

In stark contrast to information about salary, health care, retirement benefits and even sabbatical policies, information that is crucial to academic mothers' success (including parental leave policies and tenure clock stops) is difficult to unearth. In addition, because parenting resources are rarely raised during recruitment visits, it is difficult for job candidates to evaluate which universities offer the policies that would best support parents' career goals.

For many mothers or aspiring mothers, discovering which parenting resources (if any) are available requires initiating a series of negotiations. The first step is usually to meet with department chairs, many of whom are not aware of the parenting resources available or how best to implement them in the academic calendar. Eventually, most women end up relying on other faculty mothers, a group that already does more than their share of service both at work and at home. In circuitous negotiations like this, even the most successful woman might begin to doubt her place in academia.

2. Collect – and share – more detailed and comprehensive data.

Within a university, mothers fare far better in some disciplines than others. Thus what matters is not only the policies on the books but also how well these are enforced and implemented. Longitudinal data, tracing the career paths of men and women from graduate school entrance though the tenure process, is essential to pinpointing where, when and why existing policies fall short and to taking swift steps to fix them.

3. Consider the alternatives.

Universities should look to other professions for insight. The Pentagon, Fortune-500 companies and several other corporate giants including Amazon, Bank of America, Facebook and Bloomberg have generous parental leave policies and family-friendly measures. More than half of American corporations now offer part-time alternatives to parents of young children, but less than 10 percent of our colleges and universities do so. Other professions have also made serious strides: In many law firms, it is now possible to remain on the partner track while working less than full-time for an extended period. 

Solutions like these would make a world of difference to women in academia. As mothers and professors at a prestigious research university, we have seen firsthand the challenges of balancing motherhood with academic careers. Twenty years into the new millennium, our female colleagues continue to ask us, "When is the right time to have a baby?"

The time has come to pose new questions, ones that shift the focus from aspiring parents to the institution: When will universities repair the leaky pipeline and repeal the 'baby tax'? How much longer will it take to bring the promise of gender equity in academia to fruition? 

- Sandra Waxman is the Louis W. Menk professor in psychology and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Simone Ispa-Landa is an assistant professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and (by courtesy) sociology at Northwestern.

Editor's Picks

Back to top