Where are the mothers in academic science?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/24/where-are-the-mothers-in-academic-science/

American science is facing a critical shortage of female academics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women comprise only 37.5 percent of tenured faculty at American universities. The fraction of women drops precipitously among professors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). For example, the American Institute of Physics reports in its 2010 survey of Physics Degree-Granting Departments, that only 14 percent of tenured physics faculty members are women. The statistics are even more abysmal for married mothers of young children.

Unfortunately, this trend is unlikely to reverse itself soon: despite a decade of concerted efforts to encourage the full participation of women in STEM fields, the number of women receiving bachelors’ degrees in these areas has actually dropped since 2005. As a result, an even a smaller pool of qualified female candidates will be available for faculty jobs in the future.

Rejecting the repugnant idea that women (or for that matter, racial minorities, for whom the statistics are even more depressing) are less adept than their male peers at quantitative thinking, their underrepresentation means that American progress is being slowed by the lack of women’s discoveries, insights, and creativity.

A variety of complex and interplaying factors lie at the root of this problem. There is abundant evidence for built-in societal biases keeping American women from pursuing careers in science. For example, a 2015 study published in Science found that academic fields in which inborn ability or “genius” is prized over hard work produced relatively fewer female PhDs, which the authors attribute to “the prevailing societal view that fewer women than men have special intellectual abilities.”

More recently, a University of Washington study of 1,700 freshman biology students found that “males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content.” The principal reason is that male students consistently identified other male students as more knowledgeable, despite the presence of better-performing female students in their class.

However significant it may be, this innate bias is not the whole story. From their tenderest age, women are fed (and themselves feed into) a powerful cultural narrative that they can only find the full expression of their femininity through relationships that culminate in marriage and children. And why shouldn’t they aspire to this state? Marriage and parenthood are wonderful institutions, and they should not come at the cost of professional success. However, the demands of the pre-tenure assistant professorship years are difficult to balance with the needs of young children.

(Courtesy of the American Physical Society)

(Courtesy of the American Physical Society)

Although more than half of American corporations now offer part-time alternatives to parents of young children, less than 10 percent of our colleges and universities provide the same opportunities. Though an increasing number of universities offer family-friendly policies such as tenure-clock stoppage and parental leave, they are frequently presented as special accommodations (as for an illness), rather than guaranteed entitlements. Moreover, female faculty members often fear to avail themselves of family-friendly programs because of the perceived stigma associated with taking time off.

Their apprehensions seems to be supported by the statistics: A 2013 study in the Atlantic reported that married mothers of young children are 35 percent less likely to get tenure-track jobs than men with young children. Compounding the problem, these same mothers are 33 percent less likely to get faculty jobs than childless unmarried women.

Given the inflexible workplace climate, few female role models, and the powerful impetus to produce and care for a family, is it any wonder so few women pursue careers as academic scientists and opt instead for more family-friendly careers?

Several solutions could alleviate the pressures on scientist-mothers. Universities should advertise their family-friendly policies in the same way they advertise salary or insurance information. Furthermore, they should actively encourage both mothers and fathers to take advantage of family-friendly programs. Such is the case in California, where the introduction of gender-neutral paid family leave legislation increased joint leave-taking (i.e., both parents on leave at the same time) by 28 percent. Ideally, universities might even facilitate on-site day care.

Most importantly, women academics who are in positions to lobby for junior female scientists need to do so, both with departmental colleagues and with university administrations, regardless of whether or not family-friendly benefits were extended to them in previous years. The tenure system unfairly punishes mothers, and will never improve unless we take action to change it.

Scientific advances notwithstanding, biology will always require a rather outsized contribution from women for the production and care of children. Appropriate policy measures and, above all, a shift in our cultural attitudes towards women in science, does not mean hiring under-qualified women unfairly at the expense of imaginary “better qualified” men. They merely give the female half of the population the opportunity to achieve its fullest professional potential without denying them that most profound biological imperative, procreation. This more balanced picture will in turn pull more women into pursuing careers as scientists. As scientists, you would think it would have dawned on us by now.

Jacqueline McCleary is a doctoral student in physics at Brown University, specializing in astrophysics.