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Married with children? You may not be a woman in academia
For females on the tenure track , the choice is too often between family satisfaction and career success

| 10 March 2005

Graduate Dean Mary Ann Mason, known for her research expertise on the career paths of men and women in academe, got a call recently from a journalist seeking her reaction to Harvard President Larry Summers' controversial comments on women in science and math. The writer mentioned, in the course of their conversation, the 66-year-old Romanian woman who had just given birth to a baby girl. The oldest mother on record, it turned out, was a retired literature professor. "Is it that difficult," the caller quipped, "for academic women to have babies?"


Marc Goulden and Mary Ann Mason (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Funny she should ask. The question (minus the tabloid twist) is one of serious interest to Mason, whose most recent study, conducted with Graduate Division research analyst Marc Goulden, looks at gender equity in academia in terms of faculty members' family patterns. Earlier - in a widely cited report called "Do Babies Matter?" - the two researchers documented career-path trends in academia, showing that many women (who now earn almost half the nation's Ph.D.s) "leak" from the academic pipeline even before securing their first tenure-track job.

This time the authors have turned that line of inquiry on its head: what price is being paid on the family front by those who do stay in the game and succeed in academia? "It's not just whether family affects your career success," says Mason. "But among those who achieve career success in academia, do men and women have families at the same rate?"

Quantifying the 'baby gap'

Their answer - "no" - is based on two distinct and complementary sources. One (to which only a handful of researchers in the country have access) is the National Science Foundation's Survey of Doctoral Recipients (SDR), which follows the careers of more than 160,000 individuals from receipt of their Ph.D. (since 1973) to age 76. The other is a 2002-03 survey of 8,705 ladder-rank faculty on nine UC campuses (with 4,460 respondents).

Statistical analysis of data from these sources provides an informative snapshot of gender equity in academe. (See Figure 1.) Mason and Goulden demonstrate, for instance, that of those who attain the coveted rank of tenured professor, there's "a huge gap" by gender in the likelihood of their having children. "Only one in three women who takes a fast-track [tenure-track] university job before having a child ever becomes a mother," they write in the November-December 2004 issue of Academe, the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors. As for those who do have children, the UC survey found that 38 percent of female faculty had fewer children than they wanted, while only 18 percent of males surveyed felt that way.

What Mason and Goulden call the "baby gap" apparently begins early, during the assistant professor years - when, they say, UC women faculty have newborns at a much lower rate than UC men: "During only one period - a brief burst in the sixth and seventh years of being a professor (just after getting tenure, we might assume) - does the rate at which women have children approach that of men." Essentially, "women never catch up," they write in both Academe and a scholarly article, "Marriage and Baby Blues," published in the November 2004 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. "The 'baby gap' widens" over time.

Why the gap?

Establishing 'The UC Faculty Family-Friendly Edge'

With the help of a $420,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Graduate Dean Mary Ann Mason and Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Equity Angelica Stacy (along with researcher Marc Goulden) conducted a survey of UC faculty systemwide and developed recommendations, based on the results, for family-friendly policies and programs for tenure-track and tenured faculty members. All of the work of the Sloan project can be found at ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu.

This site includes the proposed policy recommendations - such as a flexible part-time track before and after tenure, and a centralized fund to cover for those on family leave, among other measures. Back-up childcare, adoption benefits, and relocation-assistance counseling are also recommended. Links to relevant surveys, resources, and articles (including Mason and Goulden's articles in Academe and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and coverage of their findings by The Chronicle of Higher Education) can also be found on the website.
Seeking possible explanations for this disparity, the authors decided to investigate the amount of support that faculty get at home. Based on the 2000 U.S. census, they found that male faculty were far less likely than women faculty to have a spouse who works full- time outside the home (51 percent for men, compared to 90 percent for women); the SDR data confirm this pattern. And UC women faculty ages 30 to 50 with children reportedly devote 100 hours each week to caregiving, housework, and professional responsibilities combined - compared with a little more than 85 hours for their male counterparts.

Data from the SDR survey revealed several trends suggesting the consequences of professional success for many women faculty. Mason and Goulden found, for instance, that women who achieve tenure are more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to be single 12 years after earning the Ph.D., while women who are married when they begin their faculty careers are much more likely than men in the same position to divorce or separate from their spouses.

Taking a variety of such indicators together, they argue that "gender equity in terms of family goals is even more unbalanced than it is in terms of career aspirations." While "'married with children' is the success formula for men," they write, "the opposite is true" for women.

'The unfinished revolution'

The two researchers foresee continued investigations into gender-equity issues. Goulden is currently at work on an article, based on the 2000 U.S. census, reporting that female academics have lower fertility rates than women doctors and lawyers. (See Figure 2.) Mason's book-in-progress (working title, Mothers on the Fast Track: The Unfinished Revolution) analyzes gender equity in medicine, law, business, science, the media, and academia. In all of these formerly male-dominated fields, Mason notes, women tend to migrate, during their prime childbearing years (which are also typically crucial years for building a career), into what she calls "the second tier" - "the less demanding part of the profession," such as primary-care medicine or adjunct or part-time teaching. Or they leave the workforce altogether, intending to return once their children are older.

"I'm interested in what happens in the make-or-break years, where women go to, and what the second tier is like - because this tier is the fastest growing segment of all of these professions," Mason says. "A few years back, for the first time, a majority of undergraduate classes nationally were taught by part-time teachers or adjuncts - who are disproportionately women."

A two-tier system, per se, is not so troubling, she says, as the fact that "the second tier is often a 'stuck' tier," with limited options for re-entry into the profession. And, in many ways, academia's "up or out" tenure system - whereby faculty must achieve tenure (typically within eight years) or lose their jobs - is the most rigid and unforgiving of all.

For Mason, this helps explain the dearth of women serving as high-level administrators in colleges and universities nationwide. "Universities should be a shining light, but they're not," she says, citing her own case as instructive. "Until last year, I was the only woman dean at Berkeley. It's not because there aren't incredible women here. It's just that they haven't taken all those steps along the way - being a department chair or serving on committees."

Transforming academe

Changing the situation they've described will require nothing less than the structural and cultural transformation of academia, the two researchers believe. To that end, Mason and Angelica Stacy, co-principal investigator on a grant to help implement "family-friendly" policy changes (see sidebar), have met jointly with top administrators at nine UC campuses to discuss necessary changes, and they plan to do the same soon with the heads of major U.S. research universities.

"Data is power," Mason says. "With it, you can go to the administration and say, 'This is what's happening: Basically, you're hiring women, but they're afraid to have children!' The best thing to come out of this research is that it really encourages university administrations to put better policies into place - policies designed to encourage graduate-student women particularly, and then to encourage new faculty."

"True equity" will be achieved, she says, "when both women and men have the same opportunities to succeed in their chosen careers and to build the families they want."