Can we have it all? Balancing family with an academic career

This article is part of an ongoing blog series, titled Inequality in STEM: a Dive Into the Data. In this series, we cover recent research exploring and quantifying inequality in STEM. We'll discuss different aspects of inequality, including barriers to career advancement and a chilly social climate, as well as the efficacy of various interventions to combat bias. Our goal with these pieces is to provide clear summaries of the data related to bias in STEM, giving scientific evidence to back up the personal experiences of URMs in STEM fields.

In 2000 Mary Ann Mason became the first female Dean of Graduate Studies at UC Berkeley and encountered an auspicious demographic shift—51% of the incoming graduate class was female.[i] Unfortunately, the same trend did not hold true for faculty. While the total number of women faculty had also been increasing (though not at the same rate as students), the gap between tenured male and female faculty remained consistent, and large. This difference relates to a phenomenon known as the “leaky pipeline,” which we have explored previously (link to intro). Mason wondered whether one contributor to the leakiness could be the difficulty of balancing career and family, which could be particularly challenging for female academics. She and several colleagues embarked on a series of studies to explore the relationship between family and an academic career, and its impact on women.

A tug-of-war between family and career

            Using the massive Survey of Doctoral Recipients, which follows over 160,000 PhD recipients,[ii] Mason and her colleagues uncovered a fraught relationship between academia and family life. A career in science takes its toll on family, especially for women. The most striking example of this effect was the “baby lag.” Most male faculty put off having babies until they were hired as assistant professors, but on average female faculty waited an additional 6 years—around when they would have received tenure. This delay, combined with biological factors like age, means that the women never catch up. 70% of tenured men surveyed were married with children, compared to only 44% of tenured women.[iii]

 Figure 1: The tension between pursuing a career in academia and having a family is starkly clear when percent of faculty having biological babies (y-axis) is plotted in terms of position in the academic pipeline. Men (dark bars) wait to have babies until around their hire date as assistant professors (dashed line). Women (light bars) peak even later, waiting the 6 further years until they receive tenure. This wait and the biological age-limits on childbearing result in an imperfect overlap—fewer female faculty have babies, a phenomenon known as the “baby lag.”

Figure 1: The tension between pursuing a career in academia and having a family is starkly clear when percent of faculty having biological babies (y-axis) is plotted in terms of position in the academic pipeline. Men (dark bars) wait to have babies until around their hire date as assistant professors (dashed line). Women (light bars) peak even later, waiting the 6 further years until they receive tenure. This wait and the biological age-limits on childbearing result in an imperfect overlap—fewer female faculty have babies, a phenomenon known as the “baby lag.”

 

Having a family also weighs on scientists’ careers. Among parents at University of California schools, half of male faculty and over two thirds of female faculty reported slowing down or making sacrifices in their career in order to have children. While men and women with children worked more total hours than their childless colleagues—mothers working a staggering 100 hours per week!—their professional hours were lower to accommodate more time spent on housework and childcare. Women with children were also the least likely to be hired to a tenure-track position.[iv]

Having children and the choice to stay in science

All of this takes us back to Mason’s original question: does the desire to have children contribute to leakiness in the academic pipeline? While the tenure-track hire data would suggest yes, it is unclear what factors contribute to this result. For example, hiring committees could discriminate against mothers, or fewer mothers could apply to tenure-track positions. Here we will explore the second half of that equation. That is, are family-oriented scientists consciously opting out of academia?

 Figure 2: While men and women with children work fewer professional hours than their childless counterparts (dark blue), they work more hours over all. Women faculty with children work, on average, over 100 hours per week.

Figure 2: While men and women with children work fewer professional hours than their childless counterparts (dark blue), they work more hours over all. Women faculty with children work, on average, over 100 hours per week.

For their 2011 study,[v] Elaine Ecklund and Anne Lincoln surveyed thousands of scientists from the top twenty PhD programs in physics, astronomy, and biology, with questions designed to dig into work-family balance and the pursuit of a scientific career. The respondents spanned the academic pipeline, from graduate students up through tenured faculty.

The most common problem arose when scientists sacrificed their family goals for their career, which was a more common choice for women of every rank than for men. Male and female faculty were less satisfied with their life and work if they had had fewer children than they had wanted. Relatedly, graduate students and post-docs with fewer children than they wanted were more likely to want to leave science altogether. In fact, this was the only factor that significantly predicted a search for an alternate career—gender, race, and even the fear that science would prevent them from having a family had no effect. Ecklund and Lincoln’s findings provide a critical piece of the puzzle, demonstrating that (as their study is aptly titled) “scientists want more children,” and that this desire could push talented but family-oriented scientists of both sexes out of the academic pipeline.

