04 November 2009

Academia: Women, Babies, and Advancement

The Objectivist
Academia and Sex Differences
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 2, 2009

On average, men and women differ in their preferences with regard to work and family and this leads to workplace differences. An interesting issue is whether the academic workplace should be changed to better accommodate women’s preferences.

In some high-end fields, women have less success at the top of the career ladder. Consider, for example, law and business. Joanne Lipman writing in The New York Times reports that in 2008, women made up almost half of the associate lawyers (those who work for law firms), but only 18.3% of the partners (those who own the firms). Similarly, she reports, only 15 women run Fortune 500 companies.

The same pattern occurs in academia. There women with children or who are likely to have children do worse than their peers. Consider the following research by Mary Ann Mason, Dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California at Berkeley. Women with babies are 28% less likely than women without babies to enter a tenure-track position. A person is on the tenure track when she is on track to have a permanent full-time position in a college or university or has such a position. Married women are 21% less likely than single women to enter a tenure-track position. Women faculty are 27% less likely than men to become an associate professor (mid-level professor) and 20% less likely than men to become a full professor (senior-level professor) within 16 years. A high percentage of mothers end up in second-tier academic positions (specifically, lecturers, part-timers, and adjuncts).

Mason and Marc Goulden (a research analyst at Berkeley) point out that the academia presents family-related problems for women. They point out the following. Only a third of women without children who take a fast-track university job ever become a mother. Tenured women are more than twice as likely as tenured men to be single 12 years out from the Ph.D. If married, tenure-track women faculty are 50% more likely than men to divorce (and twice as likely to divorce as women in second-tier positions).

It is not entirely clear what is going on here. There is no general hindrance to parenting. Mason points out that men who have early babies (babies had less than five years after Ph.D. completion) do better than all other groups, including single men and women.

The problem might be one of spousal selection or timing. Mason and Goulden point out that most women academics are married to people with advanced degrees and most academic men are not. If this results in men being more likely to have a stay-at-home spouse, and I suspect it does, then the differences in academic success might in part reflect this difference. The problem might also be one of timing, specifically having early versus late babies. Mason points out that women with late babies (babies that are not early) do as well as women without children.

The difference in academic success is accompanied by, and probably caused in part by, differences in productivity. Consider Mason’s findings on postdoctorates (Ph.D.s whose job is to do research in a professor’s lab). Married men with children put in 15% more time as a post-doctorate than married women with children and married men without children put in 29% more. Married women with children are 25% less likely to present at a conference in the last year than married men with children and 17% less likely than married men without children. There is some evidence, albeit weak evidence, that this pattern holds for publications. Philosophers Miriam Solomon and John Clarke report that in philosophy, women receive 25-33% of the Ph.D.s, have 21% of the philosophy positions and yet publish only 12.4% of the articles. Note these figures come from different but overlapping periods.

Women professors with children are not lazier than their counterparts. Rather, they put their efforts elsewhere. For example, Mason found that women with children do roughly 16 more hours in housework and caregiving than do men with children and 24 hours more than do men without children.

Proposed explanations for these differences in academic success have included discrimination and genetics. An important factor is probably different preferences. Women attach less weight to their careers and more to family. This can be seen in that male Ph.D.s are more likely to want to be professors at research positions than are women Ph.D.s (32% more likely for University of California Ph.D.s). The latter are also much more likely to shift their career goals away from academia. When they shift their career goals, women are more likely than men to cite as reasons children and spouses. Mason provides an example of this line of thinking is the following quote from a doctoral student, “I feel unwilling to sacrifice a healthy family life and satisfying personal life to succeed in academics, and thus industrial options have become more appealing.”

Women’s preferences are not wrong, bad, or irrational, just different. Professor Michael Argyle of Oxford University points out that marriage is one of the strongest factors to correlate with happiness and the correlation is stronger for women than men. In The Blank Slate, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker points out that on average mothers are more attached to their children than are fathers and that this is true in societies all over the world and in our mammal lineage. He notes that on average women are more attentive to their babies’ well-being and place a higher value on spending time with their children. In contrast, Pinker notes, men’s self-esteem is more closely tied to their status, salary, and wealth. He also points out these factors play a larger role in men’s attractiveness as a sexual and marriage partner than it does for women.

One response by some universities such as the prestigious University of California at Berkeley is to excuse parents with substantial caregiving duties for children from having to teach some of their classes. A second response has been to give these parents an extra year or two to earn tenure. Other universities have adopted similar policies. It is not clear, however, whether these policies are justified by either fairness or efficiency.

These policies transfer costs from one person to another. If at a state university, professor Jones get excused from teaching some of her classes, one of three things happens: other professors have to teach her classes, students are offered less classes (or larger classes), or taxpayers have to pay someone to teach a class when they have already paid someone to teach it. By analogy, imagine the Sunshine taxicab business has salaried drivers. If women drivers with babies get excused from their shifts, then consumers pay more money, Sunshine loses money, or other drivers have to work extra shifts. This cost transfer might be good policy, but it is not a requirement of fairness or justice. Furthermore, if the headwind is against people who have early babies and don’t have stay-at-home spouses, then this is arguably a cost of one’s choices.

The efficiency claim is harder to assess. The concern here is whether the policies have positive or negative effects on people other than the professors. Such policies might encourage some of the best and brightest women to go into academia. This is desirable. There might also be eugenics-type reasons that are relevant. On the other hand, if students and others benefit from more productive professors, then there is reason to be weary of these policies. Also, this policy provides an incentive against stay-at-home parenting and if this is bad policy, and I don’t know that it is, this is a reason to avoid it. The effects are speculative and in any case hard to balance against each other. In addition, it is not clear that there is one right answer for every academic sector.

In any case, the issue is an interesting one and one the academic world will have to consider.


The Objectivist said...

One guide to efficiency is to look at what's done in the private sector. If we find that but for the Family & Medical Leave Act companies would not give paid maternity leave, this is good evidence that this type of policy is inefficient.

Because the paid quasi-maternity leave that Berkeley grants (and Fredonia State is considering) is not justified by fairness or justice, the case for it then gets weaker.

The Objectivist said...

If eugenics effects are stong, then this should be given significant weight. The country does have an interest in encouraging high IQ women (relative to the population as a whole) to have children. These polices in effect subsidize such women's reproduction. As such, they likely have desirable eugenics-type effects.

Note this assumes we don't have a libertarian state, which we should. But given the love of the semi-socialist state (in the U.S. government conumes more than 40% of GDP), these considerations are inoperative.