Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reconciling the Tension between the Tenure and Biological Clocks to Increase the Recruitment and Retention of Women in Academia

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reconciling the Tension between the Tenure and Biological Clocks to Increase the Recruitment and Retention of Women in Academia

Article excerpt


Most entry-level, tenure-track science positions require the completion of a PhD and one or more years of post-doctoral training. Women and men are beginning their academic careers in their late twenties to mid-thirties and then facing an additional six to seven years probationary period before acquiring tenure. The average age for receiving a PhD is 33 and many professors do not secure tenure before they are 40. Research Intensive institutions expect probationary faculty to develop robust research agendas that are well-funded and to produce several high-quality, highly-regarded research papers. Masters level institutions expect probationary faculty to develop research agendas that are funded, to publish some high-quality research papers, each year to teach several classes that employ current pedagogy and engage students, and to mentor students through research and advising.

Regardless of the institutional type, institutional expectations for tenure require an unlimited commitment from faculty to their research or their research and teaching. Such a commitment is difficult for women who tend to shoulder more familial responsibilities than men and for women who aspire to have children. Child-bearing is an especially critical issue. First, a decision to postpone child bearing to the post-tenure years (mid- to late-30's) increases age-related risks for infertility, pregnancy complications, and adverse outcomes (Luke and Brown 2007). Second, a decision to bear children during tenure years may compromise a positive tenure outcome, in light of the finding that unmarried and/or childless women are more likely to acquire tenure at research intensive institutions than married peers with children (Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering 2007).

Given the issues associated with child-bearing during the probationary period, tenure-track women may gamble with tenure to begin a family before they reach 35 years, gamble with pregnancy outcomes to maximize the chances for a positive tenure decision, or decide to forego motherhood altogether. A recent survey of faculty at nine campuses (PhD-granting, R-1 institutions) in the University of California state system revealed that women were more than twice as likely as men to have fewer children than desired (Mason and Goulden 2004), a finding that suggests women were paying a family price to pursue tenure and promotion. We were interested in determining if tenure and promotion expectations at masters' level institutions were compelling women, in science disciplines, to make similar choices regarding tenure, promotion, and family as women at research intensive institutions. If so, were choices between unlimited commitment to the pursuit of tenure and promotion and between shared commitments to family and career important contributors to the disproportionately small number of women holding tenured positions in science disciplines at masters level institutions?

Historical Trends and Recent Data

Women have traditionally been under-represented in science disciplines, but the past 50 years has witnessed a growth in the number of women interested in and seeking careers in science. Of interest to us was the steady increase in the proportion of women doctoral recipients during this time period because doctoral recipients comprise the available pool of candidates for academic appointments. Also of interest was the increase in the proportion of academic appointments held by women because these appointments comprise the pool of tenured professors for promotion. For example, in 1958, five percent of doctoral recipients in life sciences, mathematics, physical science, and computer science were women compared to 2006 in which 52 percent of life science, 30percent of mathematics, 29 percent of physical science, and 20 percent of computer science PhDs were earned by women (Burelli 2008). Furthermore, a comparison of the net growth in PhDs earned by US citizens and permanent residents from 1989 to 2007 showed that the percentage of recipients who were women increased by 17 percent whereas the actual number of male recipients did not change i. …

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