Women in Higher Education - Women in Higher EducationWomen in Higher Education - Women in Higher Education

Mothers in the Faculty Pipeline

Sarah Gibbard Cook
Vloume 13, No. 8
Higher education is losing thousands of competent, well-educated women.

Print Version
Email this article

"When is the best time to have a baby?" graduate students ask Dr. Mary Ann Mason, dean of the graduate division at the University of California Berkeley. But there's no good answer for women who want it all. Early babies seriously reduce a woman's chance of ever getting tenure. Waiting till after tenure seriously reduces her chance of having a family at all.

Men don't have to make that choice. In fact, married men with children have the best chance of getting tenure. Men can have it all; women can't. That deprives higher education of high-potential scholars, as women decide an academic career isn't worth the price, and the diversity they offer.

After compiling their widely acclaimed longitudinal study, "Do Babies Matter?" (WIHE January 2002), Mason and principal research analyst Dr. Marc Goulden surveyed UC faculty about how career affects family. Goulden presented data highlights in April in San Diego at the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) conference, in a research panel sponsored by WIHE and presented by the Women's Caucus.

A very leaky pipeline

In 1966 women earned only 12% of the doctorates awarded. Today women are about 44% of new PhDs, and almost 50% of recipients who are U.S. citizens; well over half the bachelor's and master's degrees now go to women.

Yet only 25% of tenured or tenure track faculty at UC Berkeley are women, similar to other research universities. The problem isn't just a time lag that will correct itself as more women enter the pipeline. Nationwide the gender ratio among tenured faculty has stayed about the same since 1975. The pipeline has serious leaks.

Some blame lifelong discrimination; women are treated differently from infancy. Others say workplace rigidity forces women to choose between work and family. Both could be true. Mason and Goulden decided to test the work-vs.-family theory using long-term data from the national Survey of Doctorate Recipients, which followed more than 160,000 scholars since the 1970s.

Where the pipeline leaks Leaks occur all along the pipeline, with the biggest leak at the beginning.

Doctorate to entry position. Of those married with children under age six, the dads were 50% more likely to get an assistant professorship than the moms. This hasn't improved over time.

Married women were 20% less likely than single women to enter the tenure track and having babies carried a 29% penalty. Single women without babies had a 50% advantage over married moms.

Entry to tenure. Women assistant professors proved 23% less likely than men to become associate professors, the promotion that usually brings tenure. "Married with children" described most of the men who got tenure but only a minority of the women.

Remarkably, single mothers did better than married ones. "Our speculation is that they don't have other options. They have to have a full-time career, so they keep pushing through the barriers," Goulden told WIHE.

Pushing women out

Combining young children and career is difficult in many professions. Two features of higher education make it even harder.

First, academics usually must move to where the job is. That may be one reason single women do better than married, whether or not they have children. Second, few professions are as rigid as higher education. Tenure is up or out in a set number of years. A scholar who leaves the established path has little chance to get back on.

University systems began in medieval Europe when most professors were clerics. By the 1950s most professors had wives. In spite of vast social changes in the last half century, academia keeps its old assumptions.

Of the married men in their national study, 52% had stay-at-home wives, while 91 % of the married women had husbands with full time jobs. UC faculty age 30-50 reported these weekly work hours:

UC Faculty Self-Reported Weekly Work Hours

                     Moms      Dads      Other Women      Other Men

Professional     51.2         55.6             59.8                  59.1

Housework      14.6         11.9             10.6                  10.6

Care giving      35.5         20.3              8.1                    8.6

Total hours     101.3        87.8             78.5                  78.3

Everybody's busy. Women with children are busy to exhaustion but can't spend as many hours building credentials as their childless colleagues. To work 60 hours a week, attend evening meetings and travel to conferences assumes there's someone else looking after the kids.

Whether women with children opt out for self-preservation or don't get tenure because they worked 50 hours a week instead of 60, it's fair to say universities are pushing them out of the pipeline.

Conflicting clocks

From entry to tenure is the period with the highest demands and the harshest penalties for failure to meet them. The average age for getting a PhD is 33, putting tenure most often at age 40 or beyond.

Those countdown years for the tenure clock are also the peak time for a woman's biological clock. If she had children earlier, they're probably still young enough to need a lot of care. Many women would like time out to start raising children and part-time work while they're toddlers, but the rigid academic clock does not allow it.

How does this affect women's career decisions? In a survey of more than 800 Berkeley postdocs, mostly in the sciences, 59% of the married women said they were thinking of leaving higher education. Trying to balance family and career was too stressful.

They spent slightly over 40 hours a week in the lab, while other postdocs averaged over 50 hours. Only 55% of them had presented papers at conferences in the past year, as 76% of others had done. These hard-working moms might be weak contenders for tenure-track jobs.

Location was another reason they considered leaving academia. Most of their husbands also had advanced de­grees, creating a need to find two jobs in the same com­munity. Far fewer men had wives with advanced degrees.

Mentors, typically men or childless women, offered no model for balancing family and career. Other disincentives included exposure to labo­ratory fumes during pregnancy and the high cost of child care.

Even without children, married women were more ambivalent than mar­ried men about academic careers because of location issues. Single women postdocs also considered dropping out more than men, citing the social iso­lation of laboratory work.

Putting career first

Conventional wisdom says tenure first, babies after­ward. Babies born in the study more than five years after the PhD ("late babies") didn't hurt their mothers' careers.

Being single and childless when they got their PhD gave women the best chance of staying in the pipeline to tenure. Most remained single. They were only half as likely as men ever to parent a child.

"What has surprised us most is the extent of the effect of full time academic careers on the family outcomes of men and women," Goulden told WIHE. Most tenure track women are single, compared with 30% of men. Women's divorce rates are higher. Those with "late babies" gener­ally have just one, thanks in part to the biological clock.

Whether or not these women are successful depends how you define success. Relationships come in all forms. Not all women want babies-but most UC faculty women with one child wished they'd had more.

UC professors age 40-60 who said

"I had fewer children than I wanted"

Number of children            Women      Men

None                                 34%         22%

One                                  64%       42%

Two                                  32%         13%

Three or more                     24%           8%

Overall                               40%         20%


Where do women go?


What becomes of the women who leak out of the pipe­line? Some work part-time or stay home with the kids. Fewer go to work full time in business, non-profits or gov­ernment. Many wind up in the "second tier," the growing number of academics who work outside the tenure system.



Status of UC Academic Personnel by Gender

                                        Women       Men

Tenured or tenure track           256          1,002

Lecturers, adjuncts, etc.          281           130


More than half the undergraduate courses nationwide are now taught by "second tier" instructors, mostly moth­ers. For economic reasons this second tier, which has par­allels in other professions, is unlikely to disappear.


Apart from the poor pay, job insecurity and lack of ben­efits, it's the women in the second tier whose lives look most like the lives of faculty men. They have stable mar­riages. They have children. Like the majority of male professors, women in the second tier have a life.


It can work while the children are young. But what's next? Children grow up, mom has more time for scholar­ship, but her drop to second tier is usually permanent.


Dean Mason was a rare example of a woman who be­came an assistant professor years after getting her PhD in history. She practiced law while the mother of two young children, a challenge that inspired her interest in work/family issues and led her to write The Equal­ity Trap (1988).


Having published probably contrib­uted to her invitation to join the law faculty at Berkeley. Although reentry is a long shot for women, she has advice for those who want to try it: to keep up your career contacts, research and publishing.


She's currently on sabbatical writing Mothers in the Fast Track: The Unfinished Revolution, to be published by Oxford University Press. It uses interviews with mothers who are succeeding in fast-track professions such as professor, lawyer, physician or chief administrative officer.


Competitive edge


Although success stories exist, higher education is los­ing thousands of competent, well-educated women.

"Academia is not currently very flexible. If policy mak­ers are interested in increasing the representation of women in the upper ranks, they have to take into account these issues of work and family and how people's needs change over a lifetime," Goulden told WIHE.

With a multi-year grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foun­dation, they're working to help UC attract the best and brightest young faculty by reducing work-family barriers. Their advice to create a good work/family culture:


For tenure track faculty

  • Develop a flexible part-time option with right of reen­try. Their survey showed 43% would like such an option to tend children, spouse or ailing parents or ease into re­tirement.
  • Make existing family-friendly policies automatic, such as stopping the tenure clock. Many parents don't take advantage of these policies for fear of bias.
  • Change the culture from fear to encouragement.
  • Provide infant and childcare facilities as part of the
  • cost of doing business, like parking lots.
  • Accommodate two-career couples.
  • Discount family-related gaps in the resume.


For second tier instructors, half time or more


  •  Provide full benefits, including family leave.
  • Improve job security with long-term contracts.
  • Recognize research and publications.
  • Allow participation in departmental affairs.


For graduate students and postdocs

  • Counsel women about options and their implications for family and career.
  • Create reentry postdoc fellowships, so women can take time out after a PhD and later get back on track. This is one of Berkeley's current initiatives.


Contact Goulden at (510) 643-2791; goulden@berkeley.edu


Subscribe to the only national monthly publication to support women on campus, a 24-40 page news journal designed to enlighten, encourage, empower, and enrage women in higher education
Women in Higher Education
published by Jossey Bass, A Wiley Brand
Phone: 888.378.2537 Fax: 888.481.26651 Email: jbsubs@wiley.com Privacy Statement

Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Copyright 2002-2014 by John Wiley & Sons Inc. or related companies. All rights reserved.