Perceived “chilliness” leads to unhappy academics

Why would scientists feel that they have to leave science to build the family that they want to have? Amy Moors and her colleagues targeted this question with a study exploring the perception of support for family responsibilities in academia.[vi] There is a distinction here between perceived and actual support—even if an institution has policies in place to support family, there could still be a “chilly” climate that makes it difficult to take advantage of such policies. For example, a new mother might be reluctant to take her full maternity leave if she fears it will impact her chances of getting tenure. Moors and her colleagues surveyed hundreds of post-docs and faculty in STEMM and non-STEMM fields, asking how job satisfaction relates to perceived support for family commitments.

Regardless of gender, discipline, or status (faculty or post-doc) all scientists were happier in their jobs if they felt that they had more support for family commitments. Among post-docs, this effect was equally strong for all women as for men in non-STEMM fields, but was weaker for men in STEMM fields. Interestingly, the effect in faculty did not differ by gender or field—perceived support for family commitments contributed equally to job satisfaction for men and women, STEMM and non-STEMM alike. Job satisfaction is a key predictor of productivity and retention; based on these findings, it would seem that research institutions stand to lose valuable intellectual contributions from all academics—regardless of status, gender, or discipline—if they have a chilly environment for family responsibilities.

Moving towards a more diverse and productive academic world

 Figure 3: While balancing an academic career with having children is difficult for both men and women, the effect is felt more strongly by women. Men with young children (blue line) are as likely to start a tenure-track position as single, childless women (pink line). In contrast, married women with young children are the least likely to enter a tenure-track faculty position (red line).

Figure 3: While balancing an academic career with having children is difficult for both men and women, the effect is felt more strongly by women. Men with young children (blue line) are as likely to start a tenure-track position as single, childless women (pink line). In contrast, married women with young children are the least likely to enter a tenure-track faculty position (red line).

The key takeaway? Academics are happier in their work if they have the family they had wanted to have and if they feel they are supported in their family commitments. Women academics are especially likely to decide to have fewer children than they wanted to have and in many ways this decision makes sense. Mason’s original work demonstrates that the burden of family responsibilities falls most heavily on women, such that most academic mothers make sacrifices in their careers and are unlikely to be on the tenure track at all. That said, all parents or would-be parents, regardless of gender, suffer if they don’t feel they have the option to build the family they want. Perhaps these results are not surprising, but they point to a clear need both to carefully implement family policies and to foster a supportive culture for work-life balance.

While there is a lot of work left to do, some progress has been made. Mason’s research secured a Sloan grant to establish the “UC Family Friendly Edge,” an initiative that has dramatically improved institutional policies and family-friendly climate at all ten UCs.[vii] Her work also inspired nine institutions from across the country to pledge a commitment to “develop academic personnel policies, institutional resources, and a culture that supports family commitments.”[viii] Concrete efforts to support family commitments seem to be effective—preliminary evidence suggests that universities with generous maternity leave employ twice as many female professors as those with minimal benefits.[ix] Further along in this series, we will also examine an intervention that included a clear and anonymous discussion of family policies, which successfully resulted in more female hires for tenure track positions.[x]

Together, all of these studies suggest that more family-oriented policies and an academic climate that supports parents will result in a happier, more productive, and more diverse academic workforce.

 

Mason’s UC Family Friendly Edge Report:

https://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/ucfamilyedge.pdf

Scientists Want More Children: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0022590

My Family Matters:

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0361684314542343

 

 

[i] Mason, M.A. & Goulden, M. Do babies matter? Academe 88(6), 21-28 (2002).

[ii] Survey of Doctoral Recipients

[iii] Mason, M.A. & Goulden, M. Do babies matter (Part II)? Closing the baby gap. Academe 90(6), 10-15 (2004).

[iv] Mason, M.A., Stacy, A., Goulden, M., Hoffman C., Frasch K. University of California Family Friendly Edge: an initiative for tenure-track faculty at the University of California. (2005).

[v] Ecklund, E.H. & Lincoln, A.E. Scientists want more children. PLoS ONE  6(8), e22590 (2011).

[vi] Moors, A.C., Malley, J.E., & Stewart, A.J. My Family Matters: Gender and Perceived Support for Family Commitments and Satisfaction in Academia Among Postdocs and Faculty in STEMM and Non-STEMM Fields. Psych. Women Quart. 38(4), 460-474 (2014).

[vii] https://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/projects/uc-family-friendly-edge-sloan-grant

[viii] Baltimore, D., Summers, L.H., Hockfield, S., Tilghman, S.M., Hennessy, J., Birgeneau, R., Coleman, M.S., Gutmann, A., Levin, R.C. Joint statement by the nine presidents on gender equity in higher education. MIT News, 6 Dec. 2005.

[ix] Troeger, V.E. How maternity pay impacts academic careers. Brit. Acad. Blog (2018). https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/centres/cage/news/07-02-18-how_maternity_pay_impacts_academic_careers/

[x] Smith, J. L., Handley, I. M., Zale, A. V., Rushing, S., & Potvin, M. A. (2015). Now Hiring! Empirically Testing a Three-Step Intervention to Increase Faculty Gender Diversity in STEM. Bioscience, 65(11), 1084–1087. http://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biv138