Motherhood “Detrimental” to Women in Math-Intensive Sciences

While women make up 33 percent of the faculty at doctoral institutions today, they are significantly underrepresented in math-intensive fields such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and computer science. In 2007, women full professors in these fields numbered only 4.4 to 12.3 percent of faculty at the top 100 US universities; they comprised only 16 to 27 percent of assistant professors. In a new study in American Scientists, Cornell human development professors Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci argue that motherhood is the reason.

Why Are Women So Underrepresented in the Math-Intensive Sciences?

Usually three other factors — ability differences, occupational and lifestyle preferences and sex discrimination — are cited as the reason for women being underrepresented in math-intensive fields. Williams and Ceci review these while arguing that they are unlikely causes.

Surveys have indicated that women tend to be more interested in careers involving living things such as medicine, biology, animal science and psychology, rather than fields such as computer science, mathematics, physics and engineering. Nonetheless, in 2005, women and men were almost equally represented among college math majors; women indeed tend to get better grades in math courses. While sex discrimination in publishing, securing grants and being hired for academic jobs was a factor historically, a 2004 – 2005 survey by the National Research Council committee found that “women applicants were actually more likely to be interviewed and offered tenure-track jobs than were their male competitors, and that there were no differences in tenure and promotion rates for women and men.”

Motherhood Can Be “Detrimental” to Women’s Careers in the Sciences

A desire to have children and for family life is “the single most important factor in explaining women’s underrepresentation” in the math-intensive sciences, say Williams and Ceci. Noting that “women’s optimal fertility is between ages 18 and 31,” the authors write that, for a women seeking an academic career in these areas, the “most significant physical and emotional challenges of their lives” occurs at the same time as she encounters the “most significant professional challenges” in a tenure-track job. Biology, that is, makes a simple difference for women scientists:

Men more often have stay-at-home spouses or spouses in flexible careers who bear and raise children while the men are free to focus on academic work. Women professors in heterosexual partnerships who want to bear children, by virtue of biology, can never achieve this same distance from childrearing, and male stay-at-home partners devoted to child care are rare. Mason and her colleagues found that mothers are 35 percent less likely to enter the tenure track and 38 percent less likely to achieve tenure than fathers, and twice as likely as fathers to work in part-time or non–tenure-track positions. Only one in three women who accepts a fast-track university job before having a child ever becomes a mother. Among tenured scientists, only 50 percent of women are married with children, compared to 72 percent of men, and women married when beginning faculty careers are much more likely to divorce or separate than men. For women who want to have children and a career in science, the picture is not pretty. [my emphasis]

Rather than women having to — as they do now — choose between raising a family and an academic carrer in the sciences, Williams and Ceci argue that the tenure system at universities — which was “created at a time when few women worked outside the home and when raising children was assumed to be women’s work, and thus it was designed for people without significant responsibilities in household work or child care” — is in need of revision. They suggest a number of ways to increase women’s representation in math-intensive fields, all of which offer support for young mothers (I’ve emphasized some of their suggestions in boldface):

[universities] could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Motherhood is currently “detrimental” to a woman pursuing a career in math-intensive sciences because of the way the profession is set up, Williams and Ceci write. We should make greater efforts to support women who wish to enter such fields and all the more given the push to encourage more girls to enter the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, college majors that help to put them on equal footing with their male counterparts. Indeed, if we are going to make such efforts for girls to study the sciences, we need to provide them with support for the duration of their careers.

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Photo by Argonne National Laboratory

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77 comments

Jennifer P.
Jennifer P.3 years ago

Women can have both if the family has the support to raise the children. That means child care and a little more forgiving schedules. It seems like universities have child care on campus more often than not, and the learning environment seems wonderful for kids. It seems like it should be easier for professors to have children than other professional jobs?

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago

Where are the fathers...???

Shel G.
Shel G.3 years ago

Why is this news?? A full-time professional job requires at a bare minimum that you are working 9-5 five days a week. That doesn't include commuting or the fact that very few professionals only work 9-5. How on earth are you going to do that and take care of children?
I wish there was less pressure on women to have children. They are seen as freaks if they choose a career over motherhood, so they try to do both, and everyone (the job, the child and the mother) suffer as a result.

federico bortoletto

Grazie per le informazioni

rene davis
rene davis3 years ago

Thank you for the information.

alex l.
alex l.3 years ago

i have a wild idea - why don't the fathers actually pull their fair weight in child rearing? no, i am not talking about the money - 90% of households are dual income. i am talking about scrubbing crap out of the toilet.i am talking about shopping for groceries and making three meals every day, doing the laundry, washing the floors - all the things necessary to keep children healthy.

but men won't even do this for themselves, because they feel that doing their own work in the house is beneath them. scrubbing their own crap out of the toilet is beneath them, but it isn't beneath the woman.
the kid is 50% his - so how about him getting off his entitled ass and actually doing what is necessary to have a child? both have to work ten hour days, but only the man comes home and slings it into a chair, while she does her housework, then his, her child care and then his.

THAT IS DETRIMENTAL to her career. equal rights? you must be joking. she is "allowed" to have a career and a child - as long as she does all of the work that both she and the man should be doing. he gets to have a career and someone to do all of his unsavory work for him.

Mari 's
Mari 's3 years ago

Science is most Important and without we would be dying of diseases from getting on the computer today. Science is so Important! I would like a math chip plz :)

Nancy R.
Nancy R.3 years ago

Gloria M., how is science "detrimental to the planet"?!

I still don't understand the difference in conditions for women, between a math/science-related academic career and any other academic career. Do other faculties already provide some of the benefits for mothers that the study and article recommend?

Arild Warud

We can't change biology........

Diana Bair
Diana Bair3 years ago

WOMEN CAN HAVE BOTH AND HAVE FOR YEARS, WHY ARE THESE IDIOTS TRYING TO COME OUT SAYING WOMEN ARE NOT ABLE TO HAVE FAMILIES AND WORK, THIS IS DEGRADING, AND SHOWS THE RESPECT GOP/TEAPARTY HAS FOR WOMEN. GOP/TEAPARTY FEAR WOMEN THEY HATE WOMEN IF WOMEN CAN'T BE CONTROLED IF WOMEN FIGHT FOR THEIR RIGHTS, THEY FEEL STRONG WOMEN ARE DANGEROUS!!!!. THEY WANT WOMEN WEAK,HELPLESS, AND CONTROLABLE!!!. THEY WANT TO TAKE OUR RIGHTS, IF WE VOTE THEM BACK IN THAT IS JUST WHAT THEY WILL DO. VOTE VOTE RIGHTS VOTE VOTE VOTE STRAIGHT DEMOCRAT, DO NOT VOTE A THIRD PARTY. GO DEMOCRAT. DIANA.