Is Academia at Odds with Motherhood?

Despite the strides women have made in American society, there continues to be a persistent dearth of women in academic science. Though Larry Summers would ascribe this to lack of aptitude, the scientific thing to do would be to analyze some data.

In The Atlantic, Nicholas Wolfinger, co-author of a new book on gender and family in the ivory tower, does just that, noting that although “women obtain more than half of the baccalaureate degrees in the sciences,” they make up less than one third of Ph.D.-level, tenure-track positions and less than one quarter of full professorships.

Why are women dropping out of the tenure track? Wolfinger points to an academic system little changed since the era of stay-at-home-wives, a system whose rigidity offers no good time for women to have children. Evidencing this: Fewer than half of tenured female faculty across all disciplines, including the sciences, are moms.

According to Wolfinger, the weeding out of women academics begins post graduate school, where women who aspire to have children may be loath to face the “publish or perish” assistant professor years during which the amount of time devoted to research is expected to be unlimited. Aware of the challenges of juggling motherhood with the road to tenure, some academic research committees are reluctant to hire women perceived to be on the “mommy track,” even if they express dedication to both home and career. Consequently, mothers of young children are 35 percent less likely to be awarded a tenure-track job than men with young children. The same women are 33 percent less likely to get the job when compared with childless women.

So what to do? Wolfinger suggests American universities could adopt a reversible, part-time option for tenure-track faculty to level the playing field when it comes to women in academia, especially academic science. For those of us inclined to think of big business as the arena where Mad Men tendencies die hard, get this: While only ten percent of college and universities let employees go temporarily part-time, such arrangements are already accepted by more than half our nation’s corporations.

That’s right, America’s ruthless, phone-tapping, market crashing, individual-rights-having corporations are actually much less conservative when it comes to work-family balance than the university intelligentsia.

Hey academia — the jig is up. If you want your reputation as the freethinking, experimental sibling of corporate America back, you’ve got to amend your regressive work policies. It’s not just about finally practicing what you preach (didn’t I learn about feminism in college, after all?). It’s about unleashing the research and job-creation potential dormant in far too many scientific, and yes, female, minds.