Despite strides in family-leave offerings, and men taking a greater role in parenting, women in academia still experience about a 20% drop in productivity after having a child, while their male counterparts generally do not, according to new University of Colorado Boulder research.
The study, published Feb. 24 in the journal Science Advances, suggests that persistent differences in parenting roles are the key reason that men tend to publish more research papers than women. Because publishing is closely linked to promotion, this gap could have long-term impacts on what academia looks like in the future.
The researchers also found that while parental leave is critically important for women seeking faculty positions, 43% of institutions have no such policy.
“Gender differences around parenthood are still driving decreases in women’s productivity, and while leave policies are very important for women in choosing their jobs, they are often either missing or incredibly hard to navigate,” said lead author Allison Morgan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Computer Science.
The study comes as women across the U.S. are cutting back on hours or leaving the workforce due to increased childcare responsibilities amid the pandemic. In higher education, specifically, studies show women’s professional lives have been hit harder by COVID-19.
While conducted before the pandemic, the new paper sheds light on why that may be.
“This study shows that the vast part of the productivity gap between men and women is caused by parenthood and the associated duties, which are for natural and social reasons much larger for women than for men,” said coauthor Mirta Galesic, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute. “But it also shows that this parenthood penalty has been shrinking as mothers are becoming more productive.”
For the study, the researchers surveyed more than 3,000 faculty in computer science, history and business departments at 450 universities in the United States and Canada in 2018.
They also gathered data on publishing rates and institution’s leave policies.
In all, they found that about 80% of faculty have children. But men in academia are more likely to be parents than their female counterparts, suggesting that some mothers opt out of careers in higher education altogether to focus on their kids.
In general, academics who are also parents tend to publish more than non-parents, and fathers publish more than mothers, the researchers found.
While the productivity gap between mothers and fathers has narrowed since 2000, it still exists.
Mothers produce about three-quarters the amount of papers that fathers do in their early careers. The bulk of that productivity gap comes shortly after the baby is born, the researchers found, with women producing 20% fewer papers than they would be expected to otherwise in the years following childbirth.
While results were mixed, men don’t seem to show a similar decline after they become new fathers.
“As an academic, your life as a young parent becomes structured around finding childcare for kids, and that burden disproportionally falls on women,” said senior author Aaron Clauset, an associate professor of computer science at CU Boulder’s BioFrontiers Institute.
That gap can be tough to close. For instance, among computer science faculty, in the decade after the birth of their child, mothers produce on average 17.6 fewer papers than fathers—a gap that would take roughly 5 years of work to close.
All this matters, the authors note, because publishing is a key factor in determining who gets promoted and gets tenure. Those scholars end up teaching the next generation of researchers, and crafting and shaping key public policies, noted Morgan.
She and her colleagues also found that fathers in academia are increasingly stepping up: Of men eligible to take parental leave before 2000, only 39% took it. Today, more than two-thirds do.
And more institutions are offering gender-neutral family-leave policies, which is particularly helpful to women because they are more likely than men are to be married to another faculty member.
“Any policy that can entice fathers to be more involved in parenting is likely to reduce this gender productivity gap,” said Clauset, a father of three who has utilized parental leave.
The authors note that, because higher education tends to come with more flexibility in terms of where and when people work, other industries likely have an even greater gender gap in terms of how parenthood impacts productivity.
“I very much hope this research helps highlight the immense importance of increasing support for parents in academia, through gender-neutral parental policies, flexible working arrangements, and accessible and affordable child care,” said Galesic.
More information: Allison C. Morgan et al. The unequal impact of parenthood in academia. Science Advances (2021). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd1996
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