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