Our research team at the University of California at Berkeley 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 as tenured 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 their academic careers—from the uncertain graduate-school years to the pressure cooker of tenure, through the long midcareer march, and finally to retirement. But babies matter in different ways at different times. Our new book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (written with Nicholas H. Wolfinger and Marc Goulden) draws on our research, as well as findings from the National Science Foundation survey that has tracked a large sample of Ph.D.'s (more than 160,000) from 1973 onward, and several other large surveys and interviews focusing on graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members at the University of California.
Our most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women's—but not men's—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer. Women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price: They are far less likely to be married with children than are their male colleagues.
We see more women in visible positions like presidents of Ivy League universities, but we also see many more women who are married with children working in the growing base of part-time and adjunct faculty members—the "second tier" that is now the fastest-growing sector of academe.
The early years of an academic career are the most decisive in determining who wins and who loses. Women who have babies while they are graduate students or postdoctoral fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or single women to turn away from an academic research career. Those early-career mothers get little or no childbirth support from the university and often receive a great deal of discouragement from their mentors. Consider the postdoctoral particle physicist who was effectively blacklisted by her adviser when she had a baby. Her adviser said he would refuse to write her a letter of recommendation unless she returned from her pregnancy leave soon after giving birth.
As one UC graduate student 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."
Married women with children in all disciplines are far less likely than married men with children to obtain a tenure-track job. Before even applying for their 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 family life. Others are married to other Ph.D.s.—the "two body" problem in which one body must defer to the other's career and that body is far more likely to be the woman's.
Then there are the hazards of the job interview. As one job candidate wrote, "I had the experience of being in an interview, mentioning my child, and seeing the SC's [search-committee chair'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 contingent faculty ranks, or drop out of academe altogether. The "second tier," however, is not a complete career graveyard. We have found that a good proportion of those who begin toiling as adjuncts and part-time lecturers right after graduate school do eventually get tenure-track jobs. On the other hand, single, childless women get their first tenure-track jobs at higher rates than wives, mothers, or single men, almost at the same rate as married fathers.
The pressure cooker of the tenure track usually lasts between four to seven years. At the end of that 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 on the tenure track, especially strong in the sciences. But women without children also receive tenure at a lower rate than men do. So there are more factors than children that cause women to fail at this critical juncture.
Women who do endure on the tenure track often do so alone. Female professors have higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and fewer children than their male colleagues do. Among tenured faculty, 70 percent of the men are married with children, compared with 44 percent of the 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. For the first time in the career march from graduate school, children do not make a clear difference in the career slowdown of women at this stage. In part, that may be because their children are no longer young. Old-fashioned gender stereotyping—in particular, weighing down women with too many 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.
We found that men and women in academe 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. That is partly the result of parenting responsibilities: For women, each child she has reduces her pay—a cumulative effect from time and money lost earlier. But children have no such effect on men's salaries.
Female faculty members in all fields experience the "baby penalty," but in the sciences (biological sciences, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, 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 earn significantly more Ph.D.'s than they used to in all of those fields, including the traditionally male-dominated fields of engineering and chemistry.
But women also drop out in record numbers. That's 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 the dropouts occur in this early-career period, often in the postdoctoral-fellow years when those who have children are twice as likely to change careers as other women are. As one interviewee, Jennifer, a female neuroscience postdoc who had recently had a child, 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 academe so difficult for mothers? In large part it is because it is a rigid, lockstep career track that does not allow for timeouts and that puts the greatest pressure on its aspirants in the critical early years. Most academics earn their Ph.D.'s and tenure in the critical decade between the age of 30 and 40, the "make-or-break decade," as we call it. It is also the decade in which many women have children, if they have them at all.
Low fertility is not a coincidence among tenured women. Many women believed they had to wait to earn tenure (average age around 40) before beginning a family. The university does little to provide a more flexible career path or to adopt family-responsive programs that would make it possible to balance work with babies.
It is important for women to become more assertive at faculty meetings, to negotiate higher starting salaries, and to argue for justice in the promotion process, as Sheryl Sandberg argued in her much-debated book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. 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: 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 such policies have found an advantage in recruitment and retention. For instance, after Berkeley enacted 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.