For Women, Academia is Still a Man's World


How much does a baby matter in academics? According to Mary Ann Mason, a professor of law that the University of California-Berkeley, quite a bit. The author of Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, Mason reiterates what many middle aged, working women have realized for years:

Maybe we haven’t come that far after all.

“The most important finding is that family format negatively affects women’s, but not men’s academic careers,” Mason writes in a piece for Slate. Her research team spent years looking at the relationship between young women and men in academia, and their relationship to family. They’ve found that marriage and children tend to hurt a woman’s prospects of scoring a tenured faculty spot, while actually supporting the chances of her male peers.

“For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price. They are far less likely to be married with children.”

Mason notes that while you are indeed more likely to see female presidents of colleges and universities than ever before, it’s become a pyramidal structure — the top crust of female tenured faculty members (only 44% of which are married with children, compared to 70% of their male counterparts) are representative of a small, mostly single, mostly wealthy minority, below which are leagues of married women struggling through the second-tier adjunct hell that is entry-level academics. In the business world, only 49% of top female executives have children, compared with 84% of men.

(The rise of the over-worked, under-paid, unappreciated adjunct was recently chronicled in an excellent article by Rebecca Schuman.)

“Unfortunately, more women Ph.Ds. has meant more cheap labor. And this cheap labor threatens to displace the venerable tenure track system,” Mason writes, a common drumbeat in the continued collapse of the liberal arts educational system. Women and men who pursue Ph.Ds. or tenure positions typically achieve them between 30 and 40, due to the fairly regimented higher education career track — these “make it or break it” years are crucial, during which the struggling adjunct will either be awarded a tenure track or asked to leave. But this is also crucial family planning time, forcing women who are serious about climbing the ladder to make an impossible decision their male counterparts will never have to make. 

“Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career,” she says. Women professors see higher divorce rates and lower marriage rates, and considerably less fertility.

Mason’s research is consistent with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s comments in the Atlantic last summer, describing her decision to leave a position as a high-level official at the State Department in part, she says, because of the needs of her family.

“Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with,” Slaughter writes, “even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation.” She describes “having it all” as a luxury of those women who are either single, unmarried, childless, or wealthy enough to hire round-the-clock nannies to do the parenting work that holds so many women from achieving high-level positions.

“I don’t think I will ever be able to do a tenure track job, and people were very upfront with me about that when I had my child,” says Jennifer, a female neuroscience postdoc interviewed by Mason’s team. “Looking around me, I see that people are completely shut out of positions because of family.”