Is there a ‘baby penalty’ in academia?

Women in academia pay a “baby penalty,” say researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. That is, women are less likely to obtain tenure than their male counterparts, more likely to become part-time adjuncts, have higher divorce rates and lower marriage rates – and are more likely to drop out and change careers. 

The results are detailed in the book, “Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower,” by professor Mary Ann Mason with Nicholas H. Wolfinger and Marc Goulden (Rutgers University Press, 2013). 

“Our most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women’s – but not men’s – academic careers,” Mason writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer. Women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price: They are far less likely to be married with children than are their male colleagues.” 

Interestingly, the researchers found that this “penalty” varies depending on stage of career. The women most impacted are graduate students or post-doctoral students who have sometimes little support – and even discouragement – if they have a baby. 

At the other end of their career, women retire at about the same age as men but have reduced incomes since their salaries were already nearly 30 percent lower. “For women, each child she has reduces her pay-a cumulative effect from time and money lost earlier,” Mason says. “But children have no such effect on men’s salaries.” 

In the United States, fewer than one-third of Ph.D.-level scientists in tenure-track positions are women, while fewer than one-fourth of full professors are women, co-author Wolfinger writes in The Atlantic. “Were women to take their rightful place alongside male scholars, the world would see a renaissance in biological, physical, and behavioral science,” Wolfinger said.

In the end, the researchers call for women faculty members to become more assertive. They also urge universities to offer such family-friendly policies as paid leave for both parents, a flexible career track with re-entry, pay equity and child-care assistance – even extended to the graduate-school level.