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Children vs. Tenure

Being married and having children really does hurt women's chances of success in academic science and engineering, confirms a new report issued by the National Science Foundation earlier this month. The report, which is based on a statistical analysis of data from a nationwide sample of doctoral recipients, also suggests that female scientists and engineers who delay having children are more successful in their academic careers than those who start their families early.

The analysis offers the most compelling evidence to date that the pressures of marriage and childrearing affect women more adversely than they affect men, which could be a significant reason behind gender disparities in academic science and engineering disciplines. At successive milestones on the academic career path--from finding a tenure-track position to receiving tenure to getting promoted--women lag further and further behind men in terms of their chances of success. For instance, the analysis shows that women are 14% less likely than men to be full professors 14 to 15 years after earning their Ph.D.s. About half of this difference is attributed to being married and having children early.

"Having young children later in their careers is positively related to women's chances of earning tenure," the report says, citing this as indirect evidence that women who do not have children early in their careers have a better shot at receiving tenure.

Jerome Bentley, a labor economist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and the lead author of the report, says the findings underscore the importance of allowing more time before tenure reviews to help profs juggle family and career. Many universities across the country already have such policies, which grant faculty members a 1-year tenure extension to cope with childbirth, child care, or other family responsibilities.

But even where such policies are in place, many women are afraid to ask for an extension because of the competitive nature of the tenure process, says Joan Girgus, a Princeton psychologist who led a study on gender disparities among faculty members at her university. "Some people think additional time on the tenure clock provides an unfair advantage," says Girgus. "Thus, assistant professors often don't feel confident that a tenure extension for childbirth or adoption will be looked on favorably."