Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Women Say Stopping Tenure Clock Isn't Enough

As a rare woman faculty member at Stanford Medical School in the late 1970s, neurobiologist Carla Shatz put her quest for tenure ahead of her desire to start a family. But as she toiled away in the lab, working on a range of problems in developmental biology, her biological clock was ticking faster than she realized. By the time she earned tenure in her late 30s, her reproductive years had passed. "For 4 years, I tried every fertility treatment that was available,"says Shatz, now 57 and a professor at Harvard University. "Nothing helped."The disappointment, she says, contributed to the breakup of her marriage.

In the past decade, dozens of universities have changed their tenure policies to accommodate the family needs of their faculty members. They've adopted rules that provide time off from tenure-track positions, created part-time tenure slots, and spread the gospel about the need to make room for family choices in the climb up the academic ladder. But those changes aren't making much of a dent in the cultural norms that put a premium on productivity, especially at the start of an academic career. Last month, at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, two researchers who surveyed women faculty members around the country on their attitudes toward extended tenure summed up the problem in the title of their talk: Fear Factor.

"Simply having a policy in the faculty handbook is not enough,"says Lisa Wolfwendel of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who presented the data with her colleague, Kelly Ward of Washington State University in Pullman. Although the fear that a tenure extension could hurt their career aspiration "could be unfounded,"she says, "it is a fear nonetheless."

That fear, Wolfwendel says, is rooted in the idea that women who use such policies are somehow asking for special treatment. For many women of Schatz's generation, going off the clock wasn't a viable option. "Doing science and having children were considered mutually exclusive ,"says Shatz. And despite their growing presence in the sciences?women now earn 37% of U.S. Ph.D.s, up from 14% 30 years ago?many women who enter academia say they are still looking over their shoulders as they climb the career ladder.

Two recent surveys at major research institutions point to the bind women faculty members face. Some 42% of women at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for example, didn't request to go off the tenure clock even though they had reason to do so, and two-thirds of them said it was because of fear that an extension would have an adverse impact on their careers. "Had I stopped the tenure clock, I would have been viewed as weak by my senior colleagues,"one faculty member wrote in her response, says study co-author Jean Waltman.

Women will go to great lengths to avoid that label, notes Waltman. Some reported that they had delayed pregnancy until after they got tenure. The survey also found that about one-third of the 86 women who had children did not request a lighter teaching load after giving birth.

A survey this fall at the nine University of California (UC) campuses found similar attitudes toward the school's tenure-extension policies. Although 48 women reported using it, 41 did not?most out of fear that it might derail their careers. Women who put their careers on hold, says one of the authors, UC Berkeley's Marc Goulden, must battle "the cultural conception that the faster you are the better you are, particularly in the sciences. The expectation is that all the good people come up for tenure in 5 or 6 years, so God forbid if you take 7 or 8."

There are scant data on whether stopping the clock actually hurts a faculty member's chance of receiving tenure. Patricia Hyer, associate provost of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says that none of the 10 women who have taken extensions for childbirth or other family - related reasons at her university since 1997 have been denied tenure. Lynn Singer, a psychologist and vice provost at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, recalls having to admonish one tenure committee that had looked askance at the publication record of a candidate who had taken an extension. "I had to remind the committee that they needed to judge her productivity on the basis of her time on the clock,"says Singer, adding that the woman was awarded tenure.

Even when the departmental climate is favorable, however, many women opt to defer pregnancy until after receiving tenure for fear of losing research momentum. "Many scientists worry that grant reviewers will note the gap in productivity and go 'Oh, this person took a year's break, they aren't really serious,' " says a biologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), who requested anonymity. Her own lighthearted attempt at addressing the issue, she says, has been "to insert my child's name and birth date in the chronological order of publications."The UIC biologist also recommends that National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant applicants explain interruptions in their research. But biochemist Elvira Ehrenfeld, former director of NIH's Center for Scientific Review now back in the lab, is skeptical that such information would clarify matters ?and it could even backfire. "Let's imagine an application to which one reviewer says, 'My enthusiasm was tempered when I saw that the researcher hasn't published anything in the past 2 years.' Then somebody else points out that the applicant started a family in those years,"she says. "The scientific review administrator could then raise a very valid question: Do we give extra points to another applicant who had a baby but didn't stop publishing?"

Funding agencies could provide some critical help in child rearing, says Laurie Glimcher, an immunology professor at Harvard University. Glimcher, who remembers her struggle 2 decades ago to cope with child-care responsibilities as an NIH postdoc, recently lobbied successfully for a program at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to help scientists with early parenting. The $500,000 pilot program, announced in July, will enable principal investi ators to hire a technician for up to 2 years to assist a postdoc in their lab who has primary caregiving responsibilities. "We plan to make between eight and 10 awards,"says Milton Hernandez, director of NIAID's Office of Special Populations and Research Training, who expects other NIH institutes to adopt the program.

And that's just a start, says Robert Drago, a labor economist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who studies bias a gainst caregiving in the workplace: "From providing affordable housing near campus to subsidizing daycare, there's a lot that institutions should be doing if they mean business."

A few universities have reexamined how they do business, restructuring the tenure process to allow part-time tenure-track positions. The option has worked well for Dawn Lehman and Marc Eberhard, civil engineers who negotiated an arrangement 6 years ago with the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, to help the two balance career and family. A tenured faculty member, Eberhard offered to work half-time so that UW could create a halftime tenure-track slot for Lehman, who had just graduated from UC Berkeley. The department agreed. The arrangement enabled the couple to start a family and spend more than 30 hours of the workweek with their daughter, Collette, now 3. (They had a second child this fall.) Eberhard, who's Swissborn, says the extra time off gives him a chance to teach his daughter French. But splitting a job may not be enough for some young scientists. One 32-year-old postdoctoral fellow in physiology at a major research university in the Northwest has decided to pursue a non?tenure-track job in academia so that she and her husband can begin a family. "I've been quietly observing the senior women in my field since graduate school,"she says. "I don't see balance, I don't see much of a family life."Instead, she says about her PI, a divorced mother, "I see her at work all the time. I don't think I want to make that kind of sacrifice."

Shatz says the community must figure out how to meet the needs of the next generation of scientists if academic research is to remain an attractive career. "People have very different career and personal paths, and we need to be more creative in offering options,"she says. "We cannot continue a culture where women are reluctant to have children during their most fertile years."

Reposted with permission from Science News, 17 December 2004

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers