Do Babies Handicap Women in Academe?


As the 20th century drew to a close, women had started to outpace men on university campuses, and as doctors, lawyers, psychologists, biologists and managers. As a group, they lived longer and epidemiologists described them as healthier and happier.  

Yet a raft of books about professional women published around the millennium placed them firmly behind the eight ball. Gender discrimination was inexorably excluding them from corporate and public life. Titles like Why So Slow? or Selling Women Short pinned any discrepancies in earnings and career choices on the patriarchy. Others, like The Feminine Mistake and  Lean In blamed women themselves for not showing enough moxie. Despite different bogeymen, two assumptions unified the lot. It was accepted as a first principle that all women are made of the same stuff. The second assumption was that women are versions of men, who if treated fairly and given their druthers, would choose what a man would.

This is the basic thrust of Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers University Press). Written by three academics, Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden at UC Berkeley, and Nicholas Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah,  the book is the result of a ten-year research project investigating the career progress of PhD recipients in general and the teaching faculty at the University of California in particular.

Data from two vast surveys were used to answer its main question, which can be summed up as follows: If half of all US doctoral degrees are earned by women, but only a quarter of all tenure-track faculty at UC Berkeley are female, what’s up with that?

One of their first findings pointed to babies as the causin’ of it all, hence the title. Women who had children within five years of getting their doctoral degrees were 35 percent less likely than new fathers to get tenure. The authors call this the global gender penalty. Still, as they write in their introduction, “comparing the number of tenured men professors with the number of tenured women professors only told part of the story: equally important were the family configurations of those who had obtained tenure. True parity could only be achieved when men and women realized the same professional and familial goals.”

This statement is as complex as it is controversial. There’s overlap, to be sure, but there are also plenty of disparities between men’s and women’s professional and familial goals. A thirty-year study of gifted teenagers who were cherry-picked for their outstanding math and science abilities (they scored in the top 1 in 10,000 on standardized tests) shows that men and women with exceptional talent and top-flight educations (exactly the population described in this book) have differing interests and values. These priorities influenced their career choices as much as their intellectual promise.

Two decades after they were identified as exceptional, more men were pursuing doctorates in mathematics, engineering or the physical sciences, while more women had opted for advanced degrees in medicine, law, biology, and the humanities. It was not only the disciplines, but the approach to their fields that set the genders apart. “Men placed more value than the women did on having a full-time career, having lots of money, and being successful in their careers, and they agreed more than the women did that they wanted to be recognized as the best in their fields, that society should invest in their ideas because they are more important than those of other people in their discipline, and that they tended to put their own needs before the needs of others. Women placed more value than men on having a part-time career, having strong friendships, giving back to the community, and living close to family, and they agreed more than men did that it is important that no one goes without or gets left behind,” wrote the researchers, David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow and Kimberley Ferriman.

None of the empirical evidence on gender differences in career preferences is mentioned in Do Babies Matter. That was somewhat of a mystery to me. But what the authors discovered about the impact of an academic career on a woman’s family life, social connectedness and happiness was poignant:   

  • Only one in three women who takes a tenure-track job before having a child ever becomes a mother.   As a result, 42 percent of all tenured women are childless; more than a third of them regret it.
  • Tenured women are are 144 percent more likely than tenured men to be divorced.
  • Female professors have fewer children than similarly educated female lawyers and doctors.
  • Two thirds of academic mothers regretted having only one child.
  • Many academic women are alone and bitter about the toll academe has taken on their personal lives.

This is fairly shocking stuff, and the authors argue persuasively that currently, an academic career is incompatible with family life, especially for mothers of small children.  Indeed, universities are built on a single, highly competitive male model of early career success at all costs. Virtually unchanged for 200 years, most American institutions expect their teaching faculty to earn their doctorates in their 20s and compete intensively for post-docs and tenure in their 30s. That about does it for a woman’s fertile years. And even though the authors put a lot of stock in the role of mentors, their surveys make it clear that young mothers shouldn’t count on any sympathy or support from their colleagues–male or female. Some of the quotes gleaned from their thousands- strong sample:  “You will encounter hostility from your senior colleagues. When I requested maternity leave to have my second daughter, my department chair advised me to have an abortion,” one woman wrote, adding that graduate students with children are “harassed” by senior faculty. When asked for advice about balancing work and family in academe, one female UC professor wrote “only cry in private.” Another scientist advised that combining academic and family life “can be done, but for most people it is not feasible,” while another wrote “the only reason that I haven’t resigned is that my research has gone well enough that I may make tenure after all, but it has been a terrible experience for my marriage and my children, and I would never do it again.”  

Despite this woeful litany, the authors esteem traditional tenure-track positions (especially in the hard sciences) to the degree that they call any other career opportunities for women with doctoral degrees “second-tier.” They reflexively buy in to the received wisdom that what men choose is always best for women. This brings to mind Art Buchwald’s quip that “if you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.”  

In fact, their data shines a high beam on why talented women might want to become doctors, lawyers, or novelists instead of full-fledged professors. Still, the authors gamely suggest that academic women who want children pay “the baby penalty” while uninsured and still in graduate school, and that universities who want to keep these talented women in the academy make changes to accommodate them. Stopping the tenure clock, paid parental leave, and part-time tenure-track appointments are just a few items on their wish list for universities. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about smart women.

Susan Pinker

Susan Pinker is a psychologist, a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail and author of "The Sexual Paradox."

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