Parenting and Career Progression: Women Tend to Suffer

Reposted from Science magazine, Dec. 7, 2001.

Having children improves a man's chances of becoming a full professor but hinders a woman's progress in academia. That's one of many provocative findings from a National Research Council (NRC) panel that has been exploring gender differences in the careers of U.S. scientists and engineers.

Issued last month, the panel's 340-page report * eschews the usual analysis of existing studies with policy recommendations. Instead, the panel did its own research on gender differences in the scientific workforce, mining four versions of two ongoing federal surveys. Its conclusion--that men retain an edge that cannot be explained by any objective criteria--may be disturbing to those who think that discrimination is a thing of the past.

"There's clear evidence that women have been treated unfairly," says panel chair J. Scott Long, a sociologist at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a scholar in the field of women's studies. "It's also clear that marriage and family issues are major factors that need to be addressed." Although the five-member panel was not asked to make recommendations, its report suggests that employers consider policies to help "promising employees with young families." It also calls on top research universities to revise graduate school admissions practices to attract and retain more women. "I think every university should do the type of review" carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Caltech, says Long, "to see if there are current policies that are discriminatory or past practices that need to be addressed."

Among the panel's findings:

  • Tenure is becoming more elusive for women than for men. Comparing data in the 1995 and 1999 surveys, the panel discovered that the share of academics in tenure-track positions dropped from 70% to 55% for women and from 82% to 72% for men.

  • Male graduate students are more likely than women to get jobs as research assistants; the difference ranges up to 9% in mathematics, although the gap is narrowing for all disciplines except those in the physical sciences.

  • The salary gender gap is widening among more senior academics. Tenure-track men who earned their Ph.D.s in 1979 earned 10% more than women from that class, compared with a 6% difference for those with degrees from 1975. "Women certainly represent a growing percentage of the scientific workforce," Long notes--from 7% in 1973 to 22% in 1999. "But they're finding a tougher job market, especially in academia."

* From Scarcity to Visibility: Gender Differences in the Careers of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers (

